[Dedicated to the many extremely talented Executive Assistants (EAs) with whom I’ve worked, especially Anna, Corinne, Jiwon, Jules, and Pamela.]
For 23 of my 25-year career at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, I worked as an administrative or executive assistant. I served a vice president, a president, and multiple deans. Since this is the workplace role I know best, I would like to use it as an example to discuss respect for those who serve others in all contexts.
An executive assistant is one who supports an executive. The Business Dictionary offers the following definition:
An employee of a company who supports the executive, CEO, or manager and can make decisions that affect the company. Also, the executive assistant will perform similar responsibilities as an administrative assistant, involving research, communications, correspondence, and office management. In some organizations, the executive assistant will attend meetings or conferences in place of the executive.
The same dictionary defines an “executive” as a person or group appointed and given the responsibility to manage the affairs of an organization and the authority to make decisions within specified boundaries.
As commonly understood, an executive assistant, or EA, provides support to a person in a leadership role within the organization. “Execute” the verb, and “executive” the noun/adjective both apply. To execute means to carry out or put into effect a plan, order or course of action. For the EA, the noun “executive” describes the type of person supported and the verb “execute” describes the type of activities the assistant performs – executing, on behalf of the leader, plans or decisions that he or she has developed.
A good executive assistant must possess the following : organization skills; technical abilities, especially computer software familiarity; travel and event planning experience; research capability; financial skills, certainly expense tracking and reimbursement, but also budget development and monitoring; information management and preservation expertise; writing competence for correspondence, reports and memos; supervisory or management skills if there are others in the office; and the ability to understand the entire organization and be a liaison between the leader and others, including sometimes acting as his or her representative. Also, a current “catchphrase” in most EA job descriptions is the ability to “multi-task,” which means, the applicant must be able to work very quickly, juggle many “task” balls in the air and remain calm while doing so. A tall order, wouldn’t you agree?
Many executive assistants begin their careers in entry-level positions supporting lower-level managers and acquire more extensive skills as their manager’s responsibilities grow. Experience then qualifies them for higher level positions. Many refine their expertise through continuing education or workplace development programs. Some eventually move into management positions themselves, because of their exceptional performance as assistants.
I’ve gone into such detail about the work of an EA to demonstrate what intelligent, disciplined, hardworking, skilled people (mostly women) are successful in this role. During my EA career, I’ve seen excellent assistants deeply respected by those they served, as well as very talented ones who were considered completely expendable by their principals (executives). When not respected, skilled EA’s are often misunderstood by busy executives who have no clear idea of what the EA is doing behind the scenes to support them.
In this series of blog posts, I plan to elucidate the intangible qualities that the very best executive assistants demonstrate in their support roles.
I’ve worked closely with 30 or so EAs and have the highest respect for what they offer. They are, indeed, in many instances, “the power behind the throne,” in the most positive sense. They do their work quietly, often secretly, to promote the success of their executives and the organizations they serve.
The next article will be entitled: Insight and the EA
Tune in again soon!