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In praise of gatekeepers

In praise of gatekeepers

by Moyra Mackie on August 16, 2014

Whenever you see managers who are really leading, who are able to prioritize their time and focus on the strategic and people aspect of the role, the chances are they have a great gatekeeper working for them.

Whether you call these gatekeepers Chiefs of Staff, Personal Assistants or – not a favourite word of mine – “admins”, they are essential to the high performance of their bosses.

Gatekeepers help managers to lead

In the fifteen years or more that I have been helping managers and their teams, I believe that I can predict how able a manager is to adjust to change by the quality of the gatekeeper who works for him or her.

After all, in a change process you need to protect and manage your time in order to focus on new ways of doing things and not fall into old, easy habits.  Whoever has control of your diary has the power to make or break that change.

Great gatekeepers show great leadership

Although gatekeepers are often overlooked when it comes to training and development, the ones that enable their bosses to do great work, mirror those leadership qualities.

Gatekeepers are in the decision making business

They need to make wise decisions all the time about who their boss should and shouldn’t see, which meeting needs to be cancelled and which ones ring-fenced, which piece of information should be passed on immediately and which ones can wait.

Effective gatekeepers are able to:

  • Quickly master the big picture, whilst also paying attention to the details that matter
  • Manage and prioritize their own time and that of their boss
  • Listen well and ask great questions
  • Manage their emotions to get along with a wide variety of stakeholders
  • Consistently display discretion and loyalty
  • Be tenacious, persistent and creative

Most importantly of all, great gatekeepers are not people pleasers

The Achilles heel of the charismatic, “hero” leader is the, often unconscious, desire to please others. To be “the good guy”.

Sustainable leaders know that this is not always possible, that they need to regulate their emotions, their need for affirmation and praise, by taking tough decisions and by saying “no”.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a dozens of gatekeepers over the years.  One of the best – and nicest and most distinctive – is someone I will call Mary.

Mary is the type of person for whom the terms “no-nonsense” and “salt of the earth” were created.  The type of person who gets embarrassed by praise and being in the limelight.

Mary had all the leadership qualities I listed above

When meeting rooms – especially ones with windows – were like gold dust she always managed to secure one that would help me, her boss and his team do our best work.

She found creative ways round bans on outside catering and made sure there was enough food to keep us – and the rest of the company – fed and watered.

After my first visit to see her boss and work with his team, I went to thank her for everything she had done.  Now Mary had seen a lot of consultants in her time – and hadn’t always been impressed – so she shrugged off my thanks with a smile and a “yeah right” kind of expression.

I needed to earn Mary’s respect

The only way to do that was to support her boss in his mission to build a team that worked constructively together.  She wanted to see proof.  She wanted to see real change.

I loved her for that – she genuinely cared for her boss and his team and fancy pants consultants were two a penny.

Gatekeepers expect results

Fortunately, I was able to work with her boss and team for 18 months and they did indeed become a team that worked together more collaboratively and constructively. Mary played a part in that; she prioritized our meetings and coaching sessions, she encouraged “good behaviour” and she challenged old habits.

Several years have passed, but a few months ago I received a lovely email from her that said in part:

“I loved the old team and I miss them.  The times we had with you were great and I always felt that you had a great impact on the team – plus you’re a lot of fun.”

I’d argue it’s easy to be fun when you work with good people; people who care and are prepared to learn and grow.

So this post is really a big thank you to all those people who have helped make my job the pleasure it is.

And if you work with someone like Mary – go and embarrass them by saying “thank you”.

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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