how do I keep people from using way too much of my boss’s time in meetings?

A reader writes:

I’m a career executive assistant and pretty good at my job, but I struggle with keeping my boss’s calendar.

I support high-level people, so I am inundated by requests for boss’s time, from internal and external folks. I can’t tell you how many people ask for “Just 10 minutes, REALLY!” who I then have to pry out of the office after 45 or 60 minutes (or longer)

My current boss, as well as a former boss, mentioned this as something I need to work on, but I confess I’m having trouble keeping everyone happy — is there a way to do this without becoming the office hard-ass?

Complicating the matter is that current boss is charming, a great mentor/advocate and loves being involved in everything so she loves interaction, to a point.

Please, can you give me guidance on navigating this?

Do three things:

1. First, find out from your boss whether she just wants you to be more assertive about cutting off meetings that run too long, or whether she also wants you to decline some of these meeting requests in the first place. You might find out that she wants you to be firmer about saying no to people, or to some people, or to redirect them to later time slots. For example, if the request is coming from a direct report who she has regular check-ins scheduled with, she might prefer you to direct most of that person’s requests to those meetings rather than putting additional time on her calendar. So ask her directly if she wants the meetings to run shorter, or not happen at all.

2. When you’re setting up appointments for people, manage their expectations by telling them from the outset, “I want to warn you, she literally has only 10 minutes. I’m going to knock at 1:16 to grab her for another appointment.”

3. When someone is running over their allotted time, knock on your boss’s door and say, “Jane is here for your 2:00 meeting” or “I want to let you know you’re scheduled for X right now.” This is easy when X is another meeting or a phone call, but if it’s something like “you have this hour set aside to review documents that must be approved today,” you can just say, “You’re scheduled up for the rest of this hour.”

However, before you do #2, talk to your boss and make sure she’s on board with this plan. She may prefer that you give people a longer grace period before you interrupt, or that you do this with some people but not others, or any number of other modifications.

If you do this for a while and you find that your boss is generally ignoring your time reminders, then go back to her and say this: “You asked me to help keep your schedule more on track when meeting times are running way over. My strategy has been to alert you in the moment but I know it’s still happening. Would you like me to do something different to handle it?”

{ 96 comments… read them below }

  1. Hills to Die on*

    I have not been an admin assistant, but as a Project Manager who reports to the Director of (Stuff), I often end up somewhat in that role coordinating time with Director to get project objectives met. Here’s what I have done that helps:
    1. In the past, I also have liked saying ‘You have a conflicting appointment in 6 minutes’. and then come back in 5.5 minutes. Doesn’t matter what the conflict is–the visitor doesn’t need to know. You usually don’t have to say anything that second time IF your boss backs it up by agreeing that he has a scheduling conflict from the onset.
    2. I have also found that kindness helps a lot but be firm. If you give in, they’re going to push that much harder next time until they get their way.
    3. Do not believe those ‘just 10 minute’ people who take an hour ever again. Don’t let them have 10 minute slots anymore. If they always go over, tell them they have 20 minutes but secretly schedule an hour so that it doesn’t jumble up your bosses calendar and throw you off track.

    Good luck and let us know how it goes!

    1. Antilles*

      Do not believe those ‘just 10 minute’ people who take an hour ever again. Don’t let them have 10 minute slots anymore.
      Agreed. I’ll be honest: I’m immediately skeptical ANY time I hear someone say “just 10 minutes” in a work context. Because if it’s something that requires actual discussion, it’s usually pretty hard to judge that it’s exactly 9 minutes and not really 15+ to address.
      There are very simple and straightforward items (signing an expense report, simple yes/no questions, a very quick status update, etc), but these should really take closer to 2 minutes than 10 and so you shouldn’t hear “just 10 minutes”, you should be hearing “oh, this is just a paper I need signed, just one quick minute”.
      And then on the other side, if it’s an issue that requires actual discussions and consideration, “just 10 minutes” probably requires us to rush through things. The instant there’s a question or need for more detailed explanation, we’re going to blow right by the 10-minute mark.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        In defense of the 10-minute = 1-hr people: Sometimes it is the manager’s fault. Sometimes you have a manager who does not delegate enough and has to approve much more than they could possibly have time for, so that’s one issue. The other issue is that they don’t regularly schedule time with you, so when you have 10 minutes with them, they bring up the other 14 items that they want to know more about. I have had the “getting a paper signed” thing turn into, “Hey, how did meeting XYZ go?” and of course that takes more than the 2 minutes I had assumed.

        I have a new manager now, but the two previous ones I had set up regular one-on-ones (30 min to 1 hr per week) and canceled 3/4 of them, so I am a little sensitive on this topic! The manager either has to let go of some things or make time.

        1. JHunz*

          I agree with this. If there are a couple people who turn a 10-minute meeting into an hour, their time sense is probably a bit bogus. But if this is happening consistently, the common factor is the boss – and OP will have to figure out what approach works for managing up.

        2. Kelly O*

          This is absolutely true. Sometimes they go in with the intention of 10-15 minutes, and it just goes longer. One topic leads to another, and before you know it, it’s been an hour or more.

