What’s a strategic partner and do you need one?

Have you ever found yourself pondering, “Do I need a strategic partner or is my executive assistant ready to level up and become the MVP in strategic moves?” Let’s ditch the formality, grab a virtual pinky promise and dive into what sets a strategic partner apart from a traditional executive assistant. 

In my experience, a strategic partner makes their mark with the executive team by helping them meet, and achieve, the goals of the organization and its principals. They have broad acumen within the business, in its totality, and understand the impact of various pulled levers. They’re reading data points, are a freak in the (Excel) sheets, conducting large-scale research, liaising with stakeholders and advising. They’re the hunter-gatherers of the group. They anticipate the next move and have a sense of urgency. 

Strategic partners are handed the Town Hall keynotes to touch up because they know your, voice and tone, better than you do. Or, they craft the perfect press release or give the Board Deck a once-over. It’s not just about ticking boxes but actively participating in strategic planning, problem-solving and identifying challenges with a Sherlock-level precision. They’re entrusted to be in the room for key decision-making because they have demonstrated their ability to provide C-level analysis and recommendations.  

On the flip side, an executive assistant is laser-focused—someone who plays wingman (or woman) to executives, ensuring their work life doesn’t resemble a veritable circus act. Please note that feeling like a circus—because, really, are you even alive if the day-to-day doesn’t feel like a circus—and looking like one are two ENTIRELY different qualifiers.  

Executive assistants are the real MVPs in #allthingsadministrative. Think meeting coordination, calendar Tetris, providing backstory for your meetings with external stakeholders, board meeting coordination, agenda preparation, project management, ensuring you are never caught flat-footed, travel planning and, of course, being the office’s unofficial tea connoisseur. Executive assistants are the Ace of Spades in their executive’s Royal Flush. They’re the magic and memory-makers and the unsung heroes doing the logistical dance for their executives. And they know-instinctively-when to deploy the oxygen mask. 

Let’s be clear, right out of the gate. Strategic partners and executive assistants are invaluable assets in their own right and their, respective, wheelhouses. They both have gravitas…a presence. They are leaders and have immeasurable impact. Together, they should create harmony and a perfect team that supports the goals of their executive and the entire organization, as a whole.  

But here’s the kicker: these roles seem to be playing a game of Twister with all the overlapping responsibilities. Can you really have one without the other?  

Take a moment and ask yourself: Is your executive assistant playing the strategic long game? Are they not just managing projects but also making decisions and writing communications to stakeholders and the team? Is your current executive assistant dipping their toe in the strategic partner pool or have they actually jumped in feet first? 

If you’re nodding along and your executive assistant is not your strategic partner, ask yourself “Why not?” Don’t be risk averse now. It might be the perfect time to make an investment with a significant return for you, and the team, by leveling them up with an upgraded title and matching compensation package. If your EA has a proven track record and shows loyalty, and commitment, you have an opportunity and, I would add, an obligation to advance them. The return on investment will be huge. Here’s a little bit of truth talk: Remember your roots. You are in your seat because someone took the time to mentor and invest in you and acknowledged your value. 

Joelle Paban is a former executive assistant and has been featured in several magazines for her knowledge and expertise in the industry. She stepped out on her own and created Joelle Paban & Associates, a niche recruiting firm, in 2014. Joelle Paban & Associates offers immediate, permanent placement of well-qualified, highly coveted, executive/administrative candidates. You can reach Paban at joelle@joellepaban.

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