Friday, March 5, 2010

Answering Reader Mail: How to Be A Great Gatekeeper

A friend of a friend wrote the following email. "I've been working for my boss for 4 years and he is very happy with me. Yet, there is one thing that has been brought up for a couple of years now and I seemingly have not mastered that yet. I need to learn how to be a better gatekeeper. In the beginning my boss had an open door policy, but that seems not to be suitable anymore. The workload has increased and my boss can't be constantly interrupted. If you could give me your insight on that particular issue that would be great."

Dear BH,

What a great question! Here is my advice to you.

1) As an executive assistant/gatekeeper, you should always know where your boss is and what they are doing. Your number one goal is to constantly be aware. To be a great gatekeeper you have to be informed and alert. When people start walking anywhere near your desk or your boss's desk, always look up from the computer and make eye contact or give a verbal acknowledgment. This should start as soon as anyone is about 5ft away. Granted, you'll sometimes look up and people are just walking by, but if you don't start engaging someone before they get too close you'll find they will walk right past you and walk into your boss' office since they are used to the open door policy. So it is your job to look up, say hi, maybe chat a little, and ask if they need your boss. If they do and you know your boss can't see them say any of the following:

I'm so sorry. He's:

on a conference call.
wrapping up a meeting.
on a deadline right now.
in the middle of a project.
not available right now.
visiting/checking in on his direct reports.

Then ask:
How much time do you need? 2 min, 10 min, 30 min or an hour?
How urgent is it? Can he get back to you this by the end of today, tomorrow, the week?
What is it regarding, which project?

And get back to them as appropriate. Even if you don't have an answer yet feel free to write an email three days in a row saying:

I haven't forgotten about you. I'm still finding your answer/a good time to squeeze you in. Feel free to check back with me frequently.

2) To be a gatekeeper, you should be at your desk as much as possible especially when you are still training your co-workers and colleagues about the new unspoken closed door policy. The only time you should leave your desk is for lunch, to use the restroom, and for any requests your boss makes of you directly. The more often you are gone for 10 min here or 30 min there the more chances anyone can walk into your boss' office because they think it's still okay.

3) If you find that your boss is very busy and doesn't want to see someone a good tactic is getting into the habit of escorting people around. What I mean by this is slyly physically blocking or encouraging someone to take your lead and follow you where you want them to. For example:

Say you know a particular person can be quite pushy. As soon as they start walking toward your desk or your boss' office get out from behind your desk and start walking toward them to greet them. Try to make them stop and engage them to talk to you by saying, "Did you need _________?"

If they say yes, tell them "Give me a second and let me go see if he's free" and hopefully they stay put.

Even if they try to follow you or barge in, still go into your boss' office and announce their presence even though that person is standing right next to you. Say, "_________ is here to see you. Is now a good time?"

And your boss can say yes or no.

If your boss says no it's now your job as the MESSENGER/ESCORT to say, "Why don't you follow me to my desk and I'll try to find a better time for you," thus leading them out of your boss' office.

The goal is for YOU to be the FIRST AND LAST person anyone ever deals with regarding your boss. This can be as minute as saying hello and goodbye and walking them to the front door or hallway. This trains anyone that you are the gatekeeper.

Escorting also helps you get more face time with your boss to get answers you need when he already has a packed schedule. A good tactic is to walk him to and from scheduled meetings. That usually takes 2-5 minutes and you are able to ask questions as you walk and talk. It should go without saying that you should not follow your boss if you think he may be going to the restroom or coming back from the restroom.

4) Always be humble, apologetic, and validate the other person's request to see your boss, especially if the meeting has already been set and you have to cancel. Oftentimes, being a great gatekeeper means having to say "things changed," "not right now," a lot or even no, but without making them feel less important or saying no outright. To do this always be firm, but full of sorrow and regret. You can say the following.

"Oh I'm so sorry. I know you're really busy too and you need _________. Let me see if I can move things around."

Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't, but you want to communicate that you will try.

"__________ isn't available right now, but I'll be sure to tell him you stopped by. I hate to have inconvenienced you. Many apologies."

"There's been a last-minute change in his schedule. We feel terrible."

5) When all else fails and your boss is really on a tight deadline, he or you should close his door for a set amount of time - an hour, three hours and the both of you should discuss who he can be interrupted for. If your boss doesn't already have a VIP list of people who ALWAYS have access to him, start drafting that now. It can include anyone such as his boss, investors, his family, or specific people that are working on the same project he is.

Hopefully you already answer the phone for your boss and and all meeting requests automatically come to you. As gatekeeper, you should control the flow of communication and time management of your boss' schedule with his input. Oftentimes, as the gatekeeper, you have even a larger portion of control with what's going on because only you know the minute details of what's going to happen later in the day or next week. Mutual trust and cooperation between you and your boss are key to finding the right rhythm and style for the both of you. I hope this helps, BH!


  1. THANK YOU for blogging. I'm a bit shocked that you have little to no comments and was quite sad on a few posts to not have more feedback. So THANK YOU for continuing in such a seemingly isolated environment! I'm currently job hunting, wondering if I have what it takes to be an "executive assistant", and thirsty for knowledge from others in the field. Your explanations and detailed reports of your experiences are JUST what I was looking for. THANK YOU!

