Thursday, June 6, 2013

Answering Reader Mail: Career Progression, Wearing Different Hats, and Realistic Expectations

This week’s question also comes from an international/non USA reader!  They write...

“Hi there,

I just stumbled upon your blog today and am glad that I've done so!  I plan on spending some time going through your blog but was wondering if I could get your input.

I'm an EA to the President and CEO of a North American marketing agency that is growing rapidly.  I genuinely love the company I work for and have a great relationship with my executive.  We've gone from 40 head office employees to 400 across North America in the last 3 years.  When we were a smaller agency, I was the EA and Office Manager for a smaller facility.  With our growth, we've moved to a larger office and I now have a team that includes a receptionist and office admin.

I'm really interested in progressing and developing my skills but feel that managing the office is hindering my ability to focus on the core of being an EA.  I've heard of EAs who are promoted to Operations or Facilities roles later on in their careers but at this point, I am playing both roles.  I'm pushed pretty far in terms of capacity on most days - one extra board meeting or event can result in a spiral of 60 hour weeks.  At this level, do you think it's reasonable to have one person working in these two roles and expect success?  Would hate to pass up this leadership opportunity if it could mean progression for me in the future.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Anonymous please!”

Dear Anonymous,

I am so happy you like my blog and wrote in a question.  I hope my answer will be of help to you and feel free to keep me posted.  Congrats on all your success so far!  I do agree that working 60 hour weeks is very taxing and it’s juggling a lot when you are in fact doing 2 or 3 different roles.  I’m glad you are thinking about all of this now!

Before I answer your question directly, I do want to go over some items anyone in your position or who is an EA may want to consider.  A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a piece on LinkedIn on how there are basically only 4 jobs.  You can google for the article, but this is what it said:

“Everything starts with an idea. This is the first of the four jobs – the Thinkers. Builders convert these ideas into reality. This the second job. Improvers make this reality better. This is the third job. Producers do the work over and over again, delivering quality goods and services to the company’s customers in a repeatable manner. This is the fourth job. And then the process begins again with new ideas and new ways of doing business being developed as the old ones become stale.  Producers: these people execute a repeatable process.  Improvers: these people upgrade, change or make a repeatable process better.  Builders: these people take an idea from scratch and convert it into something tangible. Thinkers: these people are the visionaries, strategists, intellects, and creators of the world, and every new idea starts with them.”

To that effect, I also mostly believe that your work is either admin/process heavy or people heavy, which means you actually carry out the work/ideas of others OR you are a manager/executive where you manage people or departments so the business goals get done.  Why do I bring this up?  It would be most beneficial to you and your career if you thought about where you want to be in 3, 5, 7, and 10 years.  Do you want to manage people or actually do the work?  Another way to think about it is, what Penelope Trunk has said.  People say they love teaching yoga so they want to open their own yoga studio, but when you do that it really means you’ve become an entrepreneur/business owner and you now have to manage all the marketing, operations, finances, HR, and legal aspects of your business either alone or be in charge of those who do instead of teaching yoga. So it may be more aligned with your interests to be a yoga teacher at someone else’s studio so all you do is actually teach yoga all day.  So as you think about which of the 4 jobs you want in the long run and if you want to work with people more or do the actual work, it will mean different strategic paths for you.  Before you answer, I will address your question though.

You mentioned you really want to progress and develop your skills, but managing the office is hindering your ability to focus.  At this point in your career, I am pretty certain that you are smart, organized, reliable, and are doing pretty well with performance.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t be the EA to the President and CEO of a North American marketing agency that is growing rapidly.  You also wrote that when it was a smaller agency, you were the EA and Office Manager for a smaller facility and now your team  includes a receptionist and office admin.  I can only say I am pretty certain how talented and qualified you are since I don’t know your previous experience, how long you’ve been in this role, and how your performance reviews are.  However, to even be considered for such a major undertaking speak volumes.  So I think you are on a good path.

Something to think about is progressing and developing your skills.  As an EA, it’s pretty cut and dry if you are organized, reliable, listen and communicate well, understand the chain of command, and are diplomatic and trustworthy.  If you don’t have those basics down, it’s not really something you can learn well enough to truly change the trajectory of your career in a reasonable amount of time.  What you can focus on and the only way to “develop more” is test yourself and see if you can in fact work under tons of pressure, deadlines, insane work hours, competing priorities, and all different types of people/personalities.  That is the only thing that is different between a regular admin/EA and one that works for a Fortune 500 company.  I’ve made the analogy before on my other site -  Working for a CEO at a small business is not the same as working for the CEO of Disney or Pixar. Much like anyone can play baseball - are you playing in the high school league, the college league, amateurs, or are you playing for MLB? Yes, you are playing baseball, but are you a pro or in the little leagues? The amount of skill, pressure, stress, and problem solving differs at each of those levels.  So I’m not exactly sure what other high level tasks/responsibilities you may be missing out on when you have to manage the office.  EA work is typically admin work - phones, travels, calendars, expense reports, mtgs/luncheons, etc.  If you are hoping to learn more about advertising campaigns, market research, brand management, etc because your boss needs help with research, powerpoint decks, graphic design, but you are too busy and they give it to someone else then what you really may be hoping for is an entry level job in whatever specialty it is that you like.  Be specific and narrow about what skill set, talents, and abilities you want to develop so you know what you need to do to get that experience.