          One thing you can do is develop a way of letting your boss know the time is up. Maybe “Dave” calls for your boss after 15 minutes, so you can poke your head in and say “Hey Boss, Dave is on the line for you” – and his/her response gives you guidance on how to handle that. “I’ll call him back later” could mean “this is fine/important/whatever, leave us be.”

          Just another instance where having a good relationship and communication with your boss is essential to navigating these situations.

  2. AC*

    My boss definitely has the same issue, except he is usually the one instigating the longer conversations which throws off his schedule ( he doesn’t face a clock during meetings so it can be easy for him to go over time). Our system is that minutes after the meeting is slated to be over, I knock on the door, make eye contact with him so he sees me, and close the door as a reminder that the meeting is going over. If it goes on for ten minutes after the meeting is scheduled to be done, I knock on the door, open it, and leave it open.

  3. JS*

    Would your boss be open to having “office hours” once a week or so? My 2x skip-level boss does this and it’s a good way to get in to see her for things that might not be high-level enough to schedule a full meeting for, but that people want to get her opinion or advice on. This does depend on the people in the office, but if I’m in her office during her office hours and see three people waiting, it tends to make me aware of the time I’m using with her.

    1. RecoveringSWO*

      +1. If this isn’t an option, you could also institute a closed door 1-2 hour period where everyone knows that boss isn’t available, don’t even bother trying. This doesn’t fix the exact problem you’re facing, but it attacks the general issue your boss is facing, by giving her time to sit down and actually do work/make decisions.

    2. Kelly O*

      I have one executive for whom I block off time frames during the day for her to have a break or do heavy thinking work. It really does work well.

      1. Kat in VA*

        I do the same – it’s blocked off on his calendar as “Internal” so he can schedule over it (or I can), but people only see it as “Busy” in Outlook. Otherwise he’d be scheduled within an inch of his life (he’s close to that already) because he has a difficult time saying no and/or prioritizing.

  4. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

    I could have written this question! I have found that when I do #1, frequently, my boss will dismiss me with a “give us just 5 more minutes?,” even when he knows someone else is waiting. And I always do #2, mostly to no avail.

    Sometimes though, if it is really crucial that he get to his next meeting/call, I will just stand in the doorway holding the door open, and just let the social awkwardness of this move flow over me. For the more sensitive among the meet-ees, this typically does the trick. You just have to stand there for a very uncomfortable maybe 1-4 minutes, but even the most hardened offenders usually get the message when you’re standing there staring at them. I do this in a very breezy, cheerful way – smile and say something nice as they are leaving, so it isn’t as Attila the Hun as it could be. Not sure this will work if there is no pressing call/person waiting though.

    In my case, and this is probably also totally unhelpful, what has helped the most is that my boss hired a professional career coach to help him prioritize and manage his time better. This has made a world of difference. The coach posits that calendar craziness is the result of a lack of prioritization, which I completely agree with. The challenge for bosses like ours (mine is also very social and involved in everything) is to not cave to every request and instead triage all requests based on priority.

    I am working on finding a way to make my boss to understand that despite the fiction we maintain that I “control” his calendar, I actually have very little control. I don’t get to decide what goes on his calendar, and for the most part, because he is meeting with such high-level folks, I don’t have much control over where it goes on his calendar, either. Which puts the onus back on him to only agree to things that are truly priority – which is why he doesn’t want to accept this idea. It’s definitely getting better but is still very challenging. I feel your pain! I have also been asked to “fix” his calendar problem, and it’s very frustrating when, in actuality, the only one who can truly fix it is him.

    1. Lumen*

      Ding ding ding. Bosses are the ones who need to manage their time and attention; assistants can only facilitate that by tracking the calendar and the clock.

      But oftentimes, bosses also want their assistants to be the “bad guy” so they don’t have to… and worse, some of them refuse to acknowledge this or be up-front that this is what they really want from their assistants.

      1. Thunk*

        I’m a C Suite level EA.

        If your boss tells you “five more minutes” you need to first consider whether the following meeting can be cut short by five minutes.Option 1: If it can, then apologize to the person waiting and let your boss have five (and then go in again, if you boss again asks for more time, time to move to option 2). Option 2: If it can’t, then reschedule that person waiting – your boss has just told you that they are not as important as the current conversation.

        re trying #2, honestly, #2 is bad advice. People are NOT GOOD about estimating time needed when they are desperate for time, especially when they know your boss will continue an interesting conversation (unless is is a less than five minute item: signature, approval of travel, etc). I would recommend scheduling in no shorter than 30 minute blocks. I also recommend scheduling 45 minutes when someone asks for an hour – this will create more time blocks in the day, and people rarely REALLY need an hour.

        You are not being awkward when you stand in the line of your boss’s vision. You are being a good assistant. I do this all the time. It works. Internal people know I will do this and they know to respect both me and my boss’s time. External people appreciate a tightly run ship and respect that my boss respects the time scheduled.

        You absolutely CAN control your boss’s calendar, just take the control, move things if you must, and your boss will learn!

