When the CEO's Assistant is 
Indistinguishable from the Evil Witch

By Francie Dalton

Under the guise of loyalty to the president, they function as an impenetrable, inflexible gatekeeper. They only grant access to the CEO when it suits their personal agenda, won't work you into the CEO's calendar when you really need it, and actively withhold contact information when the CEO is traveling. Far from sharing tips that would help you be more successful with the CEO, they provide you as little information as possible, ignore or claim not to have received your e-mails, and "forget" to pass on your messages to the CEO.

Overtly snubbing those they don't like, they’re verbally abrupt with them, and thrive on worsening already inflammatory situations, creating opportunities to later claim martyrdom or victimization.

They express their personal opinions as being those of the CEO, and preface every refusal to help with the phrase: "Sorry but the CEO has me doing something urgent." Invoking the name of the CEO inflates urgencies, controls others, and justifies the inappropriate delegation of their own work to others

When briefing the CEO, they misrepresents what you say, and inflate the details of slightly strained interactions between the two of you till they're analogous to WW III. Using artful innuendo, they reveal your every mis-step to the CEO, and manage to convey negative information about any others who have earned his or her disfavor.

Sound familiar? If so, you can legitimately claim to be suffering from a truly infuriating but all too common malady. And while you may get lots of sympathy from your equally frustrated colleagues, don't expect any sympathy from the CEO. After all, just imagine yourself having a highly organized assistant - a master scheduler who can choreograph complex projects/processes/events, who ensures all facets of your travel are flawless, who is adroit at anticipating and handling your every mood and preference, and who somehow manages to make even your tiniest inconvenience disappear. Imagine an assistant who is available to work evenings and weekends, willing to bring work to your home, always deferential yet adept at engaging in sophisticated, good natured banter. Think of how wonderful it would be to have an assistant who is aggressive about protecting you; attentive to your every move; who is able to elicit from you a high level of trust, who is good at establishing a close relationship with your spouse and is flawlessly charming with your key constituents. That's probably a pretty accurate description of the quality of service your CEO is now receiving from this grumpy, grouchy, bilious bane of your existence.

Although it's true that you aren't likely to be successful in unseating the shrew, you aren't helpless. You do have options - it's just that spending time sputtering your outrage to your colleagues isn't one of them. Depending upon your current situation, below are seven choices for coping more effectively with the evil witch in your office.

You're new - but you've been there long enough to know the score:  In this case, stay clean; don't do anything to get on their bad side! 

You've screwed up and you're in the dog house: Grovel. It'll be worth it in the long run. Demonstrate contrition by eliciting his or her feedback on what you can do to be a better internal customer.

Your relationship with them is beginning to erode, but you're not sure what you've done to offend:  Engage - don't avoid! Schedule some time to talk things through. Don't make the conversation threatening; just have an honest discussion about what you're sensing. Be curious and interested.

You're clearly and irrevocably on their hit list:  Interact by e-mail only, ensuring your messages are indisputably professional. This will reduce the likelihood of inflammatory encounters, and will ensure you have documentation of every single communiqué.

You're so aggravated that you've been retaliating:  Sinking to their level are you? Stop it!  You'll make yourself even more vulnerable. One of the luxuries you have to give-up as a professional is the luxury of behaving the way you feel. So get a grip and behave in a way that you can be proud of when you look back on it.

You're a seasoned executive who isn't about to put up with this crap, but you don’t yet want to complain to the CEO:  Suggest a broadly focused, all-employee survey to reveal satisfaction levels on a variety of topics and to diagnose potential organizational vulnerabilities. Well-crafted assessment mechanisms always include a narrative section where, if hosted by a third party, your comments can be made with the assurance of anonymity. In several client organizations, such surveys revealed numerous complaints from many respondents about the CEO's assistant, resulting in a variety of types of remedial interventions.   

You and your colleagues have reached the point where you're about to commit homicideConfront the assistant as a group on a day when the CEO is out. Make it clear that no one has yet gone to the CEO, but that your complaints have been documented, and that you're all prepared to go to the CEO as a group if certain identified changes aren't made immediately and sustained on an on-going basis.

If your stomach was churning with resentment as you read some of these options because they weren't punitive enough, or if you just won't be satisfied by anything other than the termination of the evil witch, we all can empathize. But empathy, just like your resentment, won't get you anywhere. In situations like this, it's not about what's right or wrong - it's about what will actually be effective in the real world. If you can't subordinate your anger to the achievement of an effective solution, then you've become part of the problem, and have lost your right to complain.

Read other articles and learn more about Francie Dalton.

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