Hey everyone, you are listening to Author Hour, the show where we interview authors about their new books. My name is Charlie Hoehn and I am one of the hosts of Author Hour and today’s episode is with Jeremy Burrows. He is the author of The Leader Assistant. Now, Jeremy is a long-time executive assistant and the host of the number one podcast for assistants, The Leader Assistant Podcast. His passion is helping assistants and executives lead well without burning out.
Anybody who has been an executive assistant knows, it is hard to not burn out, it is hard to take care of yourself. If you are an assistant of any kind really, you can benefit tremendously from this episode. A bit more about Jeremy, he has worked with CEO’s, professional athletes, Fortune 100 board members, billionaires, pastors and their assistants, in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
He’s currently the executive assistant to the founder and CEO of Capacity, which is an AI SaaS company, and in this episode, he’s going to break down, the four pillars of a confident, game-changing assistant. Again, if you are an assistant, this is a must listen. It could save your job, it could save your career, it might even save your life. Now, here is our conversation with Jeremy Burrows.
Jeremy Burrows: I’m in Denver, Colorado right now, visiting my brother. The story that I start with in the book is a story of my two brothers and I and my Dad, hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. We hiked up Flat Top Mountain, across Hallett Peak, for those that are familiar with the peaks in Colorado. We get to this glacier called Andrew’s Glacier, and we had planned all along to cross this glacier.
We’d seen pictures online of people just kind of moseying across, just a bunch of snow-packed, thick snow, kind of walking across, maybe even like a ski resort terrain. We get there and mind you, it’s late August, we get there and there’s a sign that says, “Caution, do not, dangerous crossing,” or something like that.
We decided to cross it and about halfway across, we realize that, man, it’s late August, this is not snow-packed. This is more icy, and streams of water rolling down the ice, because it was so hot that it melts the snow during the day and it’d refreeze at night. We just realized, well, we’re not in a good spot right here. My dad stopped us for a second and said, “All right, I know we’re freaking out, our hands are wet and cold,” and we were having a hard time getting traction, “Let’s just say a quick prayer and keep going.” As soon as he got done saying the prayer, my brother slipped and fell probably 200 feet down the glacier.
He slid into a crevasse, a crack in the ice, and we couldn’t see him. We screamed for him and didn’t hear anything–honestly, we thought we’d lost him. Then we hear a faint, “Get me out of here!” a few minutes later. He had landed on this little ledge in the crevasse, and this guy we were with went down and helped him climb out, so we were all right, he’s safe, he’s alive, but we’re still in the middle of this glacier, and who is going to fall next?
If we do fall, are we going to be so lucky or are we going to fall further into the crevasse and freeze to death? Anyway, I all of a sudden thought, why did I get here, how did I get here, what was I thinking? I don’t have the right equipment, all the confidence I had, hiking up this mountain is gone. Where do I go now? I hated that feeling. Thankfully, we made it across and survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today, and this book never would have been written. Fast forward–that was when I was 16 years old–fast forward about I think another 12 or 16 years.
I was an executive assistant for a founder, I had been at that company for 12 years, and I’d been his PA for 6 years and then suddenly, he gets fired. I’m thinking okay, well, maybe this is time to move on. I’ve always wanted to start my own business, I’ve always thought about getting out of the nonprofit world into the for-profit world.
I sit down and I think, all right, let’s do this. I suddenly realized I had no network, no resume, no multiple streams of income. Essentially, I was like, how did I get here? I froze just like I had frozen on that glacier 16 years prior. I thought, what happened?
That process, I took a bunch of time off, and tried to figure it out. I realized that I was working under a rock for 6 to 8 years, and just wasn’t thinking about taking care of myself, wasn’t thinking about my network. Yeah, that’s kind of the turning point in my career, where I realized, “All right, this isn’t going to happen again. I’m going to make sure, just like when I was on that glacier, I’m going to make sure that I don’t get in a situation like this again.”