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          I think the point of number 2 isn’t just to have people monitor how long they are taking (although I will say that when I’ve been warned about a short time window, I will be more mindful about getting to the point very quickly, so it does work for some people), it’s to prep them so that when you come in and interrupt, they are prepared for that and understand what’s going on.

            1. Thunk*

              That’s really surprising to me that people would be surprised by an interruption from an EA at the end of any length of meeting with a high level executive!
              I would take the point of view that I shouldn’t need to manage the reaction to the end of a meeting, and I still think #2 is weird and bad advice!

      2. AKchic*

        I’ve had to flat-out tell my boss that I’m not his baby-sitter before. He wanted a personal assistant and the company wouldn’t give him one. He got a program assistant (me) and Me was overworked because hey, a program assistant can do All. The. Things! And all the things I did. On top of having a boss who wouldn’t let go of the idea of having a personal assistant. I got fed up and threatened to leave if a second personal assistant wasn’t hired. I gave them an 8 page list of my job duties (some daily, some weekly, one page of monthly/quarterly work). Boom. Second program assistant and the two of us were still overworked, underpaid, and he tried to make the both of us his personal assistants. It was a constant fight because he really kept just giving us all of his work and would try to schmooze people and talk all day instead of doing anything. He lasted 4 years. Helping clean out his office was my favorite part of his reign of bumbling inadequacy.

        1. Julia*

          Your story is exactly why I want to get out of being an assistant. You do so much work for so little recognition – your boss’ entire job, it seems! – and without the pay reflecting it, while people think they can walk all over you because you’re “just” an assistant.

      3. PersonalJeebus*

        I would suggest the OP start out by asking the boss whether she want them to be her personal “bad guy.” Ask it in a chipper, upbeat way: “I’m happy to be the bad guy who kicks visitors out, if you like! Do you think that would help?” It’s possible the boss will be relieved and say yes, that is what she wants. It’s also possible she won’t admit that’s what she wants, but it’s worth asking.

        I also urge the OP to let go of any trepidation about being the office hard-ass. An executive assistant can’t afford to worry about that. Hard-assery in an EA is usually a feature, not a bug! And I think most people understand that if an EA is being a big meanie, it’s because they’re supposed to be, and if they act authoritative, it’s because they have been given authority to act that way by someone who undeniably has authority.

  5. Karen Zucconi*

    You’ve got to be bold. I am really like the queen of this. One of the things that works is reminding the boss, in front of the guest, of her limited time. But I’ve gone as far as knocking on the door, announcing times up and gesturing grandly towards the hall (protip: not recommended for every visitor.) We have a code phrase that’s good both her letting me know she’ll need me to cut it short and for me to give her a reason to end the meeting. It’s “Dr. Felix”. Felix is her cat. Feel free to use it.

    1. Kathleen_A*

      I agree with the boldness. I’ve never been an executive assistant, but I’ve definitely been herded by some, and you have to become comfortable with being the Chief of all the Sheep Dogs. So find out what your boss wants, and then be bold, courteous and as fair as possible while enforcing those wants and herding those who have already taken their share of time out of there.

      There will be people who get snippy, of course, but most people are reasonable enough to know that when they ask for 10 minutes, they shouldn’t expect 30, and to not blame the person responsible for keeping the boss on schedule. That’s where the politeness and fairness becomes important.

      1. LilyP*

        Yeah, if I scheduled a quick chat with someone I’d plan on only taking 10 minutes, but if the discussion naturally continued over the slotted time and nobody was giving me any cues that we needed to wrap up (boss was still engaged, asking questions, not trying to leave, nobody had come to interrupt or let us know another meeting was starting) I would just assume she’d decided the discussion was important or interesting enough to keep going

    2. Kat in VA*

      My boss will see me coming and say, “Uh-oj, it’s Kat, you know what THAT means!” and his visitor will – 99% of the time – take the cue and wrap it up. More tenacious folks are treated to me standing, smiling, in the doorway.

  6. Drop Bear*

    There are times in life when it’s ok to be a hard ass! Being firm (up to and including like concrete) and friendly is a good motto. And don’t forget it’s not your job to keep ‘everyone happy’, which is an impossible task in most, if not all, jobs.

    1. Lance*

      And as an EA, there are plenty of times where you’re going to have to be that way; it’s just in the nature of the job keeping everything in order and moving forward as needed.

    2. Rezia*

      I second this. Your job isn’t to make everyone happy. Your job is to be your boss’s EA. That may mean that you have to play bad cop. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should ever be rude, but it means that your priority is protecting your boss’s schedule, not worrying about anyone else’s feelings.
      If you feel like you’re coming across as too much of a “hard ass”, you could make sure you’re being quite friendly in other interactions, like in the office pantry or even a little chit chat with the person -after- they’ve left your boss’s office. But I think most people will understand and respect that you’re just doing your job.

  7. Bea*

    Interrupt the meetings when necessary to keep the schedule moving. Unless your boss is exceptionally weird, this is the norm. You treat them like a child at the park. “It’s time to go, we have gymnastics now!” I’ve always lead executives like this, they are rarely clock watchers and usually charming to do their jobs well.

