Lee Anne Fischl was my Executive Assistant and then Chief of Staff at RevZilla from 2011 through my operational departure in 2017. She was a force multiplier who added tremendous value to my work, other team members’ work and the company at large. She has since taken a new role as the right hand of another executive leader, but still works with me here and there. She also graciously offers her time and insight to other execs and EAs in an effort to help them unlock higher levels of productivity together.
She was open to the idea of me making some editor’s note-style comments inline, which illustrate my perspective from the other side of the table. Read them as you go, or read her portion first and then go back and read my italicized comments.
Guest Post By Lee Anne Fischl
Over the years, I have read many articles with tips for CEOs and leaders on how to be more productive and how to work smarter. The one thing that is missing from 99% of these articles is hiring a killer right-hand person and working with them in a way that maximizes their impact. Anthony and I turned our working style into an art form and it did more to accelerate his workflow and increase his bandwidth than any other productivity hack I have ever read about.
I once sat down and figured out that I was taking about two full days of work off Anthony’s plate each week. And I am not talking about scheduling meetings and booking travel – I am talking about operational Co-founder/CEO work that was foundational to running a successful business. I am talking about prepping important work so that he could step in only at the point that decisions needed to be made or strategies formulated. I am talking about meetings that were taken off his schedule and put onto mine. I am talking about taking the outline of an idea he had and doing a proof-of-concept and fleshing out the process before passing the work back over to him. My work also allowed him to easily launch into his most valuable focus work more regularly by reducing or eliminating time spent filtering, prioritizing and prepping the daily frayed edge of things on his plate.
The way we worked allowed him to focus on the most important, most meaningful tasks in the most efficient way every day. It allowed him to increase his reach and expedite his workflow so he accomplished more while still feeling responsive to his direct reports and the business. And while we did a lot of juggling, only a very few balls were dropped in our years working together.
AB – First, someone like Lee Anne is a game changer as soon as you can afford them. Lee Anne was RevZilla employee 26 in 2011 and she took a step back in compensation to work with us because we seemed like a mix of fun, upside and challenge. We were at about a $17M run rate and growing quickly at the time of hire, but the truth is if I had known the value she would bring, I could have brought her in as much as 18 months sooner. Lee Anne started as my EA focusing 50% on calendar and email and a mixed bag of operational stuff. Once we developed deeper trust and her knowledge of me and the business matured (~12-18 months), her role and impact changed as she was able to grow into an extension of me. Her title ultimately became Chief of Staff and we even brought in a part-time junior person for Lee Anne to delegate to as her cycles became very valuable in their own right.
What did it take? A real commitment on Anthony’s part to letting me behind the curtain, relinquishing control and spending time with me daily. It did not happen overnight. We had the advantage of building our process over the years as RevZilla grew, but I believe a working style like ours can be achieved in months if you dive in at the deep end and both parties commit.
Some things he enthusiastically threw on my plate but sometimes I had to pry his hands off the steering wheel one finger at a time. He also had to be ok when things were not 100% the way he would have done them. 85% and done beats 100% and languishing every time. A good example is the relationship with our PR firm. Anthony chose them but I took over the bi-weekly meetings and handled most decisions. I was also able to jump on quick response opportunities in a way Anthony could not, given his schedule. When a segment is needed for the evening news, you need decisions immediately..
AB – I let Lee Anne see everything, warts and all. When she started the goal was for her to be fully behind the curtain. I set out to find someone as trustworthy as they were detail-oriented and committed to the role. I felt a bit embarrassed here and there when something private came in, but I accepted it as a small price to pay for the leverage Lee Anne created. She recouped founder bandwidth — in my eyes the most valuable company asset.
So, if you’re convinced you want to take this approach, how do you start? Job one is to choose the right person.
Traits to look for
Look for a person who likes being behind the scenes. Someone who thrives on the thrill of your success and prefers staying in the background to starring in their own rodeo is the #1 requirement for this job. Anthony sometimes referred to me as a project manager where he was my only project and that is a great analogy.
