When (and How) to Say No as an Executive Assistant
tl;dr: Even the best EA's can't do everything for everyone, so sometimes the key to success is learning how to say no.
Employers expect every employee to have a can-do, “yes” attitude. That goes double for executives and their assistants. But even the greatest EA of all time can’t fit in everything. Or work on everything on their to-do list at the same time. The key to success (or, dare we say, survival), is learning when to say no. And how to do it with finesse.
It’s not easy.
Jan Jones, author and speaker on the art of becoming a “peerless, high-performance” executive assistant, says “no” is not necessarily a smart business practice. You don’t want to be seen as uncooperative or “difficult,” because that could damage rapport with your co-workers or even cost you your job. On the other hand, you can’t afford to become a doormat because your #1 priority is getting things done that support your boss in their job. You are the Executive Assistant, after all.
You not only Get Things Done, you manage to do it all with an air of unflustered composure. (How do you do that?) The ability to remain calm, flexible, productive, and positive despite your always-busy schedule is one of the main reasons you’re such a great EA.
Ironically, the better you are at your job, the more likely you’ll be asked to over-extend. So let’s be clear, here. It is OK, and sometimes even necessary, to say no, if that’s the best alternative for you and your work priorities.
When it’s right to say no . . . or at least push back
You are a master juggler because that’s your job. But not every EA’s job description is the same. For some, you are strictly assigned to one person, perhaps the CEO. Everything you do directly supports their work. In other cases, though, EAs are expected to step in to help with different projects, to head up committees, and so on. But when your open-ended job description leaves you spread too thin, that’s a problem.
Whether you assist one or several individuals, every EA knows the frustrations of:
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Unclear assignments
- Conflicting priorities
- Last-minute emergencies
- Mission creep
Do you have to say no outright? Perhaps you can find a compromise that allows you to say yes without sacrificing your priorities or sanity. If you cannot accomplish the task by the requested deadline, you could:
- Ask for more time
- Ask if you can divide up the work with a series of deadlines
- Ask what current “priority” you should set aside to handle this new request
You may be adept at setting your own priorities and juggling them as needed, but especially if you work for more than one exec — or your job requires you to assist other co-workers – someone has to decide what the order of work should be. If multiple execs all claim priority right now, ask them to prioritize among themselves and let you know which task to tackle first. If they don’t, use your best judgment and, if necessary, explain your decision later.
Things come up. That’s why flexibility is the guiding principle of your daily work. Nonetheless, last-minute requests are often the result of someone else’s poor planning, not a true emergency. If last-minute requests are a chronic problem, it’s time for a talk with your boss. Explain that every time you have to drop what you’re doing, that task suffers – and might not get done on time. You’re happy to stay late when it’s really necessary, but it’s not fair to you and your family to make it a regular routine. Ask how you can help with daily planning to alleviate last-minute issues.
Your life matters, too. And so does your career. The fact is, you cannot do your job well if you’re allowing others to manage your time. That goes for your boss, as well as anyone else.
That said, there is a potential upside to having an open-ended job description, in that expanding your role into new areas could lead to new official responsibilities. Learning more about other aspects of the company, and showing your great skills and willing attitude to more people can help you grow professionally.
Let them down as gently as possible
If you must say no, you can do that outright. You aren’t obligated to explain why. However, there are ways to decline politely, but assertively, an, at the same time, re-train people on how and when to approach you in the future. Say things like:
- I can’t help right now, but if you give me more notice next time, I’m in.
- I know you need to get that done, and I would love to help you, but I’m already in a crunch to finish this project for my boss.
- I’d be happy to help you with that if we can schedule it for next Tuesday.
- I’m sorry, but my daughter is in the school play this evening, and there’s no way I can stay late.
Can you ask someone else to help? Some EAs have authority to delegate, and if that’s you, delegation is an essential skill you should work to perfect. If that’s not you, co-workers may be willing to step up for you just as you do for them on occasion.
Ask your executive for help. If you feel overwhelmed by extraneous requests for help beyond your job description, track how much time that’s eating up each week. Then enlist your boss’s support in saying no when necessary. Ask them to send out a memo, if that will help.
If you can reasonably squeeze in one more thing, it’s best to agree. If you can’t say yes, is there a compromise or other alternative you can agree on? If not, then hold your chin up, square those shoulders, and say no. Be nice, but be firm.
After all, you already have an important job to do.