In this article, Author Jan Jones discusses the traits executives look for in their executive assistants.
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FlyPrivate: What traits do executives look for in their executive
assistants? Does the list change over time or does it remain fairly consistent?
Jan Jones: I’ve noticed that executive assistants are like CEOs in that the list of traits these two groups apparently must have, keeps growing and growing.
The traits that make up the core strengths executive assistants need for the job, don’t exist in isolation. These traits serve as building blocks that go hand-in-hand with each other, resulting in a robust EA professional. As we discuss some of the traits, it will be obvious that they reinforce each other. They’ve withstood the test of time,
serving assistants of previous eras well, and they continue to be vital in today’s business environment. An assistant won’t go too far in the role without having at least a handful of these core capabilities, and some are more crucial than others. We’ll discuss the list of
characteristics executives emphasize more today, due to the tempo and nature of business, including before and during the current
Apart from what executives are looking for, I’ll share some traits I see as crucial to the EA’s playbook, that are underestimated or
missing in some EAs. Being intangible, they are harder to define and executives don’t always clearly articulate a desire for them.
In The CEO’s Secret Weapon, I devote 3 chapters to the
Crucial Characteristics of an Exceptional Executive Assistant, and why they should matter to the CEO. I categorize the traits into
“Tangible” and “Intangible” because I’m certain that the Intangibles are what differentiate an exceptional EA from other EAs. Intangibles are hard to quantify. They can’t be taught, but can be developed with practice.
Two characteristics I view as inseparable are Anticipation and
Resourcefulness. They are fundamental to the EA’s repertoire and one without the other will make the EA less effective. Since they are vital to the EA’s toolkit, let’s discuss them before going on to the other traits.
Anticipation: Executives, managers and assistants themselves all list anticipation as the most essential skill for an assistant. It’s the top skill cited today and it’s been the most desirable skill that executives have craved from their assistants for decades. They crave it because it gives them a sense of security that someone is watching out for them and they won’t be blindsided, or unpleasantly surprised by events. Ironically, this is also the skill that executives say is the
hardest to find in an EA, so let’s give it some attention here and
improve the odds of executives finding it in future.
To excel at anticipating requires that you thoroughly understand what your executive and the business are trying to accomplish. Brad Weimert, CEO of PayDirect defines this as “understanding the
intent of the mission. Knowing the intent gets you to the end goal,” and plays a key role in your ability to anticipate. Anticipation means the ability to look ahead, so assistants must become adept at
identifying what can go wrong, and make sure it doesn’t. It requires you to think forward. Envision scenarios, consider possible
outcomes, what are the pros and cons of doing things a certain way? You must constantly be in evaluating mode so you can spot trends, anomalies, disruptions and opportunities.
To excel at anticipation also requires you to look backwards. What helpful insights did you gain from similar situations previously and how can you apply them? What went right? What went wrong and how do you make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Are there situations that are outside of the EA’s control? Sure there are. So the EA’s job is to diminish the likelihood of those situations and make them the exception, ultimately eliminating the majority of them.
Resourcefulness: From all my time and experience as an executive assistant and as a business owner, I cannot separate anticipation and resourcefulness. They are fast friends and you try to separate them at your peril. Anticipation alerts you to the pitfalls. Resourcefulness shows you how to get around them. Anticipation shows you the
opportunities. Resourcefulness shows you how to capitalize on them. Resourcefulness helps you to fix the problem once you
identify it. Resourceful EAs use whatever ways and means are
available to them to produce results. They see what needs to be done and they make it happen. They are quick on their feet.
Publisher Steve Forbes told me his assistant is “always figuring out how to get things done.” That’s what makes a resourceful assistant so valuable.
You ask why executives don’t always list Resourcefulness on their list of must-haves. It’s because they expect their assistant to get the job done. How the assistant gets the job done is of no concern to the executive. If you want a reputation for getting things done, make
Resourcefulness your faithful companion.
Let’s look at the executives’ list. We can’t discuss it all, so let’s
examine some of the traits executives said were a requirement when surveyed before Covid-19. They include Creativity, Critical Thinking, Curiosity, Communication, Decision-Making, Inter-Personal Skills (EQ), Organizational Skills, Problem-Solving and Time Management.
During this pandemic, executives are particularly appreciating traits such as anticipation, communication, organization, detail-minded and problem-solving, to keep work flowing smoothly and uninterrupted.
With the possible exception of Curiosity, there’s nothing on the
executive list that is unique to 2020. Curiosity is about having an
inquiring mind, venturing out, asking questions, being interested in the vastness of life. When you are curious, you are flexible and open to alternatives. Your work is a part of your life, so if you are curious about life, you’ll bring that curiosity to your work. If you are creative in your life, you’ll bring that creativity to your work. You are a
holistic being. You can’t compartmentalize yourself. Bring all of yourself to work and you’ll start to see results you never imagined.
