What makes a good EA? Canberra SES officers spill the beans

By Stephen Easton

September 21, 2016

People in a meeting

Senior public servants know well the executive assistant plays a vital role, as an unofficial communication channel and guide to the bureaucratic labyrinth. But gauging the mood on office politics is no excuse for gossip.

Beside every good executive officer is a great executive assistant, with their finger on the pulse of office politics and a knack for sniffing out smouldering issues before they flare up. At its best, the relationship of EA to EO is a strong partnership, according to some of Canberra’s senior bureaucrats.

The crucial role played by EAs has recently come into the spotlight in Canberra, thanks to the new EA Series of events organised by the local chapter of the Institute for Public Administration Australia. And judging from the popularity of the latest event, focusing on the senior executive’s perspective, there is strong demand for more.

“A good EA really is that bridge between the executive and the rest of the workplace.”

Loud applause greeted the observation that these unsung heroes of admin mostly miss out on networking and professional development opportunities (not to mention lunch breaks), uttered by Geoffrey Rutledge, the acting deputy director-general for policy and cabinet in the ACT Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate.

“EAs have a very particular role: they’re a protector, and for me they’ve been a mentor, and most importantly they’ve been a collaborator,” said Rutledge, who introduced the panel.

All three — ACT commissioner for public sector employment Bronwen Overton-Clarke, Department of Education and Training general manager Trish Bergin and Department of Immigration and Border Protection assistant secretary Ben Wyers — agree that EAs are absolutely crucial to success in leadership positions.

A recurring theme in their advice was that a really good EA acts as a kind of unofficial diplomatic backchannel for information from rank-and-file staff and other key offices — besides the more obvious skills and attributes.

The panel agreed EAs need good interpersonal skills and political nous to perform the role well, and to reflect well on the executive they represent. Wyers added that since leaders generally need to be positive and upbeat, it helps if their assistant can project a similar confidence out to the team.

“If you bark at everybody, they’ll think that’s me,” said Bergin, who also urged the EAs to have pride in their role and said they should never to sell themselves short with comments like “I’m just an EA”.

The best assistants, she said, developed a substantial understanding of what their boss and the team were trying to achieve. Bergin’s current EA spends a lot of time reading and thinking about the information that comes through, and that ability to see the bigger picture has proven very useful.

“We [had] a very tight turnaround for something to go up to the minister’s office, we were struggling to find what was appropriate — you know, exactly the right answer…

“And then she remembered something that she had seen that had come through a couple of weeks earlier, and she was able to pull it out and we both looked at it and went ‘Oh that’s it, absolutely!’ … Because she cares so much about the job, she’s actually retaining a lot of those things and remembers what’s come across. That was amazing.”

The mood whisperer

Far and away, the most important thing that busy senior executives value in an EA is confidence to speak up and give them frank advice, coupled with the judgement and situational awareness to know when problems are emerging and must be addressed. A lot of the time, nobody else will tell the boss directly.

Bergin said it was important for executives, especially when new in their role, to recognise and make use of the organisational and situational awareness their EA can provide. The more experienced ones know the ins and outs of complex organisations better than anyone.

“I think its a really good point that of course, as an executive in charge, it’s very difficult, you have to tread that line of making sure that you run the place, you don’t get into the trap of needing to be liked by everyone, but actually you are very much aware of what’s going on in your office without getting into the office politics,” said Overton-Clarke.

“And I do think that EAs play … that really great role of being able to let you know. I mean, often your focus is sort of outside the area that you’re in, and you’re the link of course back to the staff, but you don’t always know how staff are travelling and a good EA really is that bridge, if you like, between the executive and the rest of the workplace.”

“… You can get little cliques and office politics happening and you have to work out how to sort of play all that and that can’t be underestimated, I don’t think.”

For Wyers, what comes to mind are “those little comments or questions” from his EA, gently letting him know that a certain staff member or a group needs some special attention.

“It’s things that individuals would never voice publicly and probably wouldn’t voice to the SES officer directly, but it’s the sort of thing that if you can hear about it and address it for the person, it makes a big difference for them and it really adds to the cohesion of the workplace and the connectivity of the SES officer,” he said.

“I don’t think we should be in offices; we should be out on the floor because we’re the worst at connecting, yet they put us on our own in this office and so we can’t hear what’s going on half the time, or see it. And literally — literally — you can be walking through a workplace and you can hear it kind of go quiet as you walk through.”

Overton-Clarke, who recently started working in an open-plan office with a hot-desk arrangement, joked he must be “really scary” if that happens. But she was similarly open about how difficult it is for senior executives to “gauge the mood” of staff, as they are usually in the driving seat, focused on higher-level outcomes. “And that’s kind of ironic for me to say because I’m the head of people, if you like, in ACT Government,” she noted.

All of this talk of gauging the mood and office politics should not be taken as an encouragement of gossip, Bergin said.

“It’s [about] really keeping you aware and in touch with what has to happen, but not in a way that is actually fuelling an agenda or anything like that,” she explained.

“I’ve found all the EAs that I’ve been working with have been just brilliant with the way they can do that… it just helps you zero in on something that could flare up into a real spot fire.”

Overton-Clarke sees EAs as the “lynchpins” that make everything run smoothly, and Bergin described the network of EAs as a “spinal cord” which can pass along information slightly ahead of the official correspondence.

“In terms of connecting up all the various executive officers … they can flag there’s something coming, it’s got to be cleared, it’s a tight turnaround. They can flag that all the way up the line and the value of that is enormous — so things don’t just suddenly land and people go, ‘Oh I didn’t know about this! My executive’s off somewhere else!'”

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