In this article, author Jan Jones discusses who is best suited for the role of administrative and executive assistant.
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FlyPrivate: Our EA colleagues were discussing who is best suited for the role of administrative or executive assistant. We thought we’d ask you who do you think is best suited to the role of executive assistant?
Jan Jones: My opinion is the person best suited to the role of executive assistant is someone who wants to do the job. Even with knowing the pressures of the job, they still have the passion and are keen and willing to do it. And you better be willing because the role is not shy about demanding everything you’ve got. It challenges you mentally, physically and emotionally. So maybe the question is who would want to do this job? What level of willingness does it take to do a job that is strenuous and demanding, but thankfully also stimulating, fulfilling and rewarding at the same time?
If you’ve read my book you’ll remember my conversation with the assistant who was promoted to support a famous CEO. He was a client of mine so I had frequent interaction with his assistants. His assistant left and he offered