Does Loving the Executive Assistant Role Make You Better at It?

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses the correlation between loving your work as an executive assistant and having success in the role.

FlyPrivate is a proud partner and associate of Jan Jones. Jan brings valuable, actionable information to executive assistants across the globe. We hope you enjoy her blogs as much as we do!

FlyPrivate: Will loving my job as executive assistant make me better at it? It’s hard to love my job when the work isn’t always fulfilling or interesting.

Jan Jones: The short answer to your question is yes, because we know instinctively, and research has shown, that viewing our work as interesting and meaningful significantly improves our performance. The better you get at your job, the more you will love it. The more you love it, the more fully you’ll apply yourself. At some point, you may stop seeing it as “a job” and you may view it as a calling – something you were born to do. You’ll struggle to remember a time when it wasn’t second nature, or you weren’t good at it.

While you may not love the job you are in, if you love the work your job requires – the work that comprises the executive assistant role – it will shift your mindset from dull and flat to alive and engaged. When that happens, the job and the work become fulfilling.

You can develop a passion for your work. My first couple of jobs were a means to an end. But that’s not to say I didn’t work hard, learn about business and develop my skills. I did. Then I started working with a dynamic entrepreneur whose passion for his business was infectious. I took on that passion and drive and inevitably I started performing at another level. I really had no option if I was to keep pace with my boss, but the thrill of high-level achievement was so intoxicating, I found it irresistible. Developing the fundamentals in those early jobs was vital to helping me raise my performance levels, because the groundwork was already in place and I had something to build on. The more passion and interest I developed for my work, the better I became.

Your question is a bit tricky because we often use job and work interchangeably. The reality is they are two different things. Let’s start by distinguishing between job and work. A job is a position of employment. It is a temporary situation. You can leave it and go to another job. When you do, someone else will fulfill the requirements of that job. They may not execute the way you did, even while doing the same tasks.

Some HR professionals may bristle at this suggestion, but to me it’s plain: Your job, meaning your employment, is not something you own. Your job is the property of the company you work for. They give it to you and they can take it away from you. They make the decision to hire you because you have the ability to do the work they need to get done. If the work you are doing is no longer relevant to the future of the company, they may decide to fire you rather than re-train you. You could grow disenchanted and leave, or the company could go out of business. For whatever reason, it’s an impermanent situation. The purpose always is to work a job as if you own it. But the way you do that is through the work you do, with the effort and expertise you put into the job.

In contrast to a job, work is something you have ownership over. The quality of your work, how hard you work, how you improve your ability, your attitude towards work, all these things are within your control. Work is about achieving specific objectives. Work is what you do in a job. Work has a “how” and a “why” element to it that makes it unique to each individual. Your work is an expression of yourself. That expression is non-temporal, because it’s the essence of who you are. You don’t leave it behind when you leave a job. A job is where you ply your trade and develop your skills. Work is how you master and apply your skills.

Because work is self-expression, people are inspired to pour themselves into their work. The satisfaction they get is in seeing themselves reflected in the outcome they produce, even though they may not realize that to be the case. It is why the poet Kahlil Gibran said “Work is love made visible.” That’s why people say they love what they do. You can love that work whether you have a job or not.

Be grateful for your job. It gives you the opportunity for self-expression on a daily basis. It allows you to develop into a master craftsman. It allows you to unleash your creativity in the smallest task or the biggest project. I remember one of my bosses saying to me, “I’m lucky to have you,” as he watched me handle a complex issue. A rich, dynamic, powerful man telling me he’s lucky to have me as his assistant. Frankly, I was overcome by his admiration. I replied, “I’m lucky to have this opportunity. So I thank you.” Our work performance is intrinsic to who we are. It’s an avenue for self-actualization. It can’t be taken away from us. It makes some employees more valuable than others. The quality of their work sets them apart. They are considered indispensable. When they leave, it’s a real loss to the company.

You are not defined by your job, but you are defined by the work you produce because you have control over it. Your work is your essence. It is you and only you. Nothing is more revealing to the world than the work you produce. It says everything about you, because, as sociologist Martha Beck so insightfully noted, “How you do anything, is how you do everything.” How you do your work communicates to the world who you are. Are you delivering careless workmanship, or presenting a masterpiece?

Work is not only about increasing productivity. It allows you to express your independence and authenticity. But you have to find that creative way to express yourself and make it your individual masterpiece. A masterpiece doesn’t have to be an oversized project that takes months. What you do in your daily routine can be a masterpiece if you bring your full attention to it and pour yourself into it. That’s how you find fulfillment and meaning in your work.

Don’t rely on someone to make work meaningful for you. It’s not your manager finding purpose for you. It’s you finding purpose in what you are doing. Sure, your manager can help you, but purpose is an individual thing. You are the only one who can truly know the purpose that gives meaning to your work. You are the only one who can live and work in a purposeful manner that applies to you and satisfies your needs.

Author and philosopher Ayn Rand said productive work expresses the best within us because work is how we control our existence. “We remake the earth in the image of our values.” Your work is as individual as you are. Productive work offers us a challenge, a chance to be fully engaged in what we are doing.

A fully engaged EA knows that productive work puts us in a state of Flow. Time flies because we are energized, immersed and fully invested in what we are doing. When we are doing productive work, we are not bored or apathetic. Our creativity makes the work we are doing interesting, even if the tasks are routine or “menial.” I put that in quotes because I don’t consider anything that is necessary to getting the job done, “menial.” Your effort can change that task from menial to elevated. Your mindset changes it from mundane to fulfilling.