Decision-Making Ability: If you want to be seen as an executive on your own merits, beyond being a representative of your executive, this is an invaluable skill you must develop. It’s timeless, it’s what separates great EAs from good EAs and it doesn’t come easy. You will have to work for it. It requires patience, dedication, commitment and desire to know the “big picture” perspective about the business and your executive. You must know it so thoroughly that the
credibility of your decisions never comes into question, and is not second-guessed by your executive or others. Frequent, meaningful communication with your executive is imperative so you are in no doubt about what they would say and do in a given situation,
because that is what you will say and do. Electronic communication has its place. For decision-making certainty, especially at the start of the relationship, in-person communication is superior because you can pick up the nuances that technology can’t deliver.
Critical Thinking: A much-requested topic in my presentations, I’m repeatedly asked about Critical Thinking by EAs, particularly when their executives push them to start thinking critically. I see the need for critical thinking in my business dealings with high-level
executives whose assistants exhibit flawed thinking and lack
problem-solving ability. It is also evident on social media where I
observe minimal analysis. If the topic is popular, if they like the writer, or if the writer offers a smattering of praise for EAs, that’s good enough for assistants to pour on the ‘likes’, no questions asked. That can’t be the criteria for evaluation. To think critically you have to set aside your personal biases, likes and dislikes and focus on the issue. Dissect, analyze, verify, determine its relevance, and draw your conclusion. Develop independent thinking. Verify your sources and question their claims. Broaden your horizons by getting your news and information from a variety of sources so you have a
diversity of opinions from which to compare, contrast and draw your conclusions.
To be a genuine Critical Thinker, you must have Courage. You have to look fearlessly at all sides of the argument, even if the thread is taking you away from where you feel mentally safe, away from the familiar ideology that insists you conform. After due consideration of the facts, you must have the courage to call it as you see it. If you can’t do that, you diminish your usefulness to your executive. They need to hear the truth from you. Be careful how you deliver it, but be a trustworthy and reliable source for your executive when they need to know the truth. Practice courage in your daily life and you won’t hesitate to do the same at work.
Organizational Skills: You can’t manage an executive or a team if you can’t manage yourself. The ability to create and keep order is a vital skill for an executive assistant who must be able to put their hands on whatever they need at a moment’s notice. In addition to an orderly workspace, all record-keeping must be up-to-date, the
status of all projects must be readily known, work inflow and outflow handled quickly, bottlenecks cleared, outstanding issues
followed up and status updated or finalized.
Participation: Adam Fidler, the UK’s preeminent EA trainer shared with me that increasingly his executive clients are telling him they want to see more participation from their assistants. They want their assistants to take part and contribute, instead of sitting
passively in the background. Adam says assistants who don’t
participate are reinforcing the old ‘secretarial’ stereotypes by not getting involved, showing any interest, or making a contribution. Adam cautions assistants, “If you act like a secretary, you’ll be
treated like one.” Speak up, let your voice be heard, share your
opinions, your observations and show your ability to problem solve.
Confidence: I heard someone say they’d like to give EAs confidence. Sorry, assistants, confidence is not something someone can bestow on you. It’s something you have to work at every day to acquire. It takes practice. How do you suppose those superstar athletes have the confidence to play their game with such certainty, taking risks and going for the gold? They train hard every day to develop their expertise. After winning the championship they get right back on court and practice some more. Their signature shot, their signature move, they practice until it is second nature. Kobe Bryant in an awards acceptance speech said, “Those times you stay up late and you work hard. Those times when you don’t feel like working. You’re too tired. You don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway.” That’s what you have to do in your job. Push yourself to mastery. As you do, you build your confidence and your credibility. You develop a sense of certainty about yourself and your performance. No one can argue with it and they won’t think of disrespecting you. Confidence is a gift you give yourself. Once you acquire it, no one will be able to take it away from you.
There are numerous other tangible and intangible skills that make up the executive assistant’s arsenal. Passion and enthusiasm for the job are high on that list because without them, the will and energy to do this challenging job would be missing. Detail-oriented,
responsible, resilient, trustworthy, diplomatic and a whatever-it-takes approach, along with the other desirable traits I discuss in my book, are the tools of the EA trade that keep the EA and the role
vital and alive. It’s what makes this profession the indispensable, but often unsung, champion of global business.
©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 debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New
Releases in the Office Management Category. It 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
personal development icon and author Tony Robbins. Jan is
passionate about the executive assistant role and continues to champion the profession through speaking, mentoring and offering 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.
The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their
Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness
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