On Clarity and Accountability in the Assistant Role

“Someone needs to take the trash out.”

I made the mistake of making this statement quite a few times in my marriage. That is until one day my husband said, “If you want me to take the trash out, ask me to take the trash out. But don’t make a statement like that and expect me to act. You’re ‘someone’ too, ya know?”

Whelp. I learned my lesson that day.

A statement like that mine is passive aggressive. Why didn’t I just clearly ask for what I wanted? Maybe I thought that if I asked, he would say no. But if I was passive about it, then he could infer what I wanted and then just do it. And if he didn’t then I had every right to be angry.

That’s a terrible way to communicate!

Once I learned how to ask, I also had to learn to put a timeframe on it. My husband accused me of asking for something, but the unstated expectation was that he would drop everything and do it now. And he knows that to be true because if it wasn’t done in five minutes, I would go looking for him to ask again and this time I would be grumpy.

I didn’t even realize I wanted it done in five minutes until he pointed it out to me. Whoops!

OK, now I’ve learned to ask for what I want, and to state my expectations. So now my requests sound like, “Could you please take the trash out before you get in the shower this morning?”

Accountability is also built into the request, isn’t it? I’m going to check if the trash was taken out when I hear the shower running.

Now think about how your leader makes requests. Are their expectations clear? Do you know how you’ll be held accountable?

If you’re not clear on what your leader expects, it’s up to you to ask the questions that will give you clarity. If you’re not sure how you will be held accountable to the outcome of the expectation, it’s up to you to state how you’d like to be held accountable.

Here is a classic illustration from Stephen R. Covey, author of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This story made such an impression on Covey’s son, Stephen M. R. Covey, that his son included it in his own book, Trust & Inspire: How Truly Great Leaders Unleash Greatness in Others.

While watching the video, see if you can identify Covey’s expectations and what his accountability looks like.

Now let’s broaden our thinking a little by taking a look at Steven M. R. Covey’s Five Elements of a Stewardship Agreement.

He first defines stewardship: “Stewardship agreements become the Trust & Inspire tool or methodology to clarify expectations and practice accountability between people involved in any interdependent endeavor. The purpose of a stewardship agreement is to get results in a way that grows people.”

Essentially, it’s a “this is how we do things here” agreement between two parties. Namely you and your leader.

On to the five elements.

Clarify Expectations
1. Desired Results – What do we want to accomplish—and why?
2. Guidelines – Within what boundaries?
3. Resources – What do we have to work with?

Practice Accountability
4. Accountability – How will we know how we’re doing?
5. Consequences – What are the implications if we do or don’t achieve the desired results?

In the context of “green and clean,” the desired result was a green and clean lawn. For the guidelines, Covey demonstrated to his son exactly what green and clean looked like. As for resources, Covey was willing to work with his son if he had time. Otherwise, it was up to his son to accomplish alone. They agreed that they would walk the lawn together twice a week for accountability. 

As for consequences, Stephen M. R. Covey says, “I felt trusted. I felt trusted by someone important to me—my dad. Because I felt trusted, I did not want to let my dad down. I was too young to care about money or status or appearance. But I did care about my dad, so being trusted by him was very inspiring to me. I responded to his trust in me, and I took care of the yard. It was green and clean.”

Finally, let’s translate of this into a request you might receive from your leader.

As a side note, assistants will often tell me their leaders get lots of ideas from attending conferences or classes on their own and then come back to their assistant saying things like, “We need to start a YouTube channel,” and “I want you to plan a client event.” Yikes!

Now that you have the stewardship agreement framework, you can establish expectations and accountability for these requests.

In the case of starting a YouTube channel, let’s go through all five steps:
1. Desired Results – Starting a YouTube channel is the easy part. Getting content onto the channel is the challenge. What then, are the milestones? Setting up the channel? Uploading 10 videos in the next 30 days? Aiming for 100 subscribers in the first 90 days? What’s important to us about these things?
2. Guidelines – How long do the videos have to be? What kind of content will we post and what will we not post? How often? Ultimately, who’s responsible for making sure everything goes as planned?
3. Resources – What equipment is needed? Who can help us? How much money would we need to spend and on what?
4. Accountability – Will we review the stats once a week? How will we gauge how well we’re doing? Number of views? Number of subscribers?
5. Consequences – What will happen if we do all of this? What will happen if we don’t?

I hope this is all starting to come together for you. Your leader may not naturally be able to lead you through all these steps. That’s why it’s up to you to lead them.

Oh, and one last piece of advice from me. Never let your leader skip this. Do not accept a request from your leader without defining these things. The consequence is broken trust, disappointment, and at the extreme, resentment.

I hope this inspires you to improve your relationship with your leader and get the kind of results that you can both be proud of!

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