The 3 Assets Every Great Executive Assistant Needs
This article is adapted from The 29-Hour Work Day.
The term “secretary” comes from the Latin word secernere, which means to distinguish or set apart. That definition is an adequate description of what secretaries were originally meant to do: keep their principals “set apart” from the rest of the world by managing their calendars, screening their calls and visitors, and ensuring they had whatever they needed to do their jobs.
In today’s corporate world, the term “secretary” is seldom used. As the word transitioned out of use, the perspective of who that person sitting outside the CEO’s office is and what their responsibilities are has transitioned, too. In that evolution, CEOs discovered that executive assistants who were less territorial and adversarial and more respectful and friendly actually made their lives and businesses run better.
This is not to say a good EA doesn’t need the right hard skills. They do. They must be efficient, and they cannot let things fall through the cracks. But soft skills are just as important—if not slightly more so. Below, we’ll go over the three assets that every great executive assistant must have in order to serve their principal’s needs.
Communication is probably the most obvious sign of a great EA. By communication, we mean across all forms of discourse and dialogue: verbal, written form, and even body language.
When communicating with you, their principal, a great EA will first think through what you’re asking before replying to you. That means when they do reply, they have options and solutions, not just questions for clarity—though they should be sure they are clear on your expectations—before they hit the reply button on an email.
For example, if a principal asks their EA to put together a trip, the EA should compile as much information as possible before responding, and the response should be clear with questions and information in bullet form. This kind of thought-through communication respects everyone’s time and limits the potential for confusion.
When it comes to questions, a great EA does not ask questions about things they should already know. That is, a principal should not have to tell their EA more than once that they don’t want to sit next to a particular person at dinner or that they don’t want a window seat when flying.
Communication ESP is evident when your EA goes the extra mile to prepare you for meetings and calls. When they schedule Zoom calls, they will reference the subject of the call as well as include the full name of everyone involved (e.g., Andrew Kumar and Kelly McInliss: follow-up from proposal sent 8/12). Additionally, in the calendar listing for the call, the EA will include notes from emails or any other content that the executive might find helpful during the meeting.
An excellent EA does not save their good communication skills for just their principal, though. They are gracious and polite to everyone—whether it is a VIP client being ushered into the office or the janitor they pass in the hall. They recognize they represent their company and their executive everywhere they go and maintain a high level of respect for everyone with whom they interact at all times.
2. Hard Skills
When the word “secretary” was used, the primary technology supporting the EA ancestor were the telephone, a typewriter, a pencil and steno pad, and a calendar pad. Sometimes we look back in awe at what those secretaries were able to accomplish with so few tools, which limited their ability to develop hard skills. Now, such rudimentary tools have been replaced with an ever-expanding array of computer apps.
Does a great EA need to know how every one of them works in order for you to hire them? No. They need to know how to do a mail merge, maintain calendars, send emails, write a document in a word-processing program, and understand the basics of how to manipulate a spreadsheet. Anything above and beyond that can be easily learned via online tools or a class, and a great EA will be willing to learn.
What is more important than specific technical know-how is the way an EA uses it—their hard skills. They must be consistent about how they send out every single one of their calendar invitations—always in the same format. The way they manage digital files should be efficient and easy to navigate.
Having strong hard skills means your EA is always at the ready to handle whatever curveball comes across their plate. If they know where everything is and how it all works, when that curveball comes, it will be responded to right away. It won’t land on a to-do list where it festers as the EA tries to figure out how to handle it. Sometimes that means an EA uses a “low-tech” tool like a spiral-bound notebook on their desk to scribble notes on; sometimes it means they are using cutting-edge new software. The specific tech utilized is not nearly as important as getting the job done.
3. Hospitality Mindset
We think the key, essential ingredient for a great EA is what we call “high-touch hospitality skills,” or, to borrow a term from the restaurateur Bobby Stuckey, every great EA must be a “hospitalian.” If an executive is to achieve their highest functionality and optimum business results, settling for anything less just will not do.
That service mindset is what will inspire your EA to use their superpowers and do things like refuse to schedule a budget meeting in the afternoon after you have a luncheon scheduled at an Italian restaurant because they know pasta makes you sleepy. Being a hospitalian means they will know not only when to distract and divert people who are potential time-wasters, but how to do it with panache and ease so they do not mind. Equally, they’ll know when it is beneficial to grant access to you.
In other words, a hospitalian has situational awareness and takes action on it. Providing such high-touch hospitality means your EA is proactive, not just in the sense of protecting you from problems but in the sense of having everyone’s best interests in mind.
When the hospitality mindset is perfected, a kind of corporate magic happens. No one can quite put their finger on why, but everyone’s game is elevated. There is a flow from assistant to executive, assistant to direct reports, to clients, to prospects, vendors, and everyone else.
Good EAs know that, which is why they treat the mailroom people with as much respect and value as they do the number one client of the company. In return, everyone is willing to work with them, to accommodate them. You will get better results from your EA, and the company will get better performance out of everyone.
A Great EA Provides a Safe Landing
In our view, an EA who is a hospitalian and is also very good at all of the hands-on, practical, and day-to-day responsibilities of their job is one you know you can trust. You can jump off the cliff knowing they will have the communication skills, the hard skills, and the hospitality mindset to provide a safe landing for you.
Meanwhile, everyone will remember what it is like to be in the presence of your EA, and how they represent you. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
For more advice on your EA’s assets, you can find The 29-Hour Work Day on Amazon.
Ethan Bull is a co-founder of ProAssisting, a next-generation remote executive assistance firm for business owners and C-suite executives. With a background in hospitality and expertise in the EA space, Ethan has held a variety of senior positions, including Director of Administrative Services and senior EA to the president and CEO at Rochester Regional Health.
Stephanie Bull is ProAssisting’s co-founder and the former EA for J. Crew’s CEO and the CEOs of two multibillion-dollar hedge funds. Before developing ProAssisting, Stephanie proved herself an expert in the field and a vital addition to the C-suite by fulfilling a variety of roles, including chief of staff, estate manager, and investment liaison.