Strategic Business Partner vs. Leader

At our forums in 2017, we buckled down on the concept of stepping up as a strategic business partner. Executive assistants across North America rose to the challenge and took on the professional development to place them a step ahead of the curve. Now, we take a second look at the EA career and ask how we can take professional development even one-step further?

2018 is about stepping up as a business leader.

Both seem one and of the same, but there is a difference. It comes down to perspective and the lens you are being seen through. To further explore the difference between being a partner contrasting a leader, and how to step into a leader role, we turn to expert Rhonda Scharf who is a speaker, author, and consultant for ON THE RIGHT TRACK – Training & Consulting Inc.

According to Scharf, when you are working with your executive, you are a strategic partner; which is also a leadership role. However, outside of working with your executive, leadership is shown by being an influential leader within the company. “Everyone outside of your relationship with your executive wouldn’t necessarily see you as a strategic business partner, they just see you as a leader. The role is the same; it’s just a different lens on how it looks to different people.”

Rhonda further explains how others within the organization don’t necessarily see or care about your relationship with your executive, but they do care about the leadership role you have with them. “The way you communicate with different people, they are going to see different things.”

Therefore, as a business partner, it’s essential to be a leader, not just within your role, but also within your organization.

Authority vs. Influence

What truly defines a leader? As EAs, most of us don’t have direct reports. When you are a boss, and your direct report doesn’t do what you need them to do, their job is on the line. Others in the company don’t have that same type of authority.

For this conversation, there are two kinds of leaders we will be talking about: authoritative and influential. A boss is an authoritative leader. They can also be an influential leader, but authority is an automatic component of their role. EAs are capable of being influential leaders, which are just as important as authoritative leaders. In fact, if you can master the skills to be an influential leader, you’ll hold a lot more respect within your company and your role than you could ever imagine.


Scharf says the first step in leadership development is to have an open and honest evaluation of what other’s think of you. “My favorite quote is from Maya Angelou, ‘People will never forget how you made them feel.’ When you are looking at your influence, you have to look hard at yourself and say, ‘how do I make people feel? Do they think I know what I’m talking about? Do they trust me? Do they believe what I say? Do I trust them? Do I respect them?’ and have a good look at how you work with other people.”

She asks, “Are there people in the workplace that you just don’t connect with? If so, why? What’s getting in the way? How is that impacting your relationship? Take a look at yourself, and then employ the steps above. Pave the road for authenticity.”

“As soon as you step into the authority element of leadership, people do things because they have to, not because they want to. Influence has others doing what needs to be done because they want to, because they care about the bigger picture, and not just because they have to.” Rhonda illustrates that sometimes the larger goal at play is the relationship you wish to build. You want people to work with you because they want to, not because they are afraid of you or feel like they have to. “Influence is willingness with a group of people who want to be there.”

According to Forbes, “When you influence people so they reach a place of genuine commitment, working relationships begin to improve. You see greater sustained effort and resiliency. Your colleagues become more efficient, creative and focused.”

Rhonda says, “If you want to be influential, take a good long hard look in the mirror and ask ‘What do people think about me? Why do they think that about me? How can I adjust?’ For example, if people find you a very direct communicator, some will appreciate that directness, but not everyone will. If you are communicating with someone who doesn’t like your direct style, how can you adjust to have a different, more positively received communication style? Influence starts on the inside.”

Of course, Rhonda clarifies; working on these soft skills means nothing unless you have the backbone of hard skills. “People’s B.S. detectors are r finely tuned. You have to have the hard skills to do your job properly. After you’ve established that you are competent, you need to work on your soft skills. You need to have both hard and soft skills to be influential. You can’t be faking it. People read through that very quickly.”

The next step

At the Executive Leadership Support Forum in Toronto, Scharf described her methods into building business leadership skills. Her session identified individual’s natural strengths from different perspectives. She guided attendees to fine-tune the skills they already possessed. Scharf also led a discussion on project management. In addition to her many talents, Sharf is also the only executive assistant to be published in the Harvard Business Review. The Executive Leadership Support Forum is extremely thankful for all the insights and professional development Rhonda Scarf has provided.

“It’s not that people can’t be influential or step up into the role of a leader, they’re afraid to. They are afraid they are faking it. Once we go through the information at the forum, executive assistants are going to feel so much better about the information they already know and will be more aware of the natural skills that they possess that they can bring to the table.”

If you have not attended an Executive Leadership Forum in the past, we hope to see you at one of our upcoming forums in Charlotte, Nashville,or Columbus. If you have attended one or more Executive Leadership Forums, we encourage you to describe your experience in the comments below. The Executive Leadership Support team is endlessly thankful for all of the past, present, and future attendees.

For more information on how the Executive Leadership Support Forums can provide you the professional development to succeed within your career, visit:

Interested in learning more about Rhonda Scharf? Check out her full speaker interview, here.