How to Build Trust Between Executive Assistants and CEOs

Last week I had a fantastic book discussion with some wonderful women about Brené Brown’s latest book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. As we discussed the various emotions highlighted in the book, we paused to talk for a few minutes about trust. Trust is one of those hard-to-define terms, I think. Merriam-Webster defines trust as: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something. Subjective, much? Trust is personal. I may trust you, but you may not trust me in return or vice versa. It’s a complex human experience, yet one of the most important elements of a successful Executive Assistant and CEO partnership.

Thankfully, we can lean on the tremendous work of Brené to help shed some light on how we can build trust, specifically between leaders and their right hand Force Multipliers. After all, if there isn’t trust between these strategic partners, it can have some serious adverse effects on the rest of the organization. If trust is absent between two individuals who work as closely as a CEO and Executive Assistant do, then how might that look to the rest of the organization? I’ll answer for you: not great.

How to Build Trust in the Workplace

Whether you are the leader of a company or the Executive Assistant to the CEO, you can both benefit from learning more about Brené’s seven elements of trust (she uses the acronym BRAVING) and how to apply them to your strategic partnership. Let’s dive in.

BOUNDARIES

Boundaries are probably one of the biggest discussion points for Executive Assistants, Chiefs of Staff and their respective leaders. Ensuring that boundaries are clearly outlined by both parties is imperative for building trust. Furthermore, if those boundaries are unclear, you must ask. When building trust, it’s important to make sure boundaries are respected, as well. I would say this is perhaps one of the biggest issues with lack of trust between CEOs and Force Multipliers. Boundaries are discussed and agreed-up and then disregarded if they are not convenient for either party. This does not work if you want to build trust. Conversely, being willing to say no or acknowledging the fact that a boundary is being encroached upon is necessary to respect your own boundaries and let the other person know that you are going to do so now, and in the future.

RELIABILITY

Do you do what you say you’re going to do? Can your leader or your EA trust that if you commit to a project or a specific deadline, it’s going to get done? I think reliability also extends to attitude and energy. Do the CEO and EA show up each day knowing what to expect from the other in terms of behavior or are they unpredictable in attitude and action? That unpredictability can certainly make it harder to build trust.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Being an accountable individual means that you are taking ownership over your role and responsibilities. In addition, it means that you own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends. I believe that a big part of building a strategic partnership between a leader and Force Multiplier is that each party is accountable for their contributions and deliverables. There is mutual respect and agreement between EA and CEO that they will each take ownership over their roles. While, many EAs will readily take the blame or cover for their Executive (within reason), it shouldn’t be the expectation. CEOs, too, should have their EAs back and may jump in to take responsibility when things go wrong. That is why it’s called a partnership, after all. However, the best case scenario, is when both EA and CEO are accountable for themselves, which ultimately builds trust.

VAULT

When I talk about building trust between Executive Assistants and CEOs, I always talk about being “the vault.” Being a vault means that you maintain confidentiality. It also means that you don’t share information that isn’t yours to share. In addition, it means that you are not sharing information with me that should be confidential.

Now, this can be a tough line to walk sometimes between CEOs and their Force Multipliers. Often times, other team members will share information with the EA or Chief of Staff that they want the CEO to be aware of, yet they don’t want to deliver the message. Other times, they may truly be looking to the EA as a confidant, but what they share may conflict with the EA’s prior commitments to their Executive. What I have found to work is being upfront with our leadership team and colleagues. I let them know that I will certainly keep anything they say confidential, with one exception. I may share that information our CEO (based on what they say and my best judgement).

Back to the EA and CEO relationship. Trust can only be built if you are able to be the vault for your CEO and vice versa.

INTEGRITY

Integrity is about choosing what is right over what is comfortable or easy. It also means that you are practicing what you preach. Your values mean nothing, if your actions are contradicting them. This can certainly be seen in many business settings, where mission statements and core values are painted on walls and printed on business cards, but the actions of the employees and leadership team are not in alignment. It is definitely a trust-breaker when what someone says is not backed up with matching actions. Both parties can work on building trust by insuring that they operate with integrity in all things.

NONJUDGEMENT

When there is an absence of trust, inevitably there is a lot of judgment going on. Nonjudgement is being able to ask for what you need, as well as the other party being able to ask for what they need. It also means you can ask for help and talk about how you feel without the risk of judgement. Discussing boundaries and burnout for EAs and CEOs immediately comes to mind. It’s not easy to admit when you need help and that you aren’t able to keep up with the work being sent your way. For leaders, it can be equally as challenging to admit when you don’t have an answer to to a current company challenge. For EAs and CEOs, being able to share these thoughts and feelings is critical to building trust and cultivating a true strategic partnership. When you are not able to share these things, resentment can arise and working relationships become toxic. Force Multipliers and their leaders work so closely together, if they are unable to share these things, it is like bringing only part of themselves to the office each day. And that is not fun or productive for anyone! They must work on approaching situations with curiosity, not judgement, in order to build trust and maintain the partnership.

GENEROSITY

We so often judge ourselves based on our intentions, and others based on their actions. But what if we extend that sort of generous interpretation of intentions and words (and actions) to others? Well, it will certainly feel a lot better to be operating from that place of generosity! Beyond that, it helps you approach a conversation from nonjudgement, which in turn will help you stay accountable to your part of the problem, as well as maintain clear boundaries if needed. CEOs and Executive Assistants will better be able to build trust if they are each operating from generosity towards the other.

Let’s recap. The seven elements of trust are: Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Nonjudgement, Generosity (BRAVING). Now that you have a common language and framework around trust, you can engage in a dialogue with your colleagues about what area you may need to to work on in order to build more trust in your relationship. Without trust, the partnership between an Executive Assistant and CEO will not survive. So, get to work today on building trust and watch your strategic partnership thrive!

My book club had an awesome discussion about Atlas of the Heart. If you would like to join one of the book discussions in the future, just click here to join the group!

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