Find someone with the life experience you need, not just experience in the job title you pick for the role. What is most important to you? Organization? Intelligence? Creative thinking? Operational experience? It doesn’t matter where they earned their stripes as long as they possess the experience and qualities you need. Look for skills and accomplishments, not title history. A smart person with the right qualities can learn your business regardless of what their past titles were. I know this is hard when you get 500 resumes, but right-hand kinds of people have had all sorts of titles, from the community volunteer to the poorly regarded Administrative Assistant to the newly popular Chief of Staff to a variety of managerial titles. And if your candidate has the skills and the values you need, don’t worry about the “stage of life” part so much – I am a pretty straight-laced suburban mother type who is 20 years older than Anthony and yet we are perfectly suited to work together because we intersect on core values surrounding work and people.
AB – I initially didn’t hire Lee Anne after her interview although I thought she had excellent experience. I thought our life stage mismatch, coupled with our often colorful language (tech can be profane), would not allow either of us to be comfortable. I mistakenly hired another person who let us down after a month, only to quickly circle back to Lee Anne. Lee Anne and I lined up on work ethic, attitude and value system, which covered the big bases. She also relishes the challenge of figuring things out on any level. We were pleasantly surprised to discover we had similar interests, but that was a bonus we figured out later.
You also need someone who is not afraid of you, your direct reports or outside business people you deal with. Yes, the relationship is boss to direct report, but if your right-hand is afraid to say “I think you are wrong and here is what you need to consider,” they are not the right person. And if they don’t have the gumption to deal firmly but nicely with people from all levels of your world, they will never be able to represent you and move your agenda forward. It is a fine balance – it is like a good teacher the kids love but who can control the classroom with a glance. Some people have it and some people don’t.
AB – This speaks to the level of an excellent EA+ / Chief of Staff vs other scopes of support. Lee Anne fought for the greater good regularly. She was not scared to challenge me or carefully manage others’ expectations. I always valued and respected her for it.
Trust is crucial and the only way to determine if the candidate is worthy of your trust is to interview carefully. It is easy to find out if they have dealt with confidential information before – but did it stay confidential? When you ask them to describe the kinds of information they have handled in the past, do they stay high level or do they tell you details that would make you uncomfortable if they were your own? Do they release details when pressed or if they have an ax to grind? Are they a bit too chatty? Some people are good with secrets and some are not. And it is not just about keeping their mouth shut. You need someone who can deal with sensitive information and topics in a mature way because there will be days where never-to-be-repeated issues will need to be met head-on and they will be the first line of defense. Skip reference checking at your own peril.
AB – Over 6+ years together, we were sued, flamed, almost bought, and ransomed for Bitcoin collectively more than once. Lee Anne saw the emails before I did and never flinched or let on to anyone.
A lifelong learner is another must have. Especially if you are picking someone who is changing industries. I am a reader. I read business books, articles and blogs. You want someone who is always considering new ideas and new ways of doing things. Someone who will always experiment with the way things are done to optimize workflow and operations. This is hugely important if you don’t want your business to stagnate. One of the worst statements in the world is “this is the way we have always done it”. I was also a student of Anthony Bucci. I read every email he wrote or received. I also read every book, article or blog Anthony read (and mostly I still do). Many times I could see what was coming down the pike and what was influencing his thoughts and that allowed me to be in step with him without explanation on his part.
AB – Many times LAF was able to offer a counterpoint or a staff-level perspective to help balance my approach to something new that could have unintentionally imparted a level unproductive disruption to the team. Sometimes she just flat out headed me off at #badidea pass. LPT: Even award-winning workplaces will never need to find an elephant rental guy.
What you need to do to ensure success
You can have success with three easy steps! (Easy for me to say, that is . . .)
Step one. Let your right-hand behind the curtain or you will never get beyond a task-based relationship. If you want someone who can see around corners and relieve some of the decision-making, you need to share 98% of what crosses your desk and good chunks of what crosses your mind. Allow access to all your email. Bring them to meetings and let them sit in on phone calls. Share your goals for the business and your personal goals for the year, quarter, week and day. Explain your thoughts and actions so they can learn to think like you and understand your processes and preferences. Initially, it will be a huge brain dump over time but it will morph into a manageable maintenance level.
