Insight and the Executive Assistant

For the following articles on executive assistants (EAs) and respect, I will use the personal pronoun “she.” Most executive assistants are women, though I acknowledge that some men do pursue this career. The qualities I will write about apply to both male and female EAs.

As an executive and leader, you may not know that your EA is watching you all the time.  She studies your behavior in every situation.  She examines your motivations and preferences.  She is interested in what makes you happy, frustrated, satisfied and angry.  She watches your habits and listens for hints about your moods.  Your beliefs about the world in general and especially about the workplace and your colleagues are subjects of her steady contemplation.  Her focus on learning who you are, what you need and what you expect is intense.

She will study you subtly, quietly and diplomatically.  You will not even realize she is scrutinizing you, and you will not feel threatened by an invasion of your privacy.  A good executive assistant may know you better than you know yourself.  She can anticipate your thoughts, reactions, and courses of action.

These qualities make her one of your most valuable resources.  Her insight into who you are, how you behave and what you want to accomplish is cultivated to provide you the highest quality of support and service.  The focus, depth of concentration, and attentiveness to minute details that develop this insight are skills she offers in service to you and the advancement of your goals.  Respect and value them as important components of your partnership.

For instance, her insight into your priorities, whether stated or simply observed, enables her to manage your time, avoid interruptions and help you accomplish your goals. Her insight will guide her as she makes appointments, shuffles meetings, carves out the time you need to breathe, think, write and plan.  All this will happen in the background, perhaps without you giving direction or guidance.  You will feel confident in the unspoken understanding between you.  That understanding will help you to relax and feel assurance in your interactions with other colleagues.  You will be productive and be viewed as an important contributor to your organization, in part because you know she has got your back.

While she is studying you, she will also study the organization you both serve.  She will seek to understand its priorities and goals; she will have insight into the social atmosphere, any hierarchy that exists, who the important players and stakeholders are, and their preferences and habits.   These insights can guide and balance your own.  Rely on them and respect them. Encourage her to offer them to strengthen your partnership.

Not all executive assistants can develop such depth of insight.  It takes maturity, skill, practice, and patience.  If the EA does not focus on gaining insight into you and your organization, she will find her job harder, and you will find her less helpful in navigating workplace systems and politics.

Her insight will enable her to respect you, and you, her.  You are partners.

Respecting those who serve you – through the lens of the Executive Assistant

[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.

Read more:

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!




Respect: Accidental

Sometimes an act of respect simply happens, without either party involved noticing or consciously identifying it as such at the time, though usually one, or both, come away feeling good about the interaction.

During my work life as an executive assistant at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, I served a total of six deans, a president, and a vice president. I plan to write more about executive assistants and respect in future posts, but the incident I’m describing today occurred toward the end of my career and happened at the school of engineering.

The workday of an executive assistant is full of a long string of interruptions; sometimes the interruptions are themselves interrupted. Priority projects are extremely difficult to complete.  Anything that needs focus, concentration, and quiet must usually be done before or after work hours, when co-workers and bosses are not in the office.  I and my fellow EAs at the school of engineering, as we were wont to call ourselves, came up with a tentative plan to claim some “quiet time” for ourselves during the workday by closing our doors from time to time so that we could concentrate on tasks that needed, well, concentration.

At the suggestion of another EA that we ask our bosses if this plan were acceptable to them,  I looked for an appropriate time to speak with the dean I was then supporting, who happened to be new in his role.  From my perspective, the conversation did not go well.  He seemed, shall I say, resistant to the idea.  Up until then, he been very understanding and supportive of my work needs, so I was disappointed and a bit surprised by his reaction.  I felt deflated by the end of the conversation, and he seemed annoyed.

I was in the EA business for a long time and considered myself very adaptable, resourceful and tough. I tried to start each new day fresh and cheerful, so when the dean came into the office the next day, we exchanged a “good morning” and asked each other how we were.  I said my usual, “Fine.”  A few moments later he returned to my desk and said, “Tell me more about your need for quiet time.”  My heart smiled.  I thanked him for asking and described how difficult it was to get things done with many interruptions, however legitimate they might be.  He described his feeling that it was important for the dean’s office, and the dean, to have an “open door policy” and to be available throughout business hours to faculty, students and anyone who might need us.  I expressed my understanding and agreement and explained that I thought simply closing the door part way might encourage those who were headed toward the office to think again about the importance of their errand and whether it might wait until another time.  We didn’t “settle” on a policy, but by the end of the conversation, we better understood each other.  I respected him even more than I had previously, especially for his courage, sensitivity, and generosity in continuing a conversation that had gone badly the previous day.  I felt heard, and because I felt heard, I felt respected.