One of the key differences in a top-level executive assistant is their ability to be both a gatekeeper and a gateway. While the gatekeeper element of the EA role is highly valued, the gateway function is often overlooked. When we place executive assistants with c-suite executives, we seek candidates who offer both skills in equal measure. So today, I’m elaborating further on these vital qualities and how they are applied to the performance of the business partner executive assistant.
Firstly, what is the difference between a gateway and gatekeeper?
The gatekeeper protects the executive from unwanted interruptions that distract from their core focus. This gives the executive the necessary freedom to get the important tasks completed and sets the executive up for success in the delivery of their KPIs. The gateway on the other hand, acts as a flow of information between stakeholders and the executive, to foster relationships, build connections and contribute to company culture and team morale.
The core requirements of a gatekeeper executive assistant
The gatekeeper executive assistant knows that there are constant demands on their executive’s time and attention. They get copied into hundreds of emails a day. They are required to review reports, strategies, finances, marketing, contracts and all the other documents that need their ‘quick feedback’. Plus they’re involved with staff management — recruitment, performance review, staff morale and culture. I could name another hundred demands on the time of any busy c-suite executive. The gatekeeper EA understands this constant demand. With this in mind, they protect the time of the executive, preventing unwanted or unnecessary flow of information, news, requests, questions and demands that prevent them focusing on what’s important.
An executive assistant with savvy gatekeeper skills will know which updates need to be passed on and which can be:
put on hold
The ability to quickly make a judgement on which requests need actioning is a vital role of an executive assistant with strong gatekeeping skills.
Gatekeeping criteria should be driven by the executive
This is a very particular skill that must be honed carefully with the insight and leadership of the executive. The EA needs to know the criteria for what matters and what can wait. Often there is no Standard Operating Procedure for such decisions. It’s a matter of instinct. Plus, the priorities can change frequently, whether seasonally, or simply what matters to the business at the time. The savvy EA will ensure a deep understanding of the broader KPIs of both the organisation and the executive and will do what it takes to protect that time and establish boundaries. This ensures that the executive is free to focus on the key drivers of business success.
But with gatekeeping, it’s important not to overstep the mark
Gatekeeping can be problematic when the executive is shielded too much from information and loses touch with what’s going on across the business. An over zealous EA may fail to inform the executive of important news, which can cause embarrassment or mistakes later on. Plus, if an executive assistant is too judicious with gatekeeping, people feel they can’t access the executive, and the relationship suffers. This can result in poor morale, if it’s the team reporting to the executive, or missed opportunities if the relationship is between other company divisions. When it comes to stakeholders, those relationships can suffer from neglect. Reputations matter, so the executive may establish a perception (fair or not) that they are difficult to reach, not responsive or simply busier with other more important priorities, which can be detrimental to their profile and sphere of influence.
An executive assistant with strong gatekeeping skills will take the time to understand the importance of strong gatekeeping, without veering into becoming too heavy-handed or extreme.
Gatekeepers foster relationships
Acting as a gateway is the less visible or recognised role of a business partner executive assistant. While the concept of the gatekeeper is quite clear, the gateway role is less defined. It’s a very relationship-driven element of the EA function. This includes relationships with clients/customers, teams, other executives and company leadership/boards and third parties like government, suppliers, partners and collaborators.
A gateway EA knows the value of building a profile for their executive and ensuring their visibility and accessibility. The remit for this kind of role is broad but could include:
keeping up a flow of information to the executive, such as company news, team developments, and generally being the eyes and ears on behalf of the executive at all times
following industry thought leaders and taking the time to develop an understanding of the key players
acting as a conduit between the executive and their team, making each team member feel supported, heard and recognised for achievements
monitoring the media and keeping up to date with industry news trends and options
reading the room when the executive is presenting to understand the reaction and body language of the audience at meetings, events, presentations and board meetings, etc
The gateway EA can often spot problems
Often an executive assistant is well placed to act as a gateway when problems arise. If a team is struggling to overcome a challenging situation, they may try to put on a brave face for the executive, so the EA may be better able to identify signs and step in to help before problems fester. This is also where the complementary skill set of the EA comes into play. For example, an EA who has good empathy and people skills can provide a useful balance for a more logical, rational, decision focussed leader who may not have those softer skills in abundance.
Being a gateway requires sound judgement
The insightful executive assistant will know when to supply information and in the right manner. The executive doesn’t need to be filled in on every tidbit in the industry or irrelevant office gossip. But they do need to know the important developments. As with the gatekeeper function, refining what is and is not important takes effort on behalf of the executive assistant and their leader. It’s very instinctive, as important, need-to-know information can vary greatly. This is a skill that takes time for the team of executive and assistant to develop. But when it’s working well, the support that the executive receives can be invaluable.
Are you seeking a high-performing executive assistant?
We have a unique understanding of the evolving role of the executive assistant and a strong network of contacts with EAs for some of Australia’s leading employers. Call Anastasia today on 0421 16 55 96 to see how we can support you.
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