Step two. Talk regularly and spend time together in the office. Not email. Not texts. There IS time for this to happen – scheduled meetings, bringing them along on the drive to get lunch, phone calls as you commute, while you are working out, stopping by every time you pass your right-hand’s desk. Once a week, Anthony and I sat down for an hour of face-to-face conversation (and the occasional debate) where I set the agenda and we discussed the business, our thoughts on any given topic and questions were raised and answered. Other than that, we grabbed minutes where we could but always touched base however briefly every morning and every end of the day. We were trying for 15 minutes morning and night, but sometimes that had to be tossed. That being said, there was not a day that I did not know what Anthony’s top priorities were for the day and he did not know mine. Talking allowed us to calibrate priorities constantly.
AB – The things you are delegating to your person are important, they are just not as important as the things you hope to use the recouped bandwidth for. Regular time to quickly chat, prioritize and keep your right-hand person moving is both the magic ingredient and sometimes the hardest time to focus on. The weekly one-on-ones are easy, but give your person the ability to hound, grab you between meetings, drive you somewhere so you can talk and, when all else fails, ask to interrupt you to quickly powwow. The 15 minutes a day was the hardest to find when I was in the flow of other things. I agreed it was super valuable, so I delegated to her the ability to ensure we found that daily time, painful as it was in some cases.
Step three. Put the weight of your position behind this person. Let people know that when they are dealing with your right-hand they are dealing with you. This is a hurdle you will need to clear. Anthony initially got quite a bit of pushback when he added me to the mix, but people got on board as things that were languishing were accomplished and questions were answered on the spot or in a timely manner. Your power, responsibly wielded by your right-hand, is a valuable tool.
I will end by mentioning two articles I have seen over the years that addressed my role and showed a good understanding of the value it can play in a company. They are worth checking out. One is from the Harvard Business Review and the other was from First Round Capital. They do a good job advocating for a right-hand person as an accelerator and wise business investment. I hope all you Anthonys have the opportunity to work with a Lee Anne and every Lee Anne has the opportunity to work with an Anthony. It can be a real game changer.
Final commentary from Anthony:
People (including my wife!) were initially concerned about a gatekeeper or assistant principal feel to having a support person. There can be a stigma around having an EA. Concerns about the gatekeeper controlling access evaporated nearly immediately. Concerns about the “assistant principal” were typically from folks who were more close-minded toward changes in relationship dynamics, but usually, because they were less secure in their roles, in general. I spent time explaining that the position is an extension of me through the lens of a facilitator to ensure that things kept moving and I could be in two places at once. The most effective people quickly realized that Lee Anne was the best starting place to ensure the quickest resolution to an issue or need in real time.
Some people still complained about her sitting in a meeting instead of me, but when I asked for examples on “How did she overstep her boundaries? How did she undermine you? Did she challenge your authority at all? What was missing or jarringly different without me?” I typically got crickets. The pattern was that people were being nostalgic or sometimes missing some opportunities to “manage up”. Those who were confident and optimizing for company outcomes spoke up when they felt less connected to me, but always saw the improved speed of communication and support from the change as a net positive. My wife grew to love that she could call Lee Anne to get me at any time, again. Long gone were the days where calling the batphone was a sure thing.
After six years with me, Lee Anne had become an indispensable contributor in how I ran my desk AND the company. She touched and improved so many things and helped so many senior people be more productive and have more successful interactions with me. Company presentations, management presentations, feedback loops with senior staff, executive operations, a real-time lifeline for my wife and family.
I also personally liked that over time there became an extra level of accountability to someone I respected who was working so hard, so close to me. Previously, I would have a list of priorities and I was only accountable to myself for completing them. I’m human and I’ll occasionally procrastinate on important stuff that I don’t like doing, just like the next person. Fewer procrastinatables fell through my cracks as I now had more time and a person who felt like another partner behind the curtain who I just couldn’t let down. I know that sounds funny, but it was a real feeling as we jointly managed three todo lists: my list, her list and the macro company list.
I could go on an on, but the two articles Lee Anne mentioned above are excellent. My favorite concept from them likens running a company to tap dancing on stage every day. It also says a great EA makes sure you are always good enough to get a standing ovation. So true.
There are many reasons founders, CEOs and execs give for not wanting to work with someone in a support role. I probably have a great rebuttal for all of them. I openly scoff when I hear, “I don’t work with anyone administratively. I don’t see the value”. Regardless of their reasoning, I think it’s short-sighted. An exec’s job is predicated on delegating everything delegatable to leave larger chunks of pristine time to think, strategize and work on the shortest list of the most important things that actually will move the business forward. How can you make an argument against buying back time?