Don’t get caught up in the power game, Finance secretary’s fixer advises EAs


Advice for executive assistants from one of the best. Rhana Crago PSM has worked for “amazing women” who ascended to the highest levels of the Australian Public Service since 2001 and has picked up some pearls of wisdom for other EAs along the way.

One of the top executive assistants in the Australian Public Service has a piece of advice for others new to the game: your boss might wield incredible influence, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that confers power onto you.

It’s one of the most common misunderstandings of the role, according to Rhana Crago, who recently won a Public Service Medal for her work as an EA to Finance secretary Rosemary Huxtable and formerly to her predecessor Jane Halton.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” –Shakespeare, Henry IV Part one.

Being the right hand of senior executives in “positions of power” does mean EAs need to exercise a kind of “power by proxy” at times, she told a group of Canberra EAs yesterday.

“However, that whole idea of EAs having power is open to a lot of misinterpretation, and I’ve seen some EAs in the past that have probably fallen down slightly because I think they have a slightly distorted vision of what power means,” she said.

“I’ve never considered myself to be powerful. As far as I’m concerned, the people that I’ve worked for have power.”

Instead, EAs should consider themselves in a position of enormous privilege, she advised. “Power sounds like something that can be abused and I can tell you now, if you do that, if you get caught up in the idea that you are powerful, it’s going to come undone.”

“Respect the position that you’re in, respect the person that you’re working for, treat people with some kindness and dignity and some respect and you’re going to get so much more back from the people who are supporting you than if you take the approach of steamrolling, because of the sense of power.”

Crago was the special guest yesterday for a new and extremely popular series of professional development events for EAs, organised by the Canberra chapter of the Institute of Public Administration Australia. According to the PSM citation, taking the time to share knowledge and bring a bit of levity to the corridors of power have been features of her APS career:

“She has been a great mentor to many staff, including many executive assistants across the Australian Public Service. She takes time to share her knowledge and experience with executive assistants at all levels, building leadership capability and having a sustained impact on this cohort.

“She makes everyone she deals with feel important and valued, improving working lives every day, through her generous, good humoured manner and thoughtful, professional approach. Furthermore, the advice she provides is timely and appropriate — honed on the basis of a superior and applied understanding of the nuances of her role and the inner workings of government.”

Building strong working relationships and making the workplace enjoyable were key themes she returned to in an interview with IPAA ACT executive officer Drew Baker. Those good relationships that allow everyone to have a bit of fun in the office also make it easier to “defuse” some extremely tense and stressful situations that can arise in the offices of senior mandarins, on the inevitable bad days.

“It is a great career choice, and not just for us ladies.”

Asked to list another career-limiting move that EAs should avoid, Crago mercifully chose not to go through a long list of administrative tricks and traps she has come across since she started. Instead, she chose to reassure her fellows that mistakes will happen, and focused on how to pick up the pieces when you’ve stuffed up.

“Don’t hide from mistakes. We all make mistakes, but when you realise you’ve made a mistake and something hasn’t gone right, put your hand up, go in, talk to your boss, lay it on the line. Explain that you won’t have it happen it again, and ways of fixing it, but dont, don’t try and hide from them.”

She spoke at length of the enormous respect she holds for both Huxtable and Halton, now a dear friend whom she knew by her formidable reputation before becoming her assistant in 2001, when Halton was a deputy secretary with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

She also admitted being slightly “terrified” of her new boss that first year, and recalled what happened after she made a big mistake, the details of which have since faded into insignificance.

She owned up, offered a plan to try and fix things and a pledge to learn from the experience, bracing for a dressing-down that never came. The mistake was acknowledged, but that was more or less the last she heard of it.

“They will respect that, they will respect you for being upfront,” she said. “But the minute you try and hide, or lie about anything, or make it somebody else’s fault, [you make it worse].”

Crago said the role could be a stepping stone to something else, but mostly enthused about it as a rewarding and fulfilling career on its own.

Being one of the few EAs to win a PSM was a “huge honour” that she hopes will bring greater recognition to the often-overlooked role. “It is a great career choice, and not just for us ladies. I’d love to see more guys in the position, I really would,” she said.

There were a few male EAs at the professional association’s sold-out event, but you probably could have counted them on one hand, reflecting the fact that very few men see themselves in such roles. On the flipside, Crago also said the “three amazing women” she had worked for — which also included Howard-era minister Jocelyn Newman — had a harder time in those powerful positions than most men would, in her view.

As her trepidation around the initially “daunting” Jane Halton turned to deep respect, friendship and admiration, she watched on as the fearless leader went through “incredibly arduous times” and survived heavy public scrutiny of the sort that all senior public servants strive to avoid.

She noted her first year with Halton was “a particularly huge year at PM&C for a range of reasons” — not least Halton’s role on the Howard government’s people smuggling taskforce which eventually embroiled her in the children overboard affair.

“I watched her juggle an enormous, pressured workload, huge issues. She was scrutinised forensically by media, by doubters, and unfortunately, on many levels, some of her peers. And she handled that incredibly, all the while juggling two young boys… and I often think: ‘Had you been a man, I’m not sure you would have copped the scrutiny that you did as a woman.'”

The same goes, she said, for Rosemary Huxtable, who she’s known for almost as long and also finds incredibly inspirational. But one suspects that without people like Crago there to remember all that advice we all forget about managing stress, work-life balance and staying calm while always juggling a busy, rapidly changing workload — and occasionally wielding “power by proxy” — senior leaders would be far less able to manage their considerable responsibilities.

Top image: RLDI