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantMay 31, 2013 at 3:03 PM

      Jacqs - Thank you for being a loyal reader all these years and commenting here and there! Just wanted to say a totally random hello! :)

    2. I just landed my first gig as a Hollywood EA. I'm fresh out of college and these blog postings are invaluable. Thanks so much.

    3. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJune 4, 2013 at 5:35 PM

      Anonymous - Congrats on your first gig! Glad you find my blog helpful! I also write a colum at under Hollywood Executive Assistant and I also take questions there too!

    4. This have been very helpful. I currently interning for an attorney and I need this badly. Thank you for the help.

  2. I love your attitude and thanks for posting about this particular career path! It's an important job that may never pay what it's worth! Have you done a blog on salaries, by the way? I know this info is out there on other sites, but it would be interesting to know how entertainment EAs are paid compared to Nonprofit EAs for example.

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJune 25, 2013 at 5:15 PM

      Dear Anonymous,

      Awww thank you for the compliments!

      Generally speaking, non profit pays less than entertainment because it is a non profit. Using websites like will give you more details. A bigger difference in EA salaries is who you are assisting and the type of company you work for.

      I also write over at and a similar question was answered. Here is that info:

      How much can the best executive assistants earn in a year?
      Asked by regan999 on 05/10/2012


      The salary of an EA depends on what city you work in, how big your company is, and a zillion other factors that come into play just like any other job. The entertainment industry is mostly in Los Angeles, but pockets do exist elsewhere in the nation so you will see a fluctuation. Like any other field, the more experience you have under your belt the more you will get paid. It's not uncommon for an EA who has been in the industry forever and who works for someone very, very, very high profile to make a comfortable living - as if they themselves were a regular lower-ranking executive or part of management. Keep in mind, these types of executive assistants are very, very few and far between. Will you get paid mid-six figures as an EA - no. Is the job sometimes well-paying enough that it attracts those who don't want to climb the corporate ladder while reaping some of the benefits as if they were - yes. All in all, there's a part of you that has to want this job bad enough and love it enough to excel in it. Otherwise, sometimes the job can be a little challenging that most people only pursue it to pay their dues or be a writer on the side. It is never their life goal to grow up to be an executive assistant. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

      And here is the link to see other questions that may be of interest to you.

  3. Great comments, really incitful

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJuly 29, 2013 at 4:50 PM

      Anonymous - So glad you liked this blog post. Thank you for being a loyal reader.

  4. This a of great help. I have another question. I have been asked to be a better gatekeeper over the phone. When I ask cilents on the phone to identify the reason of their calling, either they don't want to give specifics (I would rather speak to him directly or leave a voicemail if you don't mind) or when they do and it is vague, is it ok to ask more specifics? How do you push back their boundaries without hurting the clients?

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AsstSeptember 25, 2013 at 1:59 PM

      This is a great question! If it is true, you can say you ARE your boss' voice mail. (which is true a majority of the time. High profile execs do not have any privacy - assistants check emails, voice mails, AND listen in on calls while they are happening to take notes, jump in with extra info, and roll calls). So you can offer for them to leave a voice mail which you will check and transcribe 2 seconds after they leave it so they may as just well give you the message directly so you can transcribe it exactly how they please. Reasons why they may not want to divulge is - it's private/personal, highly confidential, or they don't want to give the gist of the message because the exec won't call back, or they are a cold caller. If it is personal, just write "personal." You can't expect your client to tell your boss when they are more than acquaintances, but less than BFF, "I'd like a personal referral to the medical specialist/damage control PR guy/career coach for my wife/me/our VP." If they are true legitimate client that your boss has an existing relationship with, if this is routine/accepted behavior, you can tell the caller to call/text your boss on their cell at a specific time when you know your boss is free or email your boss and you will remind your boss to check specifically for an email from them. To push back politely - you can say, "We'll be able to call you back more quickly if we know the nature of your call and how much time the call would take. I'm more than happy to leave the subject of the message blank if that's what you prefer, however." You can always tell your boss you tried/asked politely and the caller refused. Realize your boss always has VIP people calling for him and random, total strangers, or cold callers who want access to him, but shouldn't. It's your job to weed it out correctly without offending anyone and being really nice about it while allowing them their semi-privacy. Since they want your boss, they technically should play by your boss' rules. Also realize, your boss will not call everyone back, he can only have so many priorities and hours in a day to spend on the phone. So do the best you can. I hope my answer was helpful!

  5. I love your blog. You provide such great insight and give very useful tips for being a more effective assistant. Thank you!

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec AsstOctober 28, 2013 at 12:03 PM

      Lori - I am so happy you love my blog. I need to post more entries and am working on some. Thank you for being a reader and don't forget I have a column at jobstr too.

  6. Very good blog and subsequent details in the comment section. I was looking for some tips on how to make people feel important when basically I'm telling aren't important and he can't see you. This was very helpful and insightful as to the details of being a good gatekeeper.

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec AsstJanuary 22, 2014 at 10:46 AM

      Sarah - Glad you like my blog and found it helpful. I am so glad you like everyone's comments too. It's helpful to others and presents a view aside from mine. Hope you enjoy the archives and my other site. I write at under Hollywood Exec Asst.

  7. So helpful - THANK YOU!!!!!

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec Asst.August 18, 2014 at 11:15 AM

      Anon - So glad you liked this post! Thank you for being a reader!