Executive assistant reveals CEO’s most impactful relationship


The partnership between a CEO and their assistant is one of the most important they’ll have in their role, directly contributing to a CEO’s success.
A strong assistant reduces noise through building trusted advisor status across an organisation | Image source: Getty Images

As an executive assistant to the most senior leaders in business, I had a front row seat at every moment that mattered.

I saw what went well, the room for improvement, the tactics and strategies for the best results and the common problems that tripped everyone up.

Relationships were always central to this.

This is what I learned in my career that every CEO should know:

The relationship between a CEO and Board has far-reaching impact. I was privy to many unhealthy dynamics over the years and saw how frustration cascaded to the executive team and beyond. The period leading into board meetings are notoriously tense everywhere. There’s pressure to balance business as usual with producing quality content that provides comfort and trust.  When it misses the mark, angst follows.

To avoid this CEOs, need to be clear on what matters most to the Board, and the moments between Board meetings are where this often occurs, 1:1 time with the Chair.

This is the time to understand what’s keeping the Board awake at night, their concerns about burning platforms or the way issues are being managed and then articulate this to senior leaders. There’s always tension between how much can be shared beyond the CEO. Chair relationship and what needs to be held close, but being as transparent as appropriate through board debrief meetings or circulating key takeaways is one way to help leaders understand where they need to elevate and reduce pain.

The behaviours around an executive table shape organisation culture. Healthy executive teams balance robust discussion and challenge with mutual respect. Shutting down toxic behaviour in the executive team sends a message about what is valued culturally. 

Part of this is not entertaining backdoor campaigning, where alignment is agreed in a meeting then individuals trying to reverse the outcome behind closed doors.  

There’s a fine line between hearing the perspective or experience of an individual and indulging this behaviour. It contributes to toxic, dysfunctional environments and I saw degrees of this nearly everywhere I worked.  There’s a lot of reasons why it happens. It may not feel like a safe environment to speak up or perhaps there are toxic high performers who are ‘protected species’ within the team. It is important to prioritise bringing executive teams together regularly to understand each other and how to function as a healthy, high performing team. It’s time out of the business well spent.

The partnership between a CEO and their assistant is one of the most important they’ll have in their role, directly contributing to a CEO’s success.

A strong assistant reduces noise through building trusted advisor status across an organisation, being a sounding board, advising, guiding and redirecting, allowing a CEO’s focus to remain where it’s needed most.  

They also see the things a CEO doesn’t. I was often asked to join meetings as eyes and ears for a CEO.  When engrossed in discussion it’s easy to miss the almost imperceptible shifts in expressions or body language that signal a message hasn’t landed well. A great EA is tuned into the unsaid, what a CEO needs to be aware of, who they need to check in with, what may not have been the full truth in the moment.

There are very few people in an organisation that will be comfortable telling a CEO truthfully what everyone else is avoiding. I saw this often in my career, even with the most accessible and approachable CEOs and it had disastrous consequences on a number of occasions.

It’s not enough to claim the door is always open, it has to be backed in the way a CEO shows up. The questions they ask, how they listen. The way they respond to challenges in a meeting is noted and signals whether it’s safe for others to do the same in appropriate moments.   

Talking about what didn’t go well as often as what did, and through a lens of seeing it as a learning opportunity rather than blame sends a message that it’s culturally safe to speak up and helps create a no surprises culture where problems and risk are bubbled up before they become serious. 

I worked through several corporate crises and I saw the benefit of the CEO’s investment in future proofing through prioritising external relationships. Actively maintaining open lines of communication with regulators, peak bodies and associations makes a difference when something has failed. Having already established the rapport, credibility and trust creates much needed breathing space or helps get off-the-record direction. 

Overall, I observed that the effectiveness of relationship management is as much to do with the unsaid as the obvious, this is why having space to regularly strategically review relationships and re-prioritise accordingly will set a CEO up for success now and into the future. 

Rachael Bonetti is the founder of Elevating Corporate Support.