You need assistants to get to the top

In the entertainment industry, one of the most common paths to the top begins with a stint as an executive assistant.

In the entertainment industry, one of the most common paths to the top begins with a stint as an executive assistant.

It's not unusual to find graduates of Yale and Harvard answering phones and arranging schedules for the high and mighty. It's one of the few things in the entertainment world that actually makes sense to me.

Arguably the most valuable commodity in the life of a C-level executive is time. So having a world-class assistant is a non-negotiable requirement for a CEO. In my experience, the assistants at the top are always smart, super efficient, poised, professional, and impeccably well presented.

But it's their skills at protecting the boss's time that intrigue me the most. The sheer determination of the multitudes of people who are trying to get time on a powerful person's calendar is pretty intimidating. And yet these assistants fight off the hordes without seeming to break a sweat.

I don't think I'd last a day in the job. I remember sitting through a morning briefing session that my chairman had with his assistant. She presented him with a series of requests for upcoming meetings that ranged from a security analyst gathering to the CEO of a major competitor to the mayor and a senator.

For each one of these meetings, our chairman had specific requests and parameters that he wanted negotiated and/or adhered to before he'd agree to move forward. I was having heart palpitations just trying to imagine the series of machinations that were to ensue for each of these requests.

Then it hit me: he generated a similar list every morning!

I'm equally fascinated by the opportunists trying to work their way onto the corner-office calendar. One executive assistant for a CEO that I worked with broke down for me the three types of personalities who try and get past the gate: the "sweet talkers," "bullies," and "stalkers."

Sweet talkers use charm, guile, and humor. Apparently, they are more pleasant to deal with, but, in the end, not much more effective.

Bullies try to intimidate and say things such as, "Your boss knows what this is about and he really needs to speak to me," or they mislead with statements such as, "Michael Bloomberg's office suggested I call."

Stalkers just keep coming and coming in the hopes you'll wear down, have mercy, or not notice one of the times they try and slip through.

And here's a tip for you corporate climbers - these assistants also monitor internal behavior. Assistants have remarkable insight into the internal politics of an organization, along with the strengths and weaknesses of every senior manager. Because they answer most of the calls and e-mails of the top dog, these assistants know who is needy, petulant, aggressive, evasive, smarmy, insecure, and narcissistic.

They are also keenly aware of who is competent, organized, confident, reliable, efficient, and kind. Board nominating committees, in my opinion, should consult with executive assistants before they approve any succession plans. They would learn some surprising information.

So here's a tip: always re-member who the gatekeeper is if you want access to the CEO. If the assistant doesn't like or trust you, you'll be swimming against the tide every minute of the day. If he or she does like you, though, you've won over one of the company's best judges of character.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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