In this article, author Jan Jones shares why executive assistants are grateful for their career.
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FlyPrivate: I’ve just finished reading your book. Since we are getting close to Thanksgiving, I wanted to thank you for writing it because it opened my eyes. It helped me realize how grateful I am to find a career I am completely suited for. I feel so inspired! Do you feel the same way about your career as an EA?
Jan Jones: I’ve said this many times, if assistants truly realized the power and scope the role of the executive assistant offers, and where it can take them, they would dive deep into exploring the role’s immense potential. Your gratitude would have no limits because nothing could hold you back. You’d never again say that someone won’t “let” you. They’d be a fool to try and get in your way. Your exceptional performance would make the executive assistant profession renowned throughout the business world. There’d be no need for the profession to toot its own horn, because its exceptionalism would be self-evident.
Without a doubt, I am grateful for my career as an executive assistant. It enabled me to start my business with very little outside help. Organization, systems, negotiating, customer service, problem resolution, analysis, bookkeeping, these are some of the skills needed in business that I solidified in the EA role. Business leads came from the network I’d built over many years in the assistant profession.
Many new business owners struggle with setting up infrastructure that can cope with fast growth. When the business ramps up, their systems and procedures must be able to handle the pace. That’s something that didn’t hamper me because I had 20+ years working as an executive assistant, where I was able to observe and learn how it should be done right.
Think about it. If a CEO or other executive starts a business, what’s something they’re going to need, immediately or eventually? An administrative person. Part-time, fulltime or virtual. I was able to save myself a bundle because I could do all that myself and I didn’t need to spend time bringing someone up-to-speed. Yes, I’m infinitely grateful to the EA role for the skills I developed. And I’m grateful to the business owners and executives who gave me the opportunity to develop excellence. I hope those of you who are currently in the EA role consider how fortunate you are to have these opportunities at your fingertips, and take full advantage of them.
I need to add a caveat here: When I replied to the EA who sent in this question, she said, “So, it’s easy for EAs to start a business.” I want to be clear that I’m not saying it’s easy for EAs to start a business. I’m saying that many of the administrative aspects of setting up a business were easy for me because I had plenty of experience doing those activities as an EA. There is much more to starting and building a business than administrative accountabilities, not the least of which are capital and a high tolerance for risk and uncertainty.
The EA role’s potential doesn’t only apply to assistants in the C-suite. I started at the bottom of the profession. I could never have known at the time how blessed I was for that experience, to land a job with two entrepreneurs who encouraged me to push boundaries. When I started, I had no intention of remaining an assistant, even though I had taken a comprehensive one-year training course. From day one in that first job and in subsequent jobs, I looked for ways to add value by growing my technical and business skills and learning about business protocols from as many sources as I could.
Like many assistants, as time went on, I realized I had an affinity for the role. I became fully invested in my work, even though in the beginning there was a lot of routine.
Interestingly, the more I did those routine tasks, the better I got at other tasks as well, and the more my confidence grew. When we understand the contribution routine tasks make to the overall business, the work becomes more interesting because we see the purpose of it. Assistants should understand the purpose of what they are doing. When it makes sense, you do it willingly because you understand why. You know you are making a worthwhile contribution, not just performing tasks at random.
Those bread and butter tasks were the building blocks, the fundamentals on which my future capabilities would rest, irrespective of where I ended up. I paid close attention to my bosses and how they functioned. What was important to them and why? Those things became the priorities. What did I need to do to become valuable to them? That’s where my focus needed to be. How could I learn from their business experience and make practical use of it in my role? Those were the areas where I paid extra attention.
Even as an entry-level assistant, I could see how much scope there was for an enterprising person to take charge. Too much was being left undone because no one was making themselves accountable for it. This realization became a turning point for me, because I saw how I could forge a niche for myself. That’s something every top-notch executive assistant understands. They don’t walk away from things that need doing, or finding help to make sure things get done. If you try stepping outside the boundaries you’ve defined as being your job, doors will open that you can scarcely imagine, whether you stay in the EA profession, or move on to other endeavors.