This segues into another aspect about being a Fortune-ranked EA.  It’s not unheard of to be on call 24/7 or to work 60-100 hours a week depending on your executive and industry.  Sure, it’s not a lot of work/life balance, but this also plays into what do you want your life to look like in the future - both career-wise and personally.  I personally chose to be a workaholic for the first 6 years of my career.  I didn’t take vacation, call in sick, or have much of a social life.  Was it worth it?  Yes.  Is it for everyone - no.  But what I got out of it was a strong foundation to my career, a lot of experience I never would have gotten otherwise, and the ability to choose what sort of jobs I wanted later in my career.  Paying dues is worth it for a reason...

I admit I have no information about you, your department or company; I only have what you wrote in your question.  Therefore, I only say the following just to say it and be thorough.  Believe or not, a job well done actually leads to more work and often harder or better work.  It’s because they trust you.  It also costs a lot to hire someone else because finding the time to find the right person and training them is expensive in energy, manpower, resources, and money.  It may very well be obvious to your boss and department that you have to pull 60 hour weeks half of the year, but it’s better on the bottom line to pay you OT for half of the year than to hire one or two people who will NOT be busy 50% of the time.  It is true that the higher profile and larger the company, a CEO will have 2-4 assistants, plus an entire staff at home to help them run their life.  However, this typically applies to CEOs who run major Fortune companies that have offices worldwide and generate billions of dollars in revenue.  It may or may not be to your detriment that you are asked to wear more than one hat, especially if you feel this won't last too long because the company is growing so rapidly hiring a full time office manager or facilities person will be needed. 

The good thing about where you are right now is you are getting more experience in BOTH the admin and management side of the business.  If you oversee the receptionist and the office admin, you are in fact a very low level manager of sorts and if you can manage them well as a leader, it only helps you if you want to go down that path.  Think about your career and what you want FIRST so you can start having discussions with your boss in your annual reviews on where you want to be at your next review.  In the meantime, for your sanity, assess on a daily or weekly basis how much work you have and how much time you realistically have to do them with the deadline schedule with how many waking hours there are.  What you are trying to determine is if you have so much work to do on a consistent basis every quarter that someone else should be hired.  You can also see the breakdown of your work week, what percentage is devoted to EA work and the office management side and what you hope it would be so you can get to the next step of your career.

Also think about starting a dialogue and what you want to convey to your boss if the workload is or becomes too much for you BEFORE you actually sit down to talk.  Keep in mind not to rock the boat too much or have unreasonable expectations because anyone is replaceable.  In the economy when a lot of people don't have jobs or there are EAs who love being workaholics, there is usually no shortage of people who will do a job for less.  However, if you know how valued you are and what unique things you bring to the table, it does mean there may be some room for negotiating.  If you feel as though your work or personal life starts to suffer, some short term and long term suggestions could be a 2nd assistant, hiring a temp, having an intern, establishing parameters such as you can come in early or stay late, but you can’t do both, or be allowed to NOT work overtime on Fridays, or you can work overtime OR travel, but not both, extra vacation days, leaving early if the business won't suffer, or you really do want to only be ONE role (EA, Office Manager, or Facilities Manager) so maybe as the company continues to grow, you can be transitioned once the new person joins the company.  If you no longer want to stay an EA, perhaps you can transition to be the Office Manager, Facilities Manager, or even become coordinator, associate, biz analyst, project manager, or director in a different department.

So do some soul searching, thinking, and determine how much longer you can function with a 60 hour work week so you can form a game plan!    

Next week, I will be answering a reader’s question re: 2nd assistants, red flags, warning signs, and the screening process!  It's such a great question no one has asked met yet, I'm excited to tackle it!

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post?  You can just write “Thx!” or something!  :)

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 5-6 days to answer.

I also write over at under Hollywood Executive Assistant.


  1. Thank you for the insight! This is so helpful. I am going to be reading post postings.You are so helpful!

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJune 8, 2013 at 3:10 AM

      Hi B - Glad you are enjoying my blog. It's nice to know that even though you didn't ask this question, the info was helpful to you! This is why I love hearing from readers!

  2. Thank you very much for your reply! I believe that I'll need a fair amount of "soul-searching" indeed. At the end of the day I love my EA role and suspect that I wouldn't mind paying those dues if I felt that more of my efforts were being dedicated to this "hat" vs. the others. It's the nature of the assistant to put others before themselves and I think I'm at a point where it's no longer working in my favour. Lots of thinking to do!

    I really appreciate you taking the time to write back and will do a deep dive on this.

    Thanks again!

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJune 15, 2013 at 2:26 PM

      So glad you saw your reply and it gave you stuff to think about! Feel free to keep me posted and ask more questions.

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