  8. WantonSeedStitch*

    There’s also the issue, IMHO, that your boss needs to take some responsibility for keeping track of what time it is and being firm on her own boundaries. If someone says “ten minutes” and goes over that, she has to have the backbone to say, “Mary, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to follow up on this with you some other time. I really only had those ten minutes, and I have a full schedule today.” This is especially true if some of the folks taking up her time outrank you in the office, OP: she should NOT put you in the position of having to interrupt and cut off people in a position of power over you.

    1. Alli525*

      I agree that OP’s boss needs to take responsibility… but I think your last sentence is a bit wrong. The only person “in a position of power over OP” is OP’s boss (and her bosses, of course). Just because someone outranks you doesn’t mean they have power over them. I was an EA for a CEO for a few years, and the managing directors underneath him still had to listen to me when I told them CEO wasn’t available. Meetings that ran over usually included my head poking in the door and politely saying “time’s up,” the directors looked at CEO for confirmation that they definitely had to leave, and a quick nod from CEO meant they were up and out in 30 seconds.

      1. Rhiiiiiiannnnnnnon*

        I really agree with this. I think it describes how a good Assistant/Boss relationship should work. Personally I think of an EA as an organized extension of the boss. The boss needs to back up the EA’s authority, because undermining the EA is akin to undermining themselves down the road.

        1. Lavender Menace*

          Oh yep – here our EAs are viewed as extensions of their bosses, with all the powers inherent to that position.

          1. Kat in VA*

            Same here – I have two senior VPs, a VP, and a CTO. It’s understood that while I’m not IN those positions, I have a fairly extensive amount of influence and yes, power, that’s understood.

          2. TootsNYC*

            In some of the Agatha Christie novels, the “secretary” is essentially an extension of the boss, with all the knowledge, judgment, and extended authority. They were written in a time when “secretary” didn’t mean “the secretarial pool.”

    2. Taylor Swift*

      Seriously. Boss in adult. She can take on some of this responsibility herself if she feels its important.

      1. Kathleen_A*

        Some responsibility, sure. But in most places I’ve worked, part of the EA’s job is being the guardian of the boss’ calendar. It’s a special skill – and yes, I mean that literally – and it’s part of what the EA is paid to do. Each EA needs to have an agreement with his/her boss about when and how to interrupt those “all I need is 10 minutes” meetings, and each EA should have the authority to follow through on that agreement.

    3. Shay*

      In my industry (security technology) it is NOT boss’s responsibility to keep track of time; they have many other things on their minds. The admin is the gatekeeper and the time keeper. People respect the Admins (greatly!) because they can make or break access to the Execs. If you commit to 10 minutes, you respect the commitment or expect the Admin to open the door and announce the next meeting, and then you smile and leave.

      1. Willlis*

        I think it can be both. An admin can set the schedule and act as gatekeeper. But, it certainly helps if Boss is cognizant of time constraints during these meetings and acts accordingly. I’m not an admin but have a few clients that will often preface a call by saying they need to be done at X time…and then spend 10 minutes of the call talking about sports, the weather, etc. rather than what we need to discuss. Don’t get me wrong, they’re personable people and I enjoy talking with them, but…I can also see how they have trouble staying on schedule.

        If OP’s boss is someone like that who gets wrapped up in conversations or jumps to other topics, maybe it would help to preface each meeting with a “Joe Smith is coming in now. You’re scheduled to talk with him about XYZ for 15 min…I’ll come in and get him then.”

    4. Close Bracket*

      I was wondering this myself. Does Boss need an egg timer or something to keep herself on schedule?

      1. Kathleen_A*

        Well, that wouldn’t hurt. But Boss – at least most of the Bosses I’ve known – already has a very important system in place to help keep Boss on time, and the key to that system is often – dah dah dah DAAAAAH! – the EA.

    5. Mystery Bookworm*

      There are some industries where the admin are really expected to be gatekeepers and timekeepers. Those industries (to my knowledge) due tend to have correspondingly higher salaries for admins, but they’re expected to be tough, even with people above them in the foodchain.

      1. Kathleen_A*

        The EA around here is…kind of fearsome, really. I would truly not like to get on her bad side, and I wouldn’t recommend that even those above me on the food chain get on her bad side, either. It just is NOT worth it.

          1. Kathleen_A*

            Oh, yes – great point. An empowered EA can do a LOT of good, too. That’s why it’s so important to stay on her good side.

            She’s about to retire. I’m very curious to see what the next one is like!

    6. Bea*

      Then they don’t need an EA. These people are busier than most people can imagine. It’s flippant to think they should just handle all this themselves. They pay others to do it for a reason. These meetings range from other executives to clients to vendors.

      1. Kat in VA*

        And it’s not just schedule keeping – it’s deconflicting those meetings and appointments and calls and demos, booting executives out the door so they don’t miss their planes, the usual projects, travel arrangements…even making sure they have lunch. One of my executives starts his day at work at 07:30 and I’ve gotten emails from him as late as midnight or 01:00AM. He doesn’t expect *me* to respond at 01:00AM, but often that’s how late he works.

