Why Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff Continue to Thrive Amidst Constant Change

If I were to go into battle with anyone, it would be someone who was growth-minded, resourceful, adaptable, a creative problem solver, and an influential leader. Why? Because those individuals are not paralyzed by uncertainty, can take various pieces of information and come up with a workable solution, they are not afraid to take action, and can help rally the troops around a common goal. These characteristics just happen to be the key qualities of a great Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff.

For many years I felt limited (or rather, I had limiting beliefs about my own capabilities) because I was not an expert at anything. I did not have 10,000 hours on any particular subject to back up my work. So what’s changed for me? No, I didn’t get my MBA or study one topic. What I did was work on myself and my leadership and ultimately realized that being a generalist, a Jill of all trades, a Swiss army knife, a Force Multiplier – actually was my superpower. I think the same is true for many Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff.

It’s time for Force Multipliers to lean into this strength and for others to understand the value we bring to an organization.

How Force Multipliers’ Ability to Pivot Helps Them Thrive

The world is continuing to evolve at an ever-faster pace. Change is a constant. Being adaptable is a must. Growth-minded individuals are the ones who will survive and thrive in the workplace. The ability to connect learnings and ideas from a wide range of information provides massive value to an organization. This is where I think Force Multipliers thrive.

But don’t just take my word for it. There are a lot of thought leaders, from 600 BC to today, who understand and value those who may not be experts in one thing, but rather draw on their wide range of knowledge and experiences to adapt, implement, and succeed.

The Growth Mindset Theory

Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, is known for her decades-long work on mindset. She developed the Growth Mindset Theory, which essentially says that those who have a growth mindset believe that intelligence and abilities can be developed through effort, persistence, trying different strategies, and learning from mistakes.

Fixed Mindset: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” (Dweck, 2015)

Growth Mindset: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)

A growth mindset is the foundation for all adaptable, resourceful, and resilient Force Multipliers.

Charlie Munger’s Approach to Learning

In Greg McKeown’s new book, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, he discusses the different ideas behind learning and how to leverage the best of what other people know (sounds like a growth-mindset to me!). In chapter 11, McKeown uses Charlie Munger, the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and right-hand man to Warren Buffet, to illustrate, what I would consider, a generalist approach to learning and business. McKeown writes:

Most professional investors become experts in financial markets. They study the economic forces that drive booms and busts. They learn all there is to learn to know about bond yields, macroeconomics, and small cap stocks. But Charlie Munger takes a different approach to learning. Isaiah Berlin’s original 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, revived the saying of the Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus: the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. 

Jim Collins famously favored the hedgehog approach to succeeding in the business world arguing that foxes lose focus and waste their energy. But Archilochus‘s comparison was always meant to suggest that the fox would fare better if it didn’t simply know many things but knew how to connect those things together. Munger is a fox who connects many things. 

Munger’s approach to investing and life is the pursuit of what he calls “worldly wisdom”. He believes that by combining learnings from a range of disciplines, psychology, history, mathematics, physics, philosophy, biology, and more, we produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Munger sees isolated facts as useless unless they hang together on a latticework of theory. 

Different ideas in isolation represent linear knowledge, but those same ideas form residual knowledge when interconnected. Munger acolyte Tren Griffon gives the following example, a business raises the price of it’s product yet sells more of that product. This does not make sense if you consider only the discipline of economics and its rule of supply and demand. But if you also consider the discipline in psychology you understand that buyers think that a higher price means higher quality and therefore buy more. Often the most useful knowledge comes from fields other than our own. As researches from Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management found in analyzing almost 18 million scientific papers, the best new ideas usually come from combining existing knowledge in one field with an intrusion of unusual combinations from other disciplines. 

This is why Munger is wise to believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. As he puts it, “I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart.” The exchange of ideas across disciplines breeds novelty and turning the conventional into something novel is often the key to effortless creativity. Not only in science, but in areas ranging from investing to music to making movies. 

I think that Force Multipliers generally share this philosophy. A large part of the Force Multiplier role involves gathering information across divisions, managing various stakeholder agendas, and using knowledge from multiple disciplines (from finance to marketing, to leadership, to operations, to human resources) to either make decisions or help their Executive make decisions for the organization. The “latticework of theory” that Munger describes is, in my opinion, what Force Multipliers facilitate for their companies. Seeing the gaps in the organization, connecting the dots across various departments, and then ultimately coming up with solutions to fill those gaps is all in a day’s work for Force Multipliers. Being learning-based and growth-minded is a must to thrive in today’s business environments.

The Hedgehog and the Fox

As Greg McKeown explained in Effortless, the Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, had a saying: “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The Hedgehog and the Fox, written by Isaiah Berlin in 1953, expanded upon Archilochus’s idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs – those who view the world with a single defining idea and foxes – those who draw on a wide variety of experiences and who do not see the world as having one defining idea.

Is one way of thinking better than another? Or perhaps it’s not a question of better, but of which approach is most effective in which situation? Ultimately, it’s simply two different ways of thinking. As Berlin writes:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.

I think this idea extends beyond just writers and thinkers, but to all professionals and leaders. Simply put, hedgehogs search for universal theories, one big focusing idea, overarching principles, and drive towards a singular vision. Foxes explore many different, often contradictory ideas, have many interests, and are curious about an endless array of topics.

I believe that Force Multipliers are foxes, which is one of the reasons they are able to thrive in a constantly changing and evolving world. And dare I say, the CEOs and Founders of the world, are hedgehogs with that singular and often relentless focus and vision. Sounds to me like companies ultimately thrive when there is a hedgehog and a fox in the c-suite.

Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Several years ago, I read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. That book gave me some much-needed validation about who I was and how, as a “fox”, I could provide value to my company.

This book is about more than just generalized knowledge vs. specialization. It also digs into late bloomers who didn’t find their true passion or create their best work until much later in life. And along the way? Yup. They were just “good” at a variety of things. Testing, experimenting, and all the while discovering what they didn’t want or didn’t excel at until they finally did. And perhaps those personal and professional experiments were exactly what eventually led them to their genius. Force Multipliers are uniquely built to thrive in a changing world.

Accepting Yourself as a Jill or Jack-of-All-Trades

I’ve done a lot of personal development work over the past couple of years and have begun to realize – and more importantly, accept – who I am. Turns out, having this sort of generalized experience and knowledge is exactly why I have enjoyed and thrived in both an Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff position (particularly working with an entrepreneur). If anything, my “specialty” lies in putting the pieces of a puzzle together with only a partial picture on the box cover to guide me (that inevitably changes halfway through the project) while under a tight deadline. This requires the ability to connect the dots from seemingly disparate information sources. Heck, this article is a perfect example of a fox in action!

I hope this article will give other Force Multipliers some insight into how they think and the unique value they bring to their Executives, their companies, and the world. In addition, for those of you who are looking for your right-hand strategic partner, think about who you would want to go into battle with. An adaptable, flexible, and resourceful leader who just gets things done would be my choice every time.

Are you a fox or a hedgehog? What other qualities do you think help Force Multipliers thrive in a changing world? Join us in our free community and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear about your own unique journey!

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