I was twenty-one and fresh out of college. After four years of higher education, I still had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up. What I did know is that I had to start paying for my student loans, my apartment, my car, and this fabulous, independent adult life I wanted so badly. Therefore, my main goal was to get a job — any job- that paid real money. Part-time writing gigs weren’t going to do that for me. Neither was my foray in to the community theater world.
I worked full-time in restaurants all throughout my college years so my resume left much to be desired. As luck would have it, a small hardware manufacturing company was hiring in their customer service department where no experience was necessary. My first week in to the job, I came home in tears. I had been feeling overwhelmed with my workload and was visibly upset. The CEO walked by me and asked what was wrong. Like the young professional I wasn’t, I proceeded to gripe about everything that was frustrating me. Instead of empathy, I received exactly what I needed which was chastisement for the self-pity and entitlement I felt. Ouch… I came home, cried and continued the self-pity until it hit me. He was absolutely right! Customer Service isn’t rocket science. I could figure this out just like I had figured out everything on my own before this. I was now angry with myself and determined to show him what I was made of. I came back to work the following Monday on fire and started to excel in the department.
Months later I was promoted to customer service manager. And a year or so after that I was promoted to become his executive assistant. And thus began my career as an EA which has continued for well over a decade now.
I have worked for executives in music, restaurants, healthcare, and IT and here’s what I’ve learned regarding what it takes to be a great executive assistant and how you will know if this path is right for you.
1. You have to love helping people.
A big part of this job is serving others. You may report to one or two executives but you’re also there to serve their teams. This means going above and beyond your written job description to help others. Whether we’re talking about scheduling meetings, booking travel, ordering lunches, submitting expense reports, or filling in for a fellow executive admin while they are away, your main job is to serve.
2. You need to be loyal and have a high level of discernment.
Business can be a battlefield at times and I’ve tried to make it my mission to be a safe place for my executives to bounce ideas, concerns, or strategies. Truth, Trust and Transparency were the three values of my previous executive and, by extension, they became mine. The higher level your executive is, the more you will be privy to very confidential information. Your boss needs to know that you can be trusted with such information. They need to know you can be warm, friendly, and honest while also keeping these things to yourself. Oversharing seems to be prevalent in our society today. Don’t believe me? Check out this video by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning all about oversharing.
You may have an office bestie, but work is work and there will be some things you cannot share.
3. You should be detailed, organized, and proactive.
When I first moved to Dallas, TX, I went to work for a music producer. Still fairly young and not having fully honed my executive admin skills, my boss called me while he was deep in the throes of frustration. He had just arrived at his preferred car rental company and had no reservation. He reminded me that it is my job to put myself in his shoes and think of his business as my business. I was supposed to think through all the little details regarding what he would need for travel or meetings and then do it. Seems simple enough, but I promise you every executive assistant at some point has forgotten a key detail on their boss’s calendar or in their travel. And it’s no fun when it happens.
The key to avoiding those mistakes is to regularly review your executive’s calendar weeks — sometimes months — in advance. Make sure you have a room booked for the meeting, the conference call number on the calendar invite, the car reserved when your boss arrives at their destination. Thinking ahead of time and being detailed makes all the difference.
4. You must be willing to do what it takes.
This job can be very unglamorous. I’ve had my share of perks during my career like attending movie premieres, going to the Grammys, trips to Chicago working in offices that over-looked Lake Michigan, and rooms at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to name a few. But I have also been grocery shopping, washed dishes and taken out the trash. If you’re not willing to do what it takes, and sweat the small details for your executive and their team, then this might not be the right career for you.
5. And, lastly, you should bring a great attitude in to the office each and every day.
Please do not underestimate the power of a great attitude. I make mistakes just like everyone else and get frustrated like normal people do, but my top priority is to bring a great attitude in to the office. I have a note I keep at my desk that reads, “Choose to Be Happy.” It’s a choice I make the second I walk in to the office and it’s my intention with every interaction I have. Your executive is in a position to surround him or herself with the people they liketo work with and who represents them well. There are a lot of people who qualify as good admins. They may have all the characteristics listed above. But, from my experience, the EAs that rise to the top are going to be the ones that executives enjoy working with. They want someone who, along with being professional, also brings some positivity.
So what do you think?
Being an executive assistant is certainly a unique position. You get to work with really smart people and view the business you’re a part of at a very high level. You get the opportunity to listen in on meetings where some of the greatest minds in their fields are sharing ideas and figuring out the future. And you’re also going to be ordering lunches and serving coffee.
It’s all part of the job!