        If I can take the load off determining which meeting is less important or can be moved, or not having to worry about lunch, or reminding him to GO NOW because he’ll miss his flight…that’s my job and that’s what I do. These people are busier than can be imagined, so every decision they don’t have to make or think about frees them up to do their actual job.

        Sometimes I think having four kids and being a stay-at-home mom for 20 years definitely makes this job easier for me. Managing someone’s schedule, reminding them to do things, making autonomous decisions about what will make their life easier (business and personal)…these are all things I’ve been doing for my family for years. Now I get paid to do what I’m already accustomed to doing, which is pretty great in my book. No, I don’t have an MBA and I don’t have a VP title, but I’m paid very well to keep those folks on track.

    7. ArtK*

      I disagree with your last sentence. When an EA is acting on behalf of the boss, they have the boss’ authority, not their own. Without that, why have an EA at all? Everyone with any rank could just bypass them.

  9. Cobol*

    I know you don’t want to be the office hardass, but your job isn’t too keep everybody happy. It’s to keep your bosses happy. (I mean to an extent.)

    Do they want you to keep the meetings short, or schedule less?

      1. ToS*

        A support for gate-keeping and executive time management, yes, but the buck stops with The Boss, who can be hardest on meeting-requesters/attendees.

  10. Shay*

    OP, in addition to Alison’s recommendations, please remember that your job isn’t to keep everyone happy … you job is to keep your Boss on schedule.

      1. Depends...*

        Depends on what work is getting done. She can warn or reschedule people when the Boss is running late under their direction.

        1. I'm Not Phyllis*

          And it depends on who the next meeting is with … both in terms of rank and how far they’ve traveled for the meeting.

  11. DivineMissL*

    My method (with my boss’s agreement) is that when the meeting time is over, I put my head in the office and say, “Your 2:00 appointment is ready, do you want me to have them come back/call back?” 9 times out of 10, the visitor will say, “Oh, no, we were just about done” and they get up and leave. The 10th time, my boss will say, “Oh, no, I really have to get that” and then the guest will leave. Easy peasy!

  12. Cheesecake 2.0*

    I work closely with my department’s director and the way her executive assistant handles it is this:
    1) If the guest is a member of the department, they get cut off on time (they can see her again in the future)
    2) If the guest is from our university but different department, they get 2-3 min grace time
    3) If the guest is visiting from elsewhere, they get 5-10 min grace time (depending on seniority)
    4) Nothing is scheduled for less than 30 minutes (even if it’ll “just take a sec!”)

    1. I'm Not Phyllis*

      Yes to #4. Nothing takes 10 minutes. If you need a scheduled meeting (as opposed to asking a question over email or popping your head in for a quick answer), I always schedule at least 30 minutes. Best case scenario is that it really does take 10 minutes, and your boss gets to have 2o minutes of their life back.

    2. Bea*

      4 is critical. It’s also exhausting to the person to have back to back to back short meetings. You block 30 minutes and give cushion. “I only need 10 minutes.” is hot air, you get 30. Because are you showing up exactly at 3pm for your spot? And how are you telling anyone there’s a slot at 3:10 for 30 minutes? And then getting another one in line for 3:40?

      Schedules should be on hours and half hours.

  13. Helper Bee*

    Consider hanging a clock where your boss can see it, (if this isn’t already set up). I put a new clock in the conference room across from where my boss sits so he can see it easily at all times during meetings. It has helped him stay on track and leave meetings that are going long when he knows he has another commitment.

  14. Key Lime Pie*

    My boss has a great EA, and I am often one of the people trying to get “just 10 minutes.” I’ve seen her do the following, many of which were recommended by previous commenters:

    – Declining “just 10 minutes” meetings. These get combined with our weekly 1:1 meeting, or she says Boss will call me when he has time. Sometimes I get summoned back for the 10 minutes if Boss agrees it can’t wait.
    – Offering alternatives: “Boss’s calendar is full this week. He has half an hour next Wednesday.”
    – Standing cheerfully in the doorway when time’s up, and letting the awkward happen (this really, really works). If Boss waves her away, it’s on him.

    No one thinks she’s a hardass. Everyone likes her because she’s cheerful, professional, and manages expectations well.

  15. ToS*

    There seems to be a real skill to closing a meeting – which I don’t seem to know the etiquette for. I certainly pick up the cues when I am “the guest” but struggle when it’s my office, especially when I feel we are finished at minute 10 for 30 allotted minutes. This might be going on with The Boss. In a similar vein, has this topic been covered? If so, search phrases are welcome.

    1. LinesInTheSand*

      I always direct the conversation to action items when I’m trying to wrap up a meeting. “Okay, based on what we’ve talked about, x, y, and z need to happen by Tuesday. Sean is doing x, and Zhou is doing y and z and you’ll follow up and report to me. That’s all I’ve got on my end. Anything else?” Or if that’s too open ended, “If there’s anything else, send me an email.”

      1. LinesInTheSand*

        And if none of that works, “I need to run to my next thing” as you stand up from your desk, even if your next thing is a quick restroom trip.

