Helping executive assistants break through the limitations of their role and advance to their next level with confidence

Kate Minogue, Executive Assistant Career Strategist
Executive Assistant Career Strategist

My Biggest Mistake as an Executive Assistant

My biggest mistake as an executive assistant came within my first year of joining a global pharmaceutical company. Here’s a story of a hard lesson I learned that ended up being a blessing.

The blunder wasn’t a technical error, but rather a faulty response in my soft skills when a problem arose.

It was an ego-bruising lesson in ownership that I’m grateful for. What I learned that day has infused my approach to every snafu I’ve encountered in my professional career in the 11 years since!

My “Oh Shit” Moment

I was tasked by Phil, my group’s Head of Operations, to make arrangements with Facilities to begin repurposing a space for a temporary lab location. I reached out, made contact, got permissions, and thought all was locked and loaded. Job done, right?

But the approval I’d gotten was overturned by a more senior manager, and somehow this wasn’t communicated to us. The project start date came and nothing had happened. We had a problem on our hands.

I went in to complain to Phil about the situation, and see what to do next. But he wasn’t particularly sympathetic. In fact, if I wasn’t mistaken, he actually seemed frustrated with ME. Huh?

From across his desk, he looked me in the eye and asked what I was doing about it.

I gaped at him. “But Phil, that wasn’t my fault!” I protested.

He was quiet for a moment, considering me.

“Now look, Kate. I honestly don’t care if it was your fault or not. It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. We have a situation on our hands and it needs to be taken care of.”

Now, that was embarrassing. But it was about to get worse, as he continued:

“Now if it had been Rianna here, she would have already been on the phone busting heads and figuring out how to solve the problem. So don’t come in here and complain that it’s not your fault. Show me that you’re going to do something about this.”

An Unfavorable Comparison

Ouch!! Rianna was my predecessor – the executive assistant I’d replaced a few months previously. Rianna was a star and everyone loved her. When she was training me, every time she introduced me to someone they’d smile and say, “Wow, big shoes to fill!”

The unfavorable comparison to her really stung. But it was a gift in disguise. As soon as I heard it, I knew Phil had a point. And he’d made it in a way I was surely going to remember.

I wasn’t being a problem solver in that moment. Things had gone awry on a project I’d owned.  And here I was making it someone else’s problem to fix, and whining about the responsibility.

I slunk back to my cubicle with my wounded pride and began to think about how get the the project back on track, rather than convincing someone it wasn’t my fault.

Basic Instinct

When something goes off the rails and it wasn’t your fault, it’s perfectly natural to want people to understand when you didn’t cause the problem. Our human instinct is to assume that if people understand we’re not to blame, then nothing bad will happen to us.

The self-preservation instinct is extremely powerful. It can kick in lightning fast, before you’ve even had time to process what you’re feeling.

To add to any natural tendency to defend, Executive Assistants tend to be a perfectionistic bunch of people by nature. We put a lot of energy into doing things correctly so that lives of our bosses and our team run smoothly. It’s a matter of pride.

But when things go wrong, what people care the most about in the moment is not who screwed something up. They care about finding a solution to the problem, ASAP. “How did this happen?” can be answered later.

What Phil taught me that day was that when something went wrong, I needed to tame my instinct to defend myself and instead default to “What can I do to fix this?”

Disarming Your Defense

It’s so easy to go on automatic pilot when your instincts kick in. But if you can catch yourself when you start to feel defensive, you can choose your response carefully, instead of acting instantly and without thought.

When your boss or other team member approaches you about something that went wrong, try saying this:

“Let’s find a time to talk later about how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on getting this sorted out.”

When things go wrong – whether or not they’re my fault – here’s a little mantra I use to remind myself of the response I’d like to choose:

When things blow up, I step up.

If you feel the urge to get into a detailed explanation of why something’s gone wrong, take a deep breath. Trust in the reputation you’ve built so far. Then turn your focus instead on how you can serve your team by fixing the problem.

Ironically, as an executive assistant, a snafu can actually be one of your best opportunities to shine.

Instead of looking for ways to prove that you were innocent, look for ways to take MORE responsibility for what happened. Where could you have double checked? Dropped by to have a face-to-face conversation with a collaborator to make sure everything was on track?

Things are bound to go wrong occasionally, whether or not it’s your fault. So what can really separate you from the crowd is the way you respond.

The Beauty of Ownership

Taking responsibility for something that may not have been your fault is directly counter to the self-preservation instinct to prove your blamelessness.

But consistently taking ownership is one of the key ways you can show your boss and your team that you’re already playing at a higher level. No, ma’am, you’re not just about covering your ass. You’re someone who’s willing to put her ass on the line to ensure that things go smoothly, that problems get fixed, and ready to take responsibility instead of putting it on others.

In other words, the beauty of ownership is that it’s an opportunity for leadership.

And if you consistently show up as a leader in your role every day, doors WILL open for you.

Practice Makes Palatable

It can be SO tempting to want to immediately offer an explanation. Even all these years later, I still have to work at taming my defenses when things go wrong. Catching defensiveness and responding from a different place is a practice for a lifetime.

But with practice, it does get easier – and it even becomes palatable. It leaves a great taste in your mouth to courageously step up, own your mistakes, and own the solutions to problems regardless of the source.

Say it with me: when things blow up, I step up.

As an executive assistant, how do you deal with defensiveness?

How do you notice people responding to you when you defend yourself, versus taking ownership?

When was a time that you decided to take ownership – of your own mistake, or a problem you didn’t cause?

I’d love to hear about your experience. And if you found this article helpful, please share it with other executive assistants!


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