Charlie Hoehn: What happened after that? How did you go about systematically ensuring that wouldn’t happen again?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, I did what most people do when they’re in between jobs. I hopped on LinkedIn. That’s part of when I realized that I didn’t have a network, but I noticed that people were actually using LinkedIn and I thought wow, I didn’t know. I thought that was kind of like the ugly stepchild of social media that nobody uses, but it turned out that a lot of assistants especially were on it and using it. I started reaching out to assistants. I started searching ‘executive assistant’ on LinkedIn, and hitting the connect button, and hitting the add a note button, and literally saying, “Hey, I spent the first half of my career not connecting with other assistants, so I’m going to make up for lost time and going to try to connect. I’d love to connect.”
I did that over and over again. I decided I wanted to help executives and their assistants, so I started blogging about my experience as an assistant.
Charlie Hoehn: Let me pause you there Jeremy, did that work? Reaching out on LinkedIn? I mean, people blast each other on LinkedIn all the time, did that actually make a dent?
Jeremy Burrows: It did. It was quite surprising, to be honest, but I also felt like I was genuine about it. I wasn’t just saying, “Hey, connect with me.” I was saying, “Hey, I’m an EA, you’re an EA. I regret that I haven’t networked with other EA’s and so I’d love to change that and connect with you.” I think it kind of plucked at their heartstrings, if you will, to see that I’m not connecting with EAs either. It was kind of that trust of the peer-to-peer, it wasn’t like I was a salesperson who was trying to sell something to a CEO or whatever. I was just going peer-to-peer and say hey, let’s connect.
But it definitely worked. It took me a while to figure out the best rhythm, I guess, but I went from about 2,000 LinkedIn connections to about 20,000 LinkedIn followers. It definitely helped.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, on a professional level, did those interactions lead to long term relationships?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah. Several of the relationships have either been with other EA trainers that I now partner with, other EA advocates, and longtime EAs that even contributed portions to my book. It led to a lot of job offers, a lot of job opportunities, and speaking engagements in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Germany. I definitely initiated these relationships that I still have today and have cultivated.
Charlie Hoehn: Good for you. You know, there are so many people who blast out on LinkedIn and I get frustrated with it and it’s exactly because they do the opposite of what you did, which was be honest, vulnerable, not try and pitch, and be sincere.
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah. It’s what I tell EAs to do as well is listen, just reach out to other EAs, grab coffee with somebody in your town. You can literally search if you see a sign across the street from your office of a different company, type in that company in LinkedIn. Add a filter, ‘executive assistant title’ and boom. You’ll see five or ten assistants that work in the building across the street. Reach out to them and offer to buy them lunch or meet for coffee.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, you did LinkedIn, and you said you were doing some other things, like blogging. Of all the things that you were doing, what did you find to be the most effective at future-proofing yourself as an executive assistant?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, great question. I did some blogging, I did some new LinkedIn, I partnered with a lot of other people that had blogs or events and just tried to add value by speaking or doing teaching/training sessions.
As far as future-proofing, if you want to segue, we can talk a little bit about AI, because I currently work for an AI company. I’m still a fulltime EA, and we’re all about automation, and so I’m all about embracing automation and using our tool at capacity and also using other tools like Zapier, or automations in Google or Gmail.
The Four Pillars
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, that is a good segue into the book itself. You have these four pillars in the book that executive assistants need to have to do really well at their job. Pillar number one is embody the characteristics. Let’s talk about that one, and tell me about embody the characteristics?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, you know, you see a lot of blog posts if you’re an EA and you research, or even if you’re an executive looking for an EA, and trying to figure out what to look for in an assistant. You see a lot of blog posts and articles, and resources that say, here are the top 11 characteristics that an assistant should have, or here are the seven rock star assistant qualities.
On one hand, I think those lists are great, I think they’re helpful. So, what I did was an essential characteristics list in the book to start this pillar, but what I really tried to do is focus on these next level characteristics, or what I called game-changing characteristics. I have five of them in the book and again, I feel like they separate the kind of standard, if you will, assistants from the assistants who lead and really see themselves as a leader in their role.
Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the game-changing characteristics?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, one of them would be future proof. I think that this is a part of embracing automation, and cultivating your emotional intelligence, all that kind of falls under the future proof characteristic.