    2. Rezia*

      A small physical cue might help. Usually I’m leaning forward just a bit when I’m talking to someone, so I’ll lean back, put my pen down/close my notebook. Then I’d say something like “Well, thanks for coming by, I’m afraid I have another meeting to get to now.”
      If, as you said, you feel like you’re finished before all the allotted time is done, you could try something like, “Well I think that’s all I needed for this discussion, is there anything else that we haven’t gone over/that you want to know?” which might prompt your guest to realize that in fact, the discussion is done or maybe you’ll realize that in fact there is more that needs to be covered.

    3. Lumen*

      Closing a meeting is totally a skill. It’s like ending a phone call, too. And as simple as it really is, so many people struggle with it. If you scheduled 30 minutes and only take 15, then at 15 you ask explicitly if there is more to go over and then you stand up. Even if it’s in your own office, you can stand up and walk the person the 2 feet to the door.

      My last boss could not end a meeting to save her life. We’d finish going over everything in the monthly group check-in, she’d make sure there were no other questions, and then she would immediately turn it into social time…at which point it became impossibly awkward to just get up and leave. The whole dynamic would shift, and suddenly everyone felt ‘rude’ if they wanted to get up and go. So a meeting scheduled for 30 minutes, which only took 15 minutes, would end up keeping us all in a room for 45.


    4. Dragoning*

      Our managers end out daily department meeting by saying “Okay, this person, this person, and this person need to stay after to discuss X” depending on what X is.

      And then everyone else clears out of the room.

    5. TootsNYC*

      I don’t know why a person couldn’t use, “I think we’re done here. Email if there are any questions.”

  16. nonnynon*

    I’m an executive assistant to several elected officials. I’m also the only one who does this even though we are a very large entity, so everyone wants their time. You are going to have to be a hard ass. Hell, I’m a little mean (not actually but some senior level official do joke with me about it). Depending on who is in the meeting I will go in 5 – 10 min till the end since I know these people take a bit to wind down and then go in again at the end time or, if I know they’re quick I go in about 1 min till to let them say by. By now staff, even the ones who are technically my senior, know what the knocks mean (there’s a lot “Oh no, I gotta go, she’s kicking us out”). There are times that if one of my bosses is in a conference room I will go, knock, and stand with the door open while they get up and say by.

    It ends up becoming a lot easier once the precedent is set.

    1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

      I have also done the “two minute warning!” at about 5 minutes out. And being direct but cheerful “I’m here to kick you out, sorry!” also works pretty well. We do have some serial offenders though who Do. Not. Take. Hints, even when applied with a sledgehammer.

  17. Hmmmer Simpson*

    I wouldn’t give the “it’ll just take 10 minutes” people 10 minutes – I’d give them 30, but make them wait a few days. Or schedule buffers around super time sensitive meetings or things you know will go over. Ultimately, though, you need to communicate with your boss about how she wants you to manage this. She might want you to be the bad guy. As Allison points out you can do that in a warm and friendly (but firm) way.

  18. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I normally open the door and make eye contact about 5 minutes before the meeting ends to give the boss a heads up that time is running out and he should wrap up. When the meeting is scheduled to end, the door gets opened. Boss has the opportunity at the 5 minute warning to tell me if he’s going to run late so that I can let the next appointment know.

    Of course, it’s important to know your boss’s priorities. If he’s meeting with one of his colleagues or direct reports the above works great. If it’s a sensitive HR matter, or if he’s meeting with the chair of the board, it’s a bit trickier. In those cases I try not to have a meeting directly following because I’d rather not interrupt (where possible of course).

    But I agree with Alison’s suggestions – the best way to know is to ask. And I agree with whoever said it’s an illusion that we control our boss’s schedules. We facilitate them, not control them … their priorities set the agenda.

    1. Phrunicus*

      I was actually thinking of the very last episode(? or close to) when Debbie Fidderer is telling the incoming secretary about the role, and how her most frequent answer is going to be “No”, but to say it with a smile so people won’t feel so bad about it (or something like that).

  19. Marthooh*

    It sounds like either you or your boss is going to have to be the hardass here — and it’s not gonna be your boss.

  20. Beatrice*

    Do you have leverage to ask them to send an agenda for the meeting? I only manage my own schedule, but I insist on agendas for meetings, and when my time is tight, I’m not shy about calling people out if they don’t seem prepared to meet or they’re not being realistic about the amount of time they need. I had someone try to schedule a 90-minute meeting with me the other day, and when I asked for an agenda, she wanted a pre-meeting to discuss the agenda. Just…no.

    1. Kerr*

      Hard agree. Especially for anyone external who is trying to sell your boss on something. They can provide YOU with a meeting agenda before you agree to set up an appointment, and materials for you (or your boss) to review. You/your boss can then make the call on whether or not she even wants to meet them.


  21. oleander*

    Embrace being a hard-ass! You can be a likeable hard-ass, but once you have that i’m-not-putting-up-with-any-BS reputation, it’s much easier to get stuff done at work.

