THE ASSISTANT & THE SCANDAL

 

I was lying in bed after a particularly ordinary day when I came upon an Ashley Madison hack article. Though an assistant at heart - these days, my main responsibilities fall in line with those typical to a start-up CEO: make decisions, pray they are remotely intelligent and try to keep the anxiety at bay by consuming an unhealthy amount of chocolate. On this day, though, as I paged through the articles that filled the internet about the looming data dump of infidelities and indiscretions, the sidekick in me flared up.

Did any of my former executives have an Ashley Madison account? If they did - now was the time to start forming a game plan.

Some might find it odd that my gut instinct was not one of judgment. To others, forming a game plan might even seem deceptive. Truthfully, that's why writing about this topic is a bit uncomfortable, and likely fairly taboo. Regardless, I'd be doing future assistants a disservice if we didn't talk about the unspoken part of the EA job: the vested interest in protecting your Executive from the choices they make (even after your tenure as their assistant ends).

It is this protective instinct that underpins this week's topic: how to reconcile morality and employment to assist through a scandal.


The executive assistance relationship is the most intimate relationship of the professional world. With each new position, EAs knowingly add to the load of personal, and often unsolicited, information that rests on their shoulders. I don't mean to imply that we make a quick study of favorite colors, credit card and social security numbers, or even the quirky behaviors the public world never sees. 

No - the burden is much heavier than that. Silent omniscience about the many on-goings of an Executive’s life is as critical a part of the EA job as managing a calendar or staff. I knew everything about the executives who employed me - whether we spoke about it or not, and not to sound cliché, but when it came to an Executive's personal choices, I learned to pick my battles wisely.

This delicate balance between the circle of trust and razor sharp EQ (emotional intelligence) is where you will find every skilled executive assistant. Like a marriage, locating this balance requires synergy and loyalty; but unlike modern day marriage - it's not the kind of connection that keeps your partner viewing you in a favorable light. Within the bounds of reason and legality, the space between a cry for help and the unbiased rendering of aide is just the territory an assistant calls home; so the fluid intimacy of this relationship is more akin to a politician and chief-of-staff or that of two siblings.

Until you've seen the panicked look in your Executive's eyes amidst a meltdown or received a frantic message desperate for direction as disaster looms, it's easy to overlook the role an EA's loyalty plays in the Executive lifecycle. However, let me be clear, it is this unbiased loyalty that makes EAs the unsung heroes of corporate America.

Where do Executives find these ninja EAs? How does a team brew this magical relationship? The recipe is quite simple: synergy and loyalty are born from compatibility and trust. But like Love Potion No. 9, it's in the application that things can get messy. A little too much and monkeys barrel through walls and people lose all common sense.

When you share an email account, a calendar and a life; the personal choices an Executive makes become largely irrelevant once an assistant commits to a position. Micromanaging what you will and will not do only works against the success of your team and ultimately, against the success of the Executive. That is why it is so important for an EA to also vet the executive prior to accepting a position.

Having just flown cross-country, we could liken the scenario to the exit row on an airplane. Before takeoff, a flight attendant gives passengers the option to be reseated should they be unable or unwilling to assist in the event of an emergency. Within the confines of an airplane, extra leg room comes at a price: should the plane become compromised, the exit row passengers agree to lead others to safety.

The same rule applies to executive assistance. In the world of 9 to 5's, working for VIPs during flexible hours and from remote locations is prime real estate, but it has a price tag. If you are unable or unwilling to remove personal beliefs to achieve success, high-level executive assistance is not for you. Kids, that's just the way this cookie crumbles. 

But what if “success” means covering up a scandal?

My colleague, Rosianna Halse-Rojas - EA to NYT best selling author John Green, made an ingenious suggestion for high-level EAs which I believe could be one smart solution for any assistant amidst a scandal: see a therapist. In high pressure and highly confidential positions, weekly appointments with a therapist create an outlet for an EA to unleash personal conflicts with sensitive information and a forum to constantly reevaluate a position in light of new information.

Remember: Walking off the plane is only an option before takeoff - so do your homework and look for red flags before you take a position. Moving from the exit row remains a possibility until the safety of the passengers is jeopardized; and finding an appropriate venue from which you can reevaluate choices gives the EA position the same flexibility. However, if the plane starts falling from the sky in either scenario, 200 pairs of eyes will be looking to you - regardless of your preparedness. So, take the necessary steps early on to make confident choices - it will mitigate your responsibility if and when a scandal comes to light.

Long story short, did any of my executive's have Ashley Madison accounts? No, I was fortunate enough to avoid that scandal. Then again - you wouldn't know if I hadn't either, because when it comes to my work, I keep my eyes open and my lips sealed.

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