The most coveted executive assistants that appeal to senior management and recruiters are the ones that have either worked for a Fortune 500 CEO, reputable talent agency, or the ones that show great promise because they are hungry, smart, and can be easily managed. While it goes without saying that every EA should keep things confidential, be organized, and reliable, the best ones stand out for the below reasons.
1. Understand the chain of command
Whether you work in a very corporate environment or not, there is a succession of power and authority. There are steps that go in sequential order to get approval, finish a task, or communicate out a piece of information. This is basic business acumen among professionals when executing a decision. Each dept or company will also have a different way of functioning in atypical circumstances and at times you may need to make the executive decision. The more you ask questions before an emergency or unusual situation occurs, the better you will be able to handle the situation. The more you understand what is important to your boss, their priorities, and values, the better you will be able to execute the smallest decision in an office "emergency." For example, if your boss is on a business trip for 2 weeks, how will signature approvals be taken care of - fax, a signature stamp, by the 2nd in command, or will things have to wait? As an EA, often times you are the first and last person anyone deals with. Any time you pass on information, decide if it’s your place to share that information. If you do, perhaps say you are pretty certain, but you will check and get back to them right away. Understanding the chain of command helps you serve your executive better because you can help your boss forecast what needs to be done and who he will want to call on to help execute. This is why I always strongly suggest not only do you learn your own role, but how the other departments and executives fit into the organizational chart and how.
2. Observe seniority
Closely linked to understanding the chain of command is observing seniority. This means certain actions should be taken based on an executive’s rank in the company. If two executives are having a meeting, the meeting is in the higher-ranked executive’s office, unless a more convenient, logical reason arises. Seniority matters when seating everyone at a formal dinner table, deciding who to assist first or has the most urgent business, and making introductions. Everyone should always be treated well and with respect. The seniority rule helps dictate in what order someone gets a turn.
3. No explanations are expected
This means when you are assigned a task you do it without any questions asked on why you have to do it or what/who it’s for. If you can’t carry out the task without that information you can ask, otherwise, an executive shouldn’t owe you an explanation. They are your boss.
4. No choice
When you are asked to carry out a task, unless you feel it is illegal or immoral and feel uncomfortable doing it, it’s best to do the task. Even if it may not be in your domain, do it. If you feel the task should not be handled by you, bring it up later when it’s a better time. If someone besides your immediate boss asked you to do something and you have issue with it, tell your boss at a later time and ask them to hash it out with the other person. It’s best to provide a suggestion or three on who should handle that task - perhaps an intern or another assistant. In the moment, it’s best to treat it as if you have no choice, but to do the task. Taking time to argue your points when something is time sensitive is poor form and doesn’t help anyone.
5. Understand how delegation works
The point of delegation is so that your executive does not have to think and do minor tasks. This way they can focus on the bigger projects. Even if you have to ask a lot of questions and it seems best if they just do it, they rely on you to lessen their load. The back and forth in little steps is actually easier for them instead of them trying to carve out a chunk of 5min-15min to do the task themselves. The goal of delegation is for your executive not to do the task, that’s it, NOT for the task to be done more efficiently, faster, or easier in general. It’s for your executive to not have to think about the task at all. This is also where seniority takes place, if someone who is senior to you asks you to do something, you do it.
6. Know your place in the organizational structure
Whether you work for the CEO or you don’t, it’s important to know the role you play at your company in the bigger scheme. While you run their life and are the central cog, you are also one of many, many aspects. Your boss has a boss and other people he also must answer to, whether it's the chairman of the board, the public, shareholders, or his family/loved ones. Often being an assistant is a thankless job or one filled with minute duties. However, someone needs to do it. Just like being a Fed Ex delivery person isn’t that glamorous, they are needed in the business world, and they get paid a salary that isn’t too shabby. Being a happy assistant is the best trait. CEOs and senior management love their job, that’s how they became the boss. To have an assistant they work with closely who is just as passionate and excited is great. Yes, you will have your bad days, yet try not to let your emotional tone permeate the office. This also means realizing your boss has a lot on their plate. So much that even if you are their assistant, they are dealing with so much confidential stuff that you also don’t even know about it. I can only relate it to being a parent. When you were a kid you only thought about your friends and what you wanted to eat, play, and the present. Now that you are an adult, you realize what your parents juggled and what caused sleepless nights - cash flow, debt, saving for college, and getting from point A to point B while sick with three kids and a dog to take care of. It’s the same with your boss. They are thinking about the merger/buyout, layoffs, hitting that big deadline that the last 2 years have been about, how what is going on in Asia affects America, or how their mother is dying and they are fighting with their teens at home. How you act and behave as the face of the CEO's office and on behalf of your company is to realize sometimes you are "just the assistant" and sometimes you are the pivotal good woman or man behind every powerful leader.
7. It is what it is
The best assistants realize that what is currently happening is most likely how it always was and always will be. Instead of trying to fight the system or process they just go with it and adapt. You can’t change anyone else so the best route is to change yourself to better handle the chaos at work. It might be a mental/state of mind change, or action and changing the process and implementing new procedures, or realizing there is nothing to be done and do the best you can. There is no perfect answer, and sometimes there is no answer, except learning to cope better.
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I also write over at Jobstr.com under Hollywood Executive Assistant.