I really enjoy placing Executive Assistants. They are instrumental in C-level executives' success and the best ones do that with tact and perseverance.
I recently interviewed Sinead Noonan, an Executive Assistant who's worked with CEOs, Presidents, Founders and Managing Directors in industries spanning HR consulting, mobile technology, medical academia, financial services, staffing and recruiting, and the wine industry.
Sinead began by telling me about the misconception that anyone can be an EA, that it's just a basic clerical administrative run of the mill job.
Okay I'll take the bait, what skills are needed to be a great Executive Assistant?
First and foremost is be proactive! Always be in forward thinking mode. Expect the best yet plan for the worst! Have a well laid out Plan B. Always scan the environment, projects, deadlines, calendars, schedules, shifting priorities. Always be one step ahead of your boss.
You have to be a Type A for details, organization, planning, time management and making the impossible possible at times. All with the ability to grasp the big picture while operating in the weeds to get there.
Executive Assistants usually have a front seat to extremely confidential information, so discretion is critical. Always maintain confidentiality and trust.
Curiosity and a desire to learn are important characteristics, too. Learn about your industry and specific business so you understand how the business operates and its goals and can help support those goals for your executive and organization at large. As an Executive Assistant in the C-Suite you will be called upon to be a representative for your boss at times. You will need to speak knowledgably and intelligently. Don’t be afraid to speak up – your opinion will often be called for and valued.
Lastly, a sense of humor and a good sense of perspective help. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The desire for perfection can be immobilizing.
How has the industry changed since you first started?
Well, giving away my age, for starters we’ve moved from MS-DOS to Windows to the Cloud! Now it's a virtual world of virtual meetings and remote teams. Collaborative software tools. Fax? What’s that??
The role of an executive assistant has expanded far from the clerical administrative support role it had been. Professional EAs are now partnering with executives as strategic support business partners and as de-facto advisers, depending on the relationship.
At Southwest Airlines, Colleen Barrett worked closely with co-founder Herb Kelleher and became President of the company. Richard Branson’s daily must-haves are his smart phone and his assistant, who is his travel companion and sounding board for fresh ideas. Ann Hiatt has served as EA to tech leaders such as Jeff Bezos, Marissa Mayer and Eric Schmidt.
The salaries have increased exponentially to reflect the shift in the role. In certain industries you can earn a six figure salary before bonus, and at times equity.
What do you think makes you so well suited for this role? Why are you successful?
I’m an efficient, resourceful multi-tasker who thrives on change. I like to think I am a confident and self-possessed communicator with an ability to manage up and down as required. I have an acute sense of emotional intelligence and a well-developed sense of humor. Technology is my friend. As one of life’s insatiable learners I’ve yet to support an executive in a business and industry I didn’t want learn all about.
As an ambivert, this role works well for me. I have the autonomy to work in the background and think things through, which fits well with my introversion. The opportunity to meet interesting people and collaborate with other executive assistants appeals to the extroverted side of me.
This is not a role for those who want to be in the limelight.
Being an EA is fundamentally a strategic support role for team players who truly love to lead from behind. You have to be ok with that.