All work has meaning to someone. The products your company is producing provide a service to someone who needs it. We don’t always see the value or the difference it makes in people’s lives, but the fact that the company is in business means they are filling someone’s need. To be of service to that market is the meaning and purpose of your company’s existence and you contribute to it.

If you are feeling unfulfilled in your job, perhaps you should read some of your customers’ testimonials about your company’s product and the value it brings to them. That could help to clarify the contribution you are making. Knowing you are making a difference in someone’s life, while making a living for yourself, surely should turn even mundane chores into worthwhile endeavors, because you are doing something that is needed for yourself and for others.

If your work seems mundane, look at if from the perspective of the expertise you are developing. How can you apply that to any future ambitions you have? How is your job helping fulfill your individual requirements? If you treat it as a means to an end, that’s what it will be. If you treat it as an opportunity to learn a variety of skills, if you remember the lifestyle your job is affording you, if you cultivate friendships at work, all the things that matter to you come into focus and your work has meaning.

For those of you working in the C-Suite, your work gives you the kind of access to high places you wouldn’t have sitting in your apartment complex, or carpooling kids to school. Understand the value of that opportunity. Be smart about how you can turn that opportunity to your advantage. Remember the story of Sylvia Bloom, the New York secretary who made small personal investments for herself based on the stock her boss asked her to buy for him. When she died, she left an estate of $9 million. She had high-level access to information that she was smart enough to take advantage of. She left the bulk of her fortune to disadvantaged students and various scholarship funds. Talk about making a difference.

At Chase Bank the tellers have a nametag that says what they are saving for – retirement, vacation, college, etc. It reminds them frequently what they are working for because customers have a conversation with them about it and wish them good luck. They have a vision for why they are working. There’s a goal in mind. Some people go to work everyday because they have bills to pay. That’s their motivation, and keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads could be enough motivation for working. When they think about who they are doing this for, that’s their motivation and inspiration.

Yes, the pandemic has caused us to examine our life choices because we’ve come face-to-face with our mortality and we want to spend our time doing what matters to us. Then find your personal purpose because it will give meaning to your work. Purpose doesn’t have to always look like curing cancer or saving the rainforests. Your purpose is what’s significant to your life. Look for work that gives you the opportunity to serve your purpose. Then, the trade-offs are worth it.

Here are some suggestions for how can you make your work more fulfilling and interesting:

  • Find ways to make a contribution within your role. See where you can make decisions about certain activities that give you a feeling of being in control.
  • Talk to your manager about how you can have more autonomy. Point to decisions you’ve made, or work you’ve undertaken without supervision. Ask for more challenging work that sets the bar higher and gives you some stretch.
  • Identify growth opportunities for yourself and the business and discuss with your manager how you can advance those opportunities. That includes job training that helps you in your current role and lets you expand the job to meet future needs.
  • Look for new and different approaches to the work you are doing that can deliver greater efficiencies, or additional value to your department or the organization.
  • Get involved in projects that are not directly related to your job, but to which you can bring some knowledge and expertise from your role, or your outside activities.
  • Consider being a mentor to your co-workers. Help them develop their skills. Help them get better acquainted with your company. Be an advocate for your company and the work it does.
  • Especially if you are the CEO’s assistant, find ways to frequently communicate your company’s story, strategy and vision. Become an ambassador for your company’s message. Share the values your leaders want to communicate across the organization and to stakeholders.
  • What are some ways you can contribute to other activities within your organization? Are there assistants you can mentor, committees you can join?
  • Make meaningful connections across your organization, with vendors and other stakeholders who can bring fun and inspiration to the workplace through shared interests.
  • Just as you keep your company’s goals and objectives in mind as you are working, do the same with your personal goals and objectives. Remember why you are doing this. It will provide incentive and impetus.

Does loving your work make you better at it? At the U.S. Open tennis championships this weekend, Rafael Nadal remarked that the reason the tennis greats are the greats, is because they have a love for the game that is deeper than the other players can find.

Basketball luminary, the late Kobe Bryant said, “If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it.” If you want to love your job, you’ll have to invest care, time and effort into it. If you want to be the EA equivalent of Kobe Bryant, you’ll have to bring unbridled passion, to the point of obsession, to your work.

Steve Jobs famously told a Stanford graduating class, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” That love comes from a place deep within your core. If you experience it, consider yourself fortunate, because not many people touch such a place. If they did, there’d be no such thing as “quiet quitting,” that in-vogue surrender to average performance and complacency under the guise of work-life balance and preserving mental health, by taking a stand against our culture’s relentless drive to hustle.

Burnout is not a badge of honor, so yes, you absolutely must find ways to balance expending that discretionary effort that is the cornerstone of the executive assistant profession.  Discretionary effort is intrinsic to the role of the executive assistant who is working in partnership with executives and teams. That’s just what it takes to get your job done. So do it, but pay attention to your physical and mental health. Understand how far you can go without suffering negative health consequences and dissolving into apathy.

The executive assistant role didn’t gain its value and longevity in business by half measures. Applying your talent and commitment to your work is how you build know-how and expertise. The way to get better at your work is to want to do it. The passion and drive you bring to your work will open up new ways of looking at it. Then work is no longer tedious. Even the most routine work is understood within the context of the bigger picture and takes on significance. Bring vision and purpose to your work. Why are you here? Who are you helping? Why does this matter? How are you benefitting? Seeing your work from that perspective guarantees you a fulfilling work experience and paves the road to a rewarding professional life.

©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!

Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20+ years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant. 

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The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness

Jan Jones

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