  22. EA in CA*

    I am a career EA as well. When I start with a new Executive, one of the first things we discuss is the expectations of keeping them on task and on time. My current VP has a meeting heavy role and in the last year of supporting them, we’ve had to adjust the expectations around keeping their appointments on time. Currently, I block off at least 10 hours of mandatory work time, nothing can be scheduled over it unless it is an emergency. This time set aside is also the opportunity for me to book the 1-1 with internal staff that those “10 minutes” of her time. External clients get 30 mins, booked into their calendars via meeting invites and a 15 min buffer between each meeting.

    So long as you are polite, professional, and try to be as helpful to the requesters as possible, you won’t be deemed a hard ass. You may need to take that stance occasionally, but so long as people understand the pressures your boss’ schedule is under, and you are honestly trying to help them find time with them, it won’t be a negative on you.

  23. Observer*

    Don’t worry about being a “hard ass”. No one competent and reasonable will resent you for it – and they probably wouldn’t even use the term.

    There are two things you can do to make sure that don’t come off as a “meany” (which is negative) rather than “formidable” or “awesome at getting things DONE” (both high praise). As long as people are being reasonable, always be helpful if you can and sympathetic when you can’t be. And know things about people at a level they are comfortable with. People like when you know their name. And many people are pleased when you remember that someone has a milestone birthday, an immediate family member had a major accomplishment, or something healthwise happened to a family member. For people like that a passing “How did Johnny’s recital go?”, “You must be so proud that Jill made valedictorian!” or “I hope you and spouse had a great vacation.” go a long way.

  24. Nobody Special*

    Many have touched on this but so much depends on your exec and what they want from you and how they themselves work best. I did a long stint covering for an EA on medical leave. This top exec in healthcare had learned to tell time thank you very much… after all she’d been thru med school and a long, ascendant career. Those who met with her knew or quickly
    learned that she controlled the meeting and her time (except of course when she was meeting with someone even more senior) She would often have chunks of her day with overlapping scheduling. She was great at teaching me how and what to juggle. I know the career EA’s here have learned how to work with their bosses even if the boss is not as expert a leader as mine was. And they’ve probably learned to avoid those who would routinely make them the bad guy about time management. (And what successful exec wants to look like they need protection that way??)

  25. Lavender Menace*

    As someone who has regular meetings with higher-level executives at my job…often, the people scheduling time are looking to you, the executive assistant, to help set the boundaries. We WANT you to be a hard-ass, as it were. I was chatting the other day with two coworkers who also meet regular with execs about the confusion produced when trying to schedule time with execs, lol. It’s so much easier if the EA is very clear about exactly how much time the exec has and what the boundaries are; most reasonable people will appreciate that.

  26. Cassie the First*

    Years ago, I had to walk faculty candidates from interview to interview and it was a little difficult to stay on schedule. In hindsight, we should have scheduled the interviews for 25 minutes to allow for a 5 minute walk to the next meeting, although we did build in 10-15 minutes for walking when the meeting was farther away.

    I was very hesitant about knocking on the door to interrupt the meeting – I’d usually just wait until the end time, or even a couple of minutes after. Then one professor suggested that I knock on the door 5 minutes early, to let them know to wrap up and that I was there ready to escort the person to the next meeting. I don’t think I did adopt this for everyone, but I did for this one professor. If I had to do that job nowadays, I definitely would do it – my job is to keep everyone on schedule, too bad if you can’t manage your time better.

    My boss is notoriously bad at staying on schedule – he’s never asked me to help him manage his meetings, so I don’t… unless he has a super important meeting and then I will knock on the door. If his meetings are just with students and professors, I sometimes will tell them to go ahead and knock but they (especially students) are REALLY REALLY hesitant about doing it so they’ll just stand there. Sometimes a line will form…

  27. Batty Twerp*

    Here in the UK it is somewhat of a cliche that to get a GP appointment you must first get beyond the Receptionist Harpy, who wants to know every little detail about your complaint, loud and publicly before granting you your 10 minute slot with the doctor. Obviously, this is somewhat exaggerated, but what they are doing is effectively what you need to be doing – it is not a good use of the GP’s time if you go in with a runny nose, but then mention your sciatica, and the lump on your ankle and this weird spot that won’t go away….
    I’m not saying you should be prying into every visitors’ reasons for stopping by, but this should enable you to schedule the 10 mins for a runny nose, and 45 mins for sciatica, etc.
    (Fun fact – I was briefly a PA when I was 19, and learned very quickly there were a number of visitors booking a slot with my boss just to shoot the breeze about the weekend football results! They stopped getting calendar time after I explained to my boss that I was having trouble fitting in the company mandated performance reviews because City lost at the weekend!)

  28. JagoMouse*

    As a C-Suite EA, I agree with everyone saying to knock on the door when people overstay and say something generic like ‘Your 4pm is here’. If my boss has to leave at a certain time, it’s ‘This is your 5 minute warning, you need to get ready to leave’. And definitely make the staff member use any regular catch up they have – or their managers have – you don’t need to let everyone through.

