I was recently asked how to write as the person you support, rather than on their behalf.  For example, writing an email from an executive to a staff member or client, which appears to have been written and sent by them, with no trace of your involvement.

Assuming you are already comfortable writing on behalf of a manager (your name is in the sign off) you may find these tips useful for taking the next step and writing as that manager.

Here you go list lovers:

Stop being a perfectionist

You’ve been asked to help manage emails because it is not the best use of the manager’s time. If you’re deliberating over every single email you send and taking twice as long to get this task done, then it isn’t the best use of your time either. In the eyes of an executive, this is a simple task they’ve asked you to do compared with the others they’d want you to take on.

Move past seeing the purpose of this task as pulling of the ultimate impersonation – most professional executives aren’t after a clone, they just want to reduce the number of emails they have to deal with. They don’t care if it doesn’t sound like them.

An executive I supported a while ago gave me these liberating instructions:

I trust you to get the job done and I’d rather you were asking forgiveness than asking permission

I realised that most successful executives want their assistants to take initiative in this way, though very few think to say the words out loud. They ask their staff to take more initiative, which gets interpreted by their team as not bringing them problems until they’ve thought of a solution. What they really mean is take action and solve the problem without their involvement. Be mindful of wasting the time you’ve saved them too – only tell them as a FYI after you’ve resolved an issue if they really should know, not just to big-note yourself (do a proud-of-yourself-happy-dance in your own time!).

Of course there are decisions only they should make and you’ve probably already thought of examples where you’ve mitigated issues before they’re escalated. I challenge you to start taking care of bigger problems you’re not 100% comfortable with. Do more. Be better.

Back to my point – the job just needs to get done! If you’re still not ready to take the “leap”, try one, or both of these:

  1. Ask the manager what matters most to them, getting emails responded to or copying their writing style convincingly. Tell them you’ve assumed they would prefer that you got the job done and that they’ll correct as you go if needed. They’ll be grateful they’ve found someone who thinks like that, regardless of whether they feel the need to suggest their preferred approach. They may not care if the email is from you instead of them anyway! What? You didn’t think to ask them until now? Been there. Done that.
  2. Write emails as the manager and save them as draft emails, allowing the manager to have a quick read before pressing send. This will still save them time, though be ready to move past this baby-step and show that you learn quickly

Identify the differences in your styles

The quickest way to do this is to open up their sent emails and start reading what they’ve already sent. Note – how they write emails will differ to how they write an article or blog post, so if that is what you’ve been asked to write for them, study the relevant examples!

One difference I noted with one executive was the lack of formality – they didn’t waste time with the fluff I was putting in emails – the introductory paragraph to provide context or an ending such as“Please feel free to contact me if I can assist further… / if you have any questions.. Warm regards.. etc”. They were sending one-liner emails that got straight to the point.

Another similarity with a lot of professional executives is the confidence in their style. It is something I’ve tried to replicate in my emails since I realised how I must come across in comparison. Lily Herman wrote a fantastic article highlighting 5 common words to avoid using in emails – “just”, “hopefully”, “actually”, “kind of” and “sorry”.

Understand their why

Ask them what their WHY is (if you haven’t yet, watch Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk here). Understand the key reason for everything they do and what they are trying to achieve. This will dramatically improve your ability to quickly anticipate their needs and respond on their behalf without their involvement. You’ll then know the what part of the message you need to write, while the above tips will help you with how to say it. Make it your priority, to know their top priorities or they might take back managing their own emails because, either:

  • you’ll end up asking too many questions for simple emails (stop being a perfectionist!); or
  • you’ll be sending too many emails which aren’t in line with the message (the what) they want to get across

The last thing you want is to leave them thinking it is easier to do it themselves.

Set up template emails

If you’ve been asked to take on the inbox management of any email account which constantly receives the same enquiries, have a go at identifying them, then drafting template responses. Once the best answer has been finalised, you (and your team) can copy and paste answers into your reply emails. This will save a lot of time, even if you’re still adding a personalised touch to each response.

Agree on a process

Remember that you’re now taking on emails because it is not the best use of that manager’s time. It needs to be clear what actions have been taken in their inbox. You don’t want to find out you’ve both replied to an email!

You may have your own ideas on how to visually communicate when you’ve taken action or require their input, though not everyone thinks the way you do! One colour coding system may make things clear for someone detailed like yourself, though fast-paced-big-picture-only executives may find your system confusing and too busy.

The most important thing here is that you agree on the process – don’t set one up and declare that this is now how they must work. Good communication and a shared understanding is key.

Keep it very simple – you may love detail, they probably don’t – which would be the reason they hired you. You’re there to make their life easier, not turn it upside down! Keep it simple and approach them with suggestions, such as:

  • You will only leave original emails in their inbox if it is an email they need to make a decision on, or they should read as an FYI (don’t waste time marking which is which – they will work it out when they read it! Stop being a perfectionist!)
  • You will Bcc them ONLY on emails you respond to which they need to read. You will also file the original email so that they only see the one which has your reply (avoiding a double-up with responses from both of you)
  • You will mark emails which you have drafted a response for, so that they know they just need to review in their drafts before pressing send

Many executives receive an overwhelming amount of emails every day, and if you feel like you don’t have capacity to take this on as well as the rest of your responsibilities, you need to speak up. Assistants are notoriously bad at saying no.

Just because you are capable of taking over a task or project from the person you support, doesn’t mean you should.

Put your case forward and suggest that they take on a virtual assistant. Show the comparison in cost for getting this task done and be ready with a list of the projects which are a better use of your time and skills.

You may also find the Unroll.Me tool (reviewed in ‘Apps assistants rave about’) very handy in reducing inbox clutter.

Is there something you wish you knew, or had, right now to make your job easier? Tell us in Thought Penny’s  EA PA VA survey here.

All the best


Fiona Campbell is an executive virtual assistant, assisting clients with content marketing and social media. When she isn't writing articles for executive, personal and virtual assistant community, you'll find her having fun with her young children or listening to podcasts.

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