Behind the Smile: What Your Assistants Are Really Thinking

“Imagine a world where people wake up inspired to go to work.” Simon Sinek “Start With Why”


It happened again. Hardly any hands in the air. I believe executives and principals need to know this.

I was recently speaking at a professional conference for Personal and Executive Assistants in one of America’s biggest cities representing some of our most high profile companies. The group of sixty assistants and private service professionals (PSPs) answered this question: How many of you feel well managed by your executive?

Five hands raised and only two with enthusiasm.

Worse news is that this poor response is more common than not everywhere I travel which has been seven countries in the past three years. Hmmm. It has made me really stop to think about why is this happening? I ask the assistants, What stops you from raising your hand? Here is what they say.

  1. “Our leaders are oblivious to what is really happening.” They feel principals are too protected and assistants don’t feel that they have the license to be “the messenger” without serious negative repercussions.

The Fix: Set the expectation for your staff that you genuinely want to know what they think. Make it explicitly clear that it is safe to do so.

  1. “I’m overwhelmed with work and s/he doesn’t care.” Assistants don’t take lunch or eat at their desk. They don’t tell their managers about how much overtime they are working in fear that they will be criticized for complaining or not being able to handle the job and therefore, feel their jobs would be in jeopardy. Their work is 24/7 and they are tired and drowning without a life preserver.

The Fix: If you think that your assistants may be overloaded, ask them. They are in the business of saying “yes.”  It is not in the nature of assistants and PSPs to be perceived as “complainers” or to say “no,” so they need your support. Private estates and companies pay a high price for burned out staffers so stop the bleeding by asking them for ongoing and detailed status reports on the time it is taking for them to do their jobs. Set up a mechanism to be kept informed about problems they see.


  1. “I have no back-up so I feel I am indispensable and can’t leave.” Assistants don’t take vacations because they have no back-up or if they take vacations, they are answering emails and phone calls while away which is not a vacation. They feel there is a double standard in many situations where leaders are supported to have work/life balance but it is not so for the staff. This pervasive double standard is the unspoken elephant in the room in some of our most prestigious estates and companies. The 24/7 non-stop nature of private homes makes this issue especially problematic.


The Fix: It is imperative for private homes, estates, and companies to set up cross-training and back-up systems so that assistants and PSPs can take days off and vacations without working. The data shows that when workers are supported to truly unplug and reenergize on vacation, everyone benefits.


  1. “Workplace bullying and disrespect is rampant. Staff is being abused by fellow staff or managers.” The bad news is that there is a global epidemic of bullying and assistants and PSPs observe that some principals either don’t know about it or look the other way, hoping the problems will go away. They don’t. These toxic behaviors of public humiliation, yelling, and unreasonable expectations are demoralizing and chasing good people away. There is widespread leading by intimidation resulting in PSPs suffering in isolated silence. Sometimes the trauma lasts for years. The stories are jaw-dropping.

The Fix: Commit to establish a culture of respect that puts muscle into a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. These policies mean the most when leaders commit to them. This will require training and coaching for all staff but it is worth it because it is that important. The good news is that the leaders who are implementing such policies are employing the assistants and PSPs who raise their hand to talk about problems. Leading by intimidation may seem like it works, but it doesn’t. Good managers are made, not born. Provide training for your managers to be ones who inspire loyalty and high productivity.


  1. “I am underpaid. I can’t make ends meet.” It is shocking to me how many PSPs are working for mega-wealthy and powerful principals and C-suite executives in very successful companies who are working 50+ hours per week and yet are seriously underpaid. Many report salary caps or other limitations which essentially means that no matter how valuable they are to their managers, they do not have a way to increase their salaries.

The Fix: I urge principals and CEOs to take a fresh look at the compensation packages for PSPs, a group of people who are often referred to as “the backbone of the company” and the “right arms” to their principals. Pay them fairly and generously.

  1. “Human Resources are not for us. We avoid them and go around them as much as possible.” In general, PSPs in America and around the world do not view HR as allies. Quite the opposite. The result is a contentious them vs. us relationship which does not promote positive communication and cooperation.

The Fix: If you think this is a problem you would like to fix in your household or company, do an anonymous survey to find out what the issues are. Or just ask.

  1. “I have to fight for training or pay for it myself and sometimes have to take vacation days in order to do it.” In our complicated workplace of 2016, even the elite assistants need supplemental training in both technology and soft skills. They are starving for training and feel an urgent need to stay relevant and valuable to their companies and yet, do not receive the support from executives and HR. This is one of the many issues that sends PSPs looking for new jobs that have training budgets.

The Fix: Investing in training the administrative staff is still a fairly new idea in 2016 but it cannot stay that way if companies are going to be competitive at the highest levels. Create a task force to look at the skills that are required for EAs to do their jobs well and support your staff to receive the professional development they need. The ROI will come back to your company exponentially.

Current data shows the benefits of providing training:
* Profits increase by an average of 24%
* Productivity improves by an average of 21%-38%
* Employee retention increases to an average of 62%

In conclusion: My motivation for writing this article is my deep concern for the glaring communication gap in our global workplace and the urgent need to raise awareness. If changes are called for, everyone seems to agree that the fix must begin at the top with our executives, principals, and CEOs. I welcome the opportunity to personally discuss any aspect of what I have written. The bottom line is that we have an opportunity to do much better.

About Bonnie Low-Kramen

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the CEO/Founder of Ultimate Assistant and is one of the most respected leaders in the administrative profession. The bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant, she is known for her passionate commitment to being a catalyst for positive change in the global workplace and the private service industry. For 25 years, Bonnie worked as the Personal Assistant to Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis and now travels the world teaching Ultimate Assistant workshops and speaking at conferences and companies. Clients include Starbucks, Amazon, AMC Entertainment, Dell, and MasterCard. She was named 2015 Educator of the Year by DEMA, the Domestic Estate Managers Association. Bonnie co-hosts the monthly “Be the Ultimate Assistant Podcast” with Vickie Sokol Evans available on iTunes. She is a columnist for Executive Secretary Magazine and SmartCEO Magazine, and is a contributing writer to many other international publications. With trademark honesty and humor, she pulls the curtain back so that we can all lean in and excel at the very highest levels. For more information:

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