Another one is discerning. So, that’s kind of a little bit of anticipating, and reading your executive’s mind, but it’s also a little bit of making the right call, even when there’s maybe not all the information that you would like to have. So, there’s having good discernment.
Then my favorite, the biggest game-changing characteristic pair, is humility and confidence. I talk about in the book a little bit about this idea of humble confidence.
I think that true leader assistants embody humility and confidence, and they complement each other and they don’t fight against each other. You’re not prideful, you’re humble, but you’re also not a steppingstone for other people, or a doormat for other people to walk over.
Charlie Hoehn: 100%. As I was saying to you before we started recording, the reason I was really excited to talk to you about your book is because I was effectively in an executive assistant role for three years myself, and some of these things as I was reading through, I did that pretty well and many of them I’m thought that I could have done that better.
Future proof really stands out to me as one that I didn’t even think about until the very end of my role, which is how much of this can be automated, how much of my brain and my processes can be made into a machine that runs without me, indefinitely into the future. Is that what you mean by future proof?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, that’s half of it. Half of it is how much can you automate so that you can focus on things that add more value, like strategic thinking, and creative problem-solving. But half of it also is the emotional intelligence side. It ties together, that’s why I kept it under one characteristic. Basically, the short way to say it is to be more human, and to really embrace and develop your human skills. The things that you do that can be automated, you know, those repetitive processes and tasks that you do that can be automated are definitely not going to future proof yourself.
Charlie Hoehn: Future proof your job, you mean, right?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, future proof your job, but really, your career. If you see yourself as wanting to be a senior executive assistant at a Fortune 100 company. Or you would work your way up and be a chief of staff or director administration, whatever it is, especially with this world we’re living in with coronavirus and companies having to cut costs. They’re going to really look at, what are the tools they can bring on to take over these tasks that we’re paying people to do? The more tasks and the more emotional intelligence you can employ at your job, the more future proof you’ll be.
Charlie Hoehn: I love it. Let’s go on to pillar 2. Now, this is where you cover the tactics, the actual nitty-gritty of the job of an executive assistant. Stuff like time management, task and interruption management, calendars, meetings, emails, travel, all of these things that add up to the day-to-day. Which of these is your favorite to talk about? Which is one that you really like to geek out on?
Jeremy Burrows: That’s a great question. I think the overall theme is that the tools you use don’t matter if the tactics you employ are flawed. I really focus on tactics and not so much on tools. As far as which one, I really like calendar. I really think that is the root or the first thing that you can do as a leader assistant, is to really take that ownership of your executive’s calendar. I talk about this concept called the ideal week calendar, or the focus blocks, or the time blocks.
The idea is that you proactively manage your executive’s calendar instead of reacting to every little request that comes on and saying, “All right, I’ll put it here. I will fit it here, I’ll fit it here.” You can set up these guard rails to schedule meetings. That is probably one of my favorites because most assistants, if not all, schedule meetings for their executives and they think that it is just one of these like, “Oh computer can do this,” and yes, the computer can help with a lot of that, and a lot of automation is coming in that world and it is already happened.
But to really step back and set up an ideal week for your executive, and then set up the tools that you use to match that ideal week, is what separates assistants from the pack.
Charlie Hoehn: I love that. So, you touched on that a lot of executive assistants do this the wrong way and may not even realize it. No one has ever taught them how to set up the ideal week for the executive. What are some of the most common mistakes that you see executive assistants making that are hurting their job or even putting them in danger of losing it?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, I think not saying no is probably the biggest. So, feeling like you don’t have the power or the authority to push back and say no–whether it is to your executive or on behalf of your executive–I think that gets a lot of assistants in trouble because they just let people keep giving them tasks or they let their executive just do what they want. There’s a lot of different issues that come with not being able to confidently pushback and say no.
Charlie Hoehn: Yes, I know multiple executives actually who’ve started the process of writing a book about the power of saying no and they abandon ship. They said no to the project eventually, but I digress. So, pillar number 3 is engage in relationships. So, is this is networking or what does this entail?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, it is a little bit or a lot of networking. It’s also talking through the relationship with your executive. A lot of assistants have executives who micromanage, or who are resistant to the ways that the assistant is trying to lead them. So, I try to work through that and help them walk through that.
