Virtual (Assistant) Breakthrough

Lester Thornhill, Life's Abundance

November 11, 2019

Toward the end of 2018, I hit a breaking point. Sales at our Evergreen® business, Life’s Abundance, were up about 20 percent over the previous year, and our profit was at an all-time high. But I was in big trouble.

Since joining the company in an IT role in 1999, I had consistently reinvented systems for managing my time as I took on new responsibilities and the demands on my time increased. I had done all the standard things to cope—I had delegated responsibilities; I had someone managing my calendar; I had a travel agent booking my travel; I had project managers handling many key initiatives in the company. Now, though, I found that I didn’t have any more tricks left up my sleeve to free up the time I needed to continue to manage the company in the way I knew I should into the future. Something had to give. 

It was at this point that I had a conversation with a friend that changed everything. I had been describing to him that email was killing me. I had 900 emails in my inbox. I was drowning. His response: "You need a virtual assistant." He described the role to me—a professional who works remotely to deliver administrative support, handling a wide range of personal and work-related tasks online, including email management.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I might actually be at the point where I needed to hire someone to take over my email. That had always felt too sensitive, and I couldn’t imagine how someone else would be able to prioritize and filter for me. But I was ready to try anything.

So, inspired by desperation, I began to look into virtual assistant services. My search led me to a company that matches executives, exclusively, with virtual assistants. When I asked about email, they said, “of course we can manage that for you.” I was in—almost. First, I had to justify making the investment. I think, as business owners and leaders, sometimes the last person we invest in is ourselves. But, as I considered the other services that I was willing to spend money on, I realized this investment was as least as important.

I said yes to the possibility of time, and I entered into a matching process that included extensive interviews covering my management style, my personality type, and the scope of work required. I was informed that the assistant had also been thoroughly vetted—extensive background checks, professional references, and personality evaluations had already been conducted to ensure she was highly qualified and could be trusted to manage the most sensitive professional and personal information. The rigorous process resulted in a perfect match. I felt comfortable and aligned with my assistant, Jennifer, from the beginning. 

I realized quickly how essential that sense of comfort and trust was because, once matched, the next step required a significant leap of faith. I had to provide my credit card numbers, my driver's license number, my social security number, my passport information, my global traveler information, and login information for all of the websites that she would need to access—and I had to provide the same for information for my wife and my son. 

I know. It was scary. But the reality is that if I really wanted someone to manage tasks that were robbing me of valuable hours, I had to provide the tools for her to do that. I also gave her access to my personal and work email. 

Over the next 30 days, working 20 hours per week, Jennifer reviewed all of my emails, and, through communication with me as she did so, was able to understand a lot about me and about the company to begin to filter and respond to mail. During days 31 to day 90, we focused in on more nuanced work style and preferences—she learned how much time I like between meetings and my communication style, among other topics. By the end of 90 days she was truly functioning as an extension of me: she was proactively managing my work and personal email and calendars, booking all travel, and managing personal projects like home repairs. 

I realized just how much Jennifer had transformed my life during a work trip at about this time. Up to that point, getting on a plane meant I automatically turned to email with the goal of knocking out a few hours of work during the flight. This time, I turned on my computer and stopped: I had no email to respond to. It was like the first day of summer vacation: I felt like I should have homework to do, but instead I had free time. It was an incredible.  

And while the email management is a huge piece of what makes this service so valuable, I think that the real differentiator in this investment is that because of her extensive experiences assisting C-level executives, Jennifer is qualified to be an extension of me. For instance, if I have a product idea and I want to research, what might take me one to two hours of online time just getting to the sources and filtering the background, I can turn that task over to Jennifer, who does the research and creates an executive summary that takes me five minutes to read. 

My onsite assistant continues to provide me administrative support at our office—handling professional tasks that require an in-person presence onsite. The two positions complement one another and are clearly defined. This dynamic provides an important buffer between staff and sensitive information, protecting my onsite assistant from the burden of knowledge and ultimately having to be an island.  A virtual assistant is entirely unencumbered by office politics.

As leaders of Evergreen companies, our time is the most important asset. Investing in someone who can help us optimize that asset just makes sense. If I had any doubt about the impact of hiring Jennifer, a recent conversation with my marketing director confirmed that I had made the right choice. She said to me, "I don't know if you realize this, Lester, but Jennifer has really been a game-changer for me. You have no idea what life was like the couple of months before she came on board. You were so overwhelmed, and we couldn't get stuff done. Now, I don't have to think about how I’m going to track you down if I need an answer because I get a response immediately from you or from Jennifer, and the company is able to move along a lot faster. We feel like we have our leader back."

Her comment hit home because I know she’s right: this gift of time and efficiency has also allowed me to lead again—to focus on larger, more strategic goals. As an example of this, I have a couple of new products that I had been wanting to launch for a couple of years, and I just couldn't find time to move these projects forward. I was actually able to hand the projects off to Jennifer and say, "Can you get this kick started for me?" Now we're going to have two new products come to market in the next six months that would have still been on the shelf if she wasn't around.

The benefit to my work life and my business continues to grow, but the fact that she handles both personal and professional projects is the real hack—the thing that buys the time back. Being able to off-load personal tasks has allowed me spend time on what matters—at home and at work. If I spend two hours communicating with a power-washing service to take care of my roof, that’s two hours I don’t have to focus on my business or spend quality time with my family. There is no reason for me to be devoting time to that task, which someone else can handle from start to finish. And our lives are filled with tasks like that, tedious but necessary.

At the end of the day, the biggest benefit to me is that I feel re-energized and unburdened. I didn't realize how much pressure I was under until some of that stuff was lifted off of me. I am able to be a lot more visionary. I don't get bogged down with stuff like I used to, and nothing falls through the cracks. My team has their leader back.

Lester Thornhill is CEO of Life’s Abundance.

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