    For those ’10 minute’ people, or those wanting things signed – change your process. They now have 10 mins to explain the situation to YOU and tell YOU what you need to pass onto the boss. Same for any documents that need signing. You should have a regular catch up with your boss (daily if need be, at least twice a week) to discuss emails, actions, travel etc etc – you take all this info, all those papers and do all the admin in one fell swoop. The benefit of this is also that you get to know the business better, you get to know what’s important or not so much and you get to know the people better.

    So tell them when they come asking for time ‘The boss isn’t available, however if you tell me what you need I’ll pass it on and we’ll come back to you”. Then pay attention and take notes, and follow through. The boss can always get in touch directly once the message has been passed on.

    You’re the conduit for information – let it roll through YOU.

    1. Star Nursery*

      I agree with this! If they just need papers signed why aren’t they handing those to the EA who can get them in front of their boss and back to them? If it’s a ten minute question, can they give you the message? You take very good notes and ask any questions and then you pass along their question and if your boss has three minutes between a meeting they can quickly answer and you can follow up with the person. If your boss hears the question and it’s important to meet then you boss will tell you to put an hour on the calendar and if it’s urgent then they will tell you to reschedule other less urgent meetings.

      One thing I haven’t seen mentioned above is that each boss has a different preference for being given a notice that the meeting time is over. Some bosses might prefer you call and ring once. Or shoot them an email or text or IM. You might knock on one door on they don’t first respond to the IM or email, then knock again five minutes later. You can find out from your boss if they have a preference and then also escalate as needed. Lol

    2. Carrie Oakoe*

      This x100. In my new position, I’m helping to set up processes and streamline a company that grew from 2 to 6 people in a short amount of time. Everyone needs the boss, but a lot of the time the issues are small and she needs to focus on other things.

      Everyday around 4 I asked people if there are any priority things that need her attention the following day. (This in itself helps me determine if it’s really a priority- for example if the boss is already talking to them about the project, that’s not a priority.) She & I ate the first ones in, so I’ll give her the list & she answers. I then email the person, CC her, what her response was and they take it from there. Some people didn’t like it, but now see the benefits. For urgent things they’re of course able to come to her, but she wants everyone to learn what’s important and what can wait.

  29. The Cleaner*

    Is it at all possible to relocate some of these “10 minute issues” to your boss going to the other person’s office?

    Our VP is inclined to run behind schedule, and he hates being the bad guy, and he’s genuinely very gregarious and gets caught up in the conversation to the extent that he’s an active participant in why the meeting is running long. When it’s not actually happening, he says he needs help from his EA or me (I’m his division manager) in closing the meeting so in theory he wants our help, but in practice he is the one still talking when we’re standing at his door saying it’s time to end the meeting.

    One thing we started was, when possible, sending him over to the other person’s office, for more of a “hey, I heard you had a 10 minute issue, let’s chat” while he’s standing in their doorway. It seems easier for him, the big boss, to get up and walk out when he’s finished. Feels less like a meeting, more like a working conversation. Of course, it’s not always possible based on his schedule, but we move some of these 10 minute requests to this model when the other office is close to us, or we know he’s going to be near that location for another engagement (so if he as a 2 pm committee meeting in the South Building, we will schedule him to swing by Fergus’s office at 1:45 pm).

    Also one of the things that resonates with this VP is being viewed by staff as comfortable and approachable, so the idea of making these more casual visits to staff members’ offices was a plus in his book.

  30. GreenDoor*

    Yes to talking to your boss. I strugged wth this too, as an aide to an elected official. LOTS of people want the chance to have the ear with an elected official. What I did was ot really break down the specifics I needed. When are you willing to meet out in the community vs. when you want to meet at City Hall in your office? Are there people you absolutely do not want to meet with? When is a lunch/breakfast/coffee meeting OK vs. when you want an office-only visit? Are there specific people you’ll meet for a drink vs. those you don’t want to have a drink with? He was genuinely surprised by my questions but in the end was grateful that I pushed because it ultimately helped streamline his meetings and avoided a lot of awkwardness.

  31. Sometimes Wallflower*

    Just chiming in with my experience — I was an EA for years and worked for directors, VPs, and C-suite folks. I never handled this the same way twice, because every executive is different and has different demands on their time and different variations of the “just 10 minutes” thing. The thing I learned to do consistently is have very direct conversations with the E you are Aing about 1) the types of “just 10 minutes” conversations that are appropriate to schedule (if any) and 2) the system they wanted to use to get rid of lingerers.

    It is 100% okay to ask about this. Seriously, some executives had never thought about it or think it is obvious, but it isn’t always. Some like the optics of their assistant calling time on a meeting and some really don’t. It’s also okay to refine your methods as you go but definitely work on this if it’s something your boss has called attention to – they will notice if you don’t actively make an effort to improve it.

    Another option that I found useful at a few places, particularly for Es that wanted to appear accessible — but it depends on what’s available within walking distance — was to schedule “coffee” with people. Executive and visitor would walk to get a coffee together and chat about their “just 10 minutes” item, executive would walk visitor back to their own desk and got a text from me if they were running over.

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