Why would an Executive Assistant’s job be stressful? Isn’t it just a matter of typing most of the day and doing routine tasks like making appointments and booking flights and hotels? Don’t EA’s have it easy compared to the executive – less pressure, fewer decisions to make? They just do as they are told, right?
Wrong! Imagine this. Your boss’ calendar is already full of vitally important meetings when you receive a call from the CEO’s office that an urgent two-hour meeting will be scheduled for sometime the following day. You must clear that day on your principal’s calendar and hold it open until further notice. She is at an off-site (the latest lingo for a planning day away from the office with her team) and unplugged from all technology, so you can’t consult with her to determine who to reschedule when and who to cancel. So, as an experienced, knowledgeable, intuitive EA you set to work rearranging everything. This change will affect perhaps an entire month of meetings. Each person (or their EA) must be emailed or called, and the contacts must be made in priority order. You will have to wait for responses before contacting the next individual or group.
All the plans for your own workday must be put on hold while you tackle this unexpected rescheduling project. You will call into play your knowledge of your boss’s preferences and priorities. You must also be sensitive to the needs and feelings of those you are canceling or rescheduling. You must have developed an excellent working relationship with their EAs. You are required to accomplish this project quickly and efficiently while being constantly interrupted by others. You are trusted to keep your cool; have confidence in yourself and your relationship with your boss; smooth ruffled feathers; and diplomatically explain the reason for this change. You may even have to cancel travel plans at the last minute and keep track of the financial implications of doing so. And, in the midst of this, you must remain calm and cheerful, juggling multiple balls with faultless skill and perfect equanimity.
By the end of the day, you have made significant progress, but you are stressed and exhausted. You realize that, unknowingly, you have been holding your breath all day. Just before the workday ends, you receive a call from the CEO’s office that plans have changed and the crucial meeting will be delayed until the following week. Do you cry? Do you scream? Do you throw your mouse at the wall? No. You sigh, shake your head and pack up to leave the office. This is no surprise, this has happened multiple times before. You’ll deal with it tomorrow. Perhaps you’ll stay on an hour or two to catch up on the work you had planned for the day just passed: pay some bills, reimburse some travel expenses, proofread a report, get a head start on arranging an upcoming trip. Perhaps you’ll walk down the hall to chat with a fellow EA about the day, and you’ll laugh together to release some of the tension. After all, the day was relatively typical. It could have been worse.
I’m tempted to leave it at this and to draw some conclusions now about respect and the qualities of equanimity and humor exhibited by a top-notch EA, but I feel compelled to tell an even more stressful story – the responsibility of being in-between.
An angry employee calls to say he needs to see your boss immediately. Your principal has widely disseminated an “open door” policy. She wants to welcome and listen to others in the organization. But you know the situation with this employee, and you know your boss has already discussed the employee’s concerns with him several times. There are plans in the works to address these issues, but they are not fully developed. Today your boss has blocked off a couple of hours to work on a critical report and has said she doesn’t want to be interrupted. All of this is running through your mind as the employee demands an immediate meeting and says he’ll be arriving in five minutes, despite your protests.
You calculate that your boss will welcome an interruption from you in this case and you quietly enter her office telling her the employee will arrive any minute, and she should stay closeted in the room until further notice; you will handle the situation. She gives you a grateful look, there is complete understanding between you. You close the door and return to your desk.
A few moments later the employee arrives, red-faced and shouting. You speak softly and offer a relaxed demeanor, trying to mirror the kind of behavior you would like him to exhibit. You explain that your boss is not available at the moment, but you are aware she is working on the problems the employee is worried about. She will be in touch as soon as plans have been developed. You ask the employee to sit down and explain his concerns further while you take notes. You want him to know he is being heard and taken seriously. As he talks he calms down, and you gently communicate that you are in the middle of a project but that as soon as you can, you will inform your boss about the conversation that has just occurred. You stand up, the listening session is over, and he departs. You prepare a brief email to your boss, low priority, to communicate any new information or nuances you have just gained. She will read it when she has finished the report, or she’ll check with you on the way out to her next meeting. She has complete confidence that you have handled the situation appropriately and may say thank you or may just accept your talents as an intermediary with silent gratefulness.
You sigh, take some deep breaths – another uncomfortable situation diffused – and go back to your project. But later you notice how tired you are, how tight your shoulders. A slight headache hovers around your temples. Perhaps tonight you will go to the gym, listen to your favorite soothing music during your commute, or enjoy a delicious dinner cooked by your understanding spouse.
I have watched many talented EA’s keep their composure during extremely stressful incidents. They relate delicate situations that they have handled quietly, to prevent them escalating, or to save their boss time, effort and stress. They understand that their role is sometimes to smooth troubled waters and always to remain flexible, changing projects on a dime in response to the needs of their boss and others. They feel the stress these situations create, but, for the most part, they don’t show it. They welcome interruptions with a smile and stay late to finish tasks that have been pushed aside during business hours. They do their best to maintain a sense of humor about themselves and those they serve. Sometimes these efforts at equanimity fray slightly and take a physical toll, but they try to maintain a life balance that keeps them healthy and productive.
None of this differs from the lives of countless workers at all levels in all jobs and professions. I write about it because I admire the EAs with whom I have shared such stresses. I respect their backstage brilliance, strength, and dedication. We may commiserate in private, but in public, we strive to be models of calm professionalism. If you have such an Executive Assistant, she/he is worth her/his weight in gold.