Really, I talk about this idea, this experience that assistants, myself included, that is called the dehumanization of assistants. It is this idea that a lot of the time coworkers, even friends and acquaintances, they show that they care about you and they show that they seemingly want to be your friend, but you find out later that they really just wanted to get close to your executive. I know you work with a higher profile executive, so I am sure you had experiences like that where you thought, “Oh, this person is interested,” and then you find out they just wanted something from your boss.
Charlie Hoehn: Correct, yes.
Jeremy Burrows: So, I talk through that and help assistants process that, and just name it really. Honestly, I think self-awareness and naming it is a big step.
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s dive into that a little bit because for me that was something I didn’t realize until much later on. You know, I grew up around people and there weren’t a lot of two-faced people around. I was blissfully naïve thinking that people were just super kind and then as soon as my role ended, I didn’t hear from them again. So, talk to me about how you even spot that kind of behavior when you are an assistant?
Jeremy Burrows: Well, I think that you hit the nail on the head right there. I didn’t even spot it until after I’d left my last role and realized how many people kind of disappeared. That’s why I wrote about it because I wanted assistants that haven’t seen it to really just consider and ask themselves questions. I’ll step back and say that I don’t want this to be an encouragement to never trust anyone. I think that’s probably unhealthy.
But I do think that being aware of it and, like you said, about being blissfully naïve. I want to help assistants really be aware of what is going on and the different dynamics. Once you are aware of it, you can start working through it and processing it and not taking it personally, things like that.
Charlie Hoehn: Yes, excellent. So, pillar number four was ultimately my personal downfall, which is exercise self-care. So, I will speak for myself, I became so one with my job I guess in wanting to do such a phenomenal job and got addicted to the cortisol rush, and the excitement of, frankly, working on big interesting things with interesting great people. What came with that was using stimulants to work harder and be more productive, and not taking care of myself. Not really listening to my body’s pleas for self-care. Talk to me about these stressors and signs, this burnout creep that a lot of executive assistants deal with?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, so just even sharing your story I think the issue is that burnout creeps up on us. It is not like we wake up one day and decide that hey, I am going to start working my way towards burnout. What happens is we wake up one day and say, “Wait, what is going on with me?” It is creeping up and you realize, “Oh, I am running too fast, I am running too hard. I haven’t taken a vacation in two years, where I actually took a vacation and turned my phone off.” It just creeps up on you.
What I try to do is share a little bit of the story of my burnout, and how I got there and, through hindsight, how I see why I burned out. Then I talk about the stressors–these things that keep you from or kind of pre-occupy your mind and really drive you towards burnout. You may not be burned out yet, but one of the stressors, I call it a mismatch with your executive, and there are different types of mismatches.
One of them, as an example, is a passion mismatch. So this might be, for example, you started off the job, and you are really passionate about working for this executive, you really were passionate about the mission of the company and the organization, and six months later or six years later, you realize that you are not passionate about it anymore. There could be different reasons why that is the case, but that could be stressing you out because you’re working so hard. You are taking care of this executive and supporting this organization that you don’t really believe in anymore. That can be one of those stressors that drives you to burnout.
Charlie Hoehn: Man, that really resonates, and that’s all I’ll say about that. It deeply resonates. That’s really cool. How did you get yourself out of burnout? What were the few big antidotes that helped you get out?
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, great question. I think initially what happened was my executive got fired. So, it shined a light on what I was doing, where I was going, what was next, and made me step back and take a break and figure out what is going on. I kind of knew I was burning out, but I saw more of why or how. My wife was kind enough to be gentle in pointing out where it was that I was really burned out. She saw it a lot sooner than I did and tried to tell me, but I didn’t listen.