As a young secretary, when I saw those polished senior assistants who worked confidently with the top executive, I realized these were professional businesswomen; something I was determined to be, but I hadn’t yet figured out how, and never thought I’d find it in the assistant profession. Observing those women (and they were all women), I realized this could be a career for me, not simply a job. I owe a lot to those inspirational women. They helped me understand this truly was a profession in which I could develop into a respected businesswoman. Assistants, take this role seriously. Treat it with respect. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into learning everything you can, far beyond your job description. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what is revealed on the other side of your effort.
Where you take your role as executive assistant is up to you. An issue I see today with some EAs is that they expect someone to lay the groundwork and build their career for them. Opportunities will come your way, but you have to take advantage of them. No one is going to build your career for you. You have to do that.
A career is a path you forge for yourself. It continues throughout your professional life. When you move to a new job it has to offer wider opportunity than the one you just left. Taking a job where the only difference is better pay and conditions, is not really helping your career path. You have to make sure you are meeting your long-term professional goals. Review them often. This will give you a sense of purpose, keep you engaged in the work and avoid plateauing, as happens to many assistants as the years go on.
I’ve always approached the role in a very entrepreneurial fashion and I’m convinced that’s been the reason for my success in the profession. Look at it like a business. How would you perform the EA role if you were the business owner? I’m sure you would be more strategically focused. That means aligning with a long-term vision for what you are trying to achieve, not just the action steps it takes to get the immediate job done. Right now in your job, how can you align your everyday tasks with your executive and your organization’s priorities? What else can you do? What should you stop doing, or do less of? What can you do better? Understanding that alone will help you to prioritize your workload and help your executive and team to reappraise their priorities as well.
I know that in many organizations there are protocols that must be observed and assistants don’t have much scope for creativity outside prescribed parameters. What you do in that situation is find your way within the system and start showing your team there are more productive ways to function. What are some areas that can be overhauled and made more effective?
By showing your innovativeness, your executive and teams will be the ones who bend the rules and lobby for organizational change to let you expand your reach. Even if it’s only in your division, you can show them a much wider range of options for their own growth and innovation. Remember, you make your own career. You must be building it constantly. You have to apply yourself to growing your skills and expanding your influence. Do it. You will be grateful you did, even if you don’t see it at the moment. Once in a while, consider writing down a few things you like about your job, your boss and your colleagues. Gratitude offers a fresh perspective.
Executive assistant, Rita Vasconcellos Reis, told me that one of her objectives this year was to network and meet at least 20 people, internally and externally. She said “I’m grateful that my role as EA allows me to meet so many people, and let’s me work in many different areas. I can really help my executive and the business because of this.”
Build your connections. Taking opportunities like Rita does, helps to keep you enthusiastic about your work. It becomes so much easier to fulfill your potential when you are energized and enjoying what you are doing. Rita’s profile in her country of Portugal has grown substantially and she is sought out as a mentor.
Because I’ve done it, as have many others, we know the executive assistant role has transferrable skills that you can take with you into other professions. The administrative skills you develop will aid you whether you are helping the founder of a startup, or you are setting up your own company. Communication, customer service, negotiation, prioritization, all these skills will be valuable to you in other professions. And if you stay in the EA world, they will help you expand your reach into other areas of the role.
I was chatting with an assistant from Nevada. She told me she took an assistant job as a way to pay her bills when she left home. She was planning to become a teacher and did not take the assistant role seriously. “Then our company was sold. The new CEO brought his assistant from his previous job. She was put in charge of us assistants. I’d never experienced anything like her. She became my role model. I absorbed so much from her. Three years later, I was offered a job at another company, working for the COO. Now I support the CEO. That was 14 years ago and I’m still here. To say I’m grateful for the opportunities the EA role has given me would be an understatement. I’m paid well. My executive team respects me. I’ve traveled to Asia and Europe with my executive and met our wonderful international employees. I have started mentoring some of our assistants. Best of all, I’ve been able to buy an apartment, so I have more than just skills and memories to show for my years of dedicated service in the EA profession.” I love her story! A job that started out without much particular promise, ended up being a means to living a fulfilled life.
Be grateful for your job. Remember to express your gratitude. If someone has lent you a helping hand, given you an opportunity, or in some way made life a little easier for you, say thank you. It will go a long way to developing the relationship.
We have so much to be thankful for. Let that be our focus. May you live your life in a state of gratitude and recognize the many blessings surrounding you. Happy Thanksgiving!
©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.
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.
Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website: The CEO’s Secret Weapon.
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