When the EA - principal relationship goes wrong

June 27, 2023
Personal Growth

About 6 months ago, I was seriously contemplating whether to continue as an Executive Assistant. My role had transformed so much that it was hardly recognisable as the traditional EA position. Managing agendas and emails now accounted for less than 25% of my day-to-day, replaced by HR responsibilities, never-ending discussions with PROs, designing processes and handbooks, and all manner of other operational responsibilities. I could sense my previous passion for being an EA slipping away. I began to doubt my abilities, and even basic agenda management started feeling unfamiliar. The only aspect of being an EA that I felt confident in was organising fortnight-long management meetings, and even that felt challenging.

Gradually, my self-assurance dwindled, and I found myself discussing my concerns with close friends, relying on their valued friendship to navigate through the increasing uncertainty. After nearly a decade of identifying as an EA, it didn't seem overly dramatic to call it an identity crisis. Fast forward to today, I'm in a new role, in a completely different environment, and those feelings have largely faded away. The imposter syndrome still lingers, but to a lesser extent, and I can feel my passion returning.

I’ve found myself trying to analyse exactly what happened, to understand where the crisis came from, and what I can put in place to mitigate against it happening it again. I put it down to three main factors -

  1. The vocational nature of the EA role
  2. The indisputable power of the EA-principal relationship
  3. The environment

I think as assistants we can all agree that our role is somewhat peculiar, when you really think about it. The power we hold is mostly soft, and any authority we have is borrowed from our principal until we earn it. Our time is never truly our own. Many of us stumbled into this profession, driven by our affinity for order, service, and genuine curiosity. While it may not be a vocation in the traditional sense like teaching or healthcare, I would argue that being an assistant fits the mould. We are in a service role that demands a significant level of dedication to our craft and our principals. This level of involvement can cause us to lose ourselves in the role, making it an integral part of our identity. As a result, we may not always have the awareness to recognise that something is wrong until it reaches a critical point. In my case, this manifested as unintentional weight loss, a lack of desire to contribute to the EA community because I felt I had nothing valuable to offer, and, if I'm being completely honest with myself, engaging in more busywork than I care to admit.

As EAs, we hold a privileged position. We are part of a close circle of confidants, acting as bridges between different teams and between those teams and the principal. This is the aspect of the role I love the most—the knowledge that I'm making a positive impact on a broader scale. However, it's also a double-edged sword. Depending on the level of seniority, you can feel quite isolated, being part of the team yet slightly separate. That's why the relationship with your principal is crucial. When it's strong and healthy, the relationship anchors you to the role and provides the positive reinforcement you need to overcome any challenges. The breakdown of this relationship can be heart-wrenching, leaving you questioning yourself: Is it my fault? When did I start failing? Why don't they like or trust me? It took me a long time to accept that, no matter how hard you try, not all assistant-principal relationships can be salvaged.

Finally, there's the work environment. Personally, I consider myself to be an introverted extrovert. I highly value my quiet time and routines, but I also crave human interaction and derive a lot of my professional energy from being around people; I firmly believe in the importance of having a support system at work. Working for a remote-first company meant two things: most interactions with colleagues occurred through Slack and video calls, and my relationship with my principal became almost artificially developed. It wasn't until I had them physically present again that I realized how much I had missed the informal interactions throughout the day: popping into their office for a quick answer instead of sending multiple Slack messages, casually chatting while grabbing another coffee, sharing a laugh at something absurd. More to the point, I can safely say now that I just wasn’t a fit for the company, whether that be its culture or its aspirations. Looking back, I realize that even if the role had become more hybrid or office-based, it wouldn't have resolved the underlying issue that the environment, in the broadest sense of the term, simply wasn't right for me.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and in retrospect, there are numerous things I would have done differently. However, I firmly believe that every experience teaches us something, regardless of whether it's positive or negative.

So, what can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation, plagued by serious and persistent doubts about your role, abilities, and future? First and foremost, check in with yourself. This can take various forms, such as going for a walk to clear your head, jotting down your feelings, or tracking your emotions. Secondly, analyse how you spend your days. Have you gradually slipped into busywork or taken on responsibilities that you can't quite explain? Do you find your work fulfilling, and if not, why? Thirdly, verbalise your concerns. Confide in a friend, regardless of whether they're in the same industry, or seek advice from a mentor. The decision is then up to you: what should your next step be? For some it might be a career pivot, for others it might be a frank conversation with your principal about how you’re feeling, for others (like me) a complete change of company, sector and environment might be the only way forward. No matter what you decide, remember that it's okay to feel a little lost and that that feeling won't last forever

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