One of the antidotes is honestly just setting boundaries and taking time off. So, one of the things I did with my current executive when we first started working together, I said, “Listen, I am going to work my tail off supporting you. I believe what we are up to, and I believe what you are doing, and I am happy to do whatever I can. But, if you want this to be a long-term sustainable working partnership, I am going to need consistent time off. I am going to need consistent time every weekend where I don’t have my phone on, or I don’t have to be concerned that you are going to text me or call me and want me to do something that could have waited until Monday.”
We set up these boundaries and he takes a 24 hour straight no email, no Slack, no phone, break every weekend. His wife likes to joke and say, “You know, you’re really awesome. You really help with anything and everything. You don’t really care what it is, you’re happy to help as long as it is not on Sunday, right?” and I’m like, “Yeah, pretty much.” She says, “You’ll do anything, just don’t call me on Sundays is your motto,” and I’m like, “Yeah, pretty much.” So that was the antidote.
Charlie Hoehn: The thing that I really took notice of there, is you have the double opt-in, right? It wasn’t just the assistant asking for time off. It was both sides saying, “Look, we both need to do this if we want to preserve this relationship ongoing.”
Jeremy Burrows: Right, exactly. That is part of the whole idea of the book. It’s called The Leader’s Assistant, so the idea is that the assistant sees himself as a leader, the executive sees the assistant as a leader, but really the idea is that you’re leading your executive, and you want your executive to accomplish their goals without burning out and so that’s what a leader assistant does, day-in and day-out.
Charlie Hoehn: Do you know if Elon Musk has one of these executive assistants? Because he always seems to be on the verge of burnout.
Jeremy Burrows: You know it’s funny, I’m pretty sure I included it in the book, but I read an article in the New York Times a couple of years ago, about how Elon Musk at the time apparently hadn’t taken a week off in like, I don’t remember what was, like 12 years or something stupid. It was because he had malaria or something, that was the only reason he had that time off. I say, “Don’t be like Elon.” The point of the article, and I am pretty sure I talk about it in the book, but the idea is that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
A guy like Elon feels all of this pressure and he’s driven, he’s smart, and he has all of these great ideas, and has these companies that are successful, but I think that a guy like him can be tempted to believe that the world revolves around him. That means he can’t take a two-week vacation, or log off for a few days because he thinks everything is going to fall apart. That is what assistants do too.
We feel like I can’t go on vacation because it is just going to be more work for me when I get back. I say, well it might be, but if you lead instead of just reacting and doing whatever comes across your desk as it comes, you can actually set up systems and processes, so that then you can take a vacation and come back and not be overloaded, but also so that when you are gone, your executive and team is supported by the tools or the AI bot that you set up while you are on vacation, etcetera.
Charlie Hoehn: Man, I love it and, again, I cannot emphasize how much a book like this would have helped me and the executive I worked with, not just for us and our working relationship but for the people that we served. The people that we were impacting with our work. It could have made a huge difference.
I’m friends with the former executive assistant of a Fortune 10 company and she had all of these issues too. She had a doctor tell her that her reproductive organs were shutting down, and she was in her early 30s. It was because the job was so stressful. So, this can truly be a lifesaving book, and I just really want to tip my hat again to you for putting it together. It is an important resource and one that I don’t think gets enough attention for the people who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting behind the scenes.
Jeremy Burrows: Yeah, thanks, Charlie. I appreciate it and I am excited to get it out into the world and help as many assistants and executives as possible.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, so beyond Amazon and where they can buy the book, are there any other links or places you’d like to send listeners to that they can check out your work and follow you?
Jeremy Burrows: Yes, so as far as the book is concerned, you can download the first three chapters for free on leaderassistantbook.com and there are also some resources there and info on just exploring more of the topic further. I host a podcast, The Leader Assistant Podcast. You can find that on obviously Apple Podcasts, or Stitcher, or Spotify, or you can find it at leaderassistant.com/podcast. In general, reach out to me at leaderassistant.com and I would love to hear from you and help however I can.
Charlie Hoehn: Excellent. The book is The Leader Assistant. You can grab it on Amazon and check out the links that Jeremy just said. Jeremy, thank you so much for being on Author Hour.
Jeremy Burrows: Thanks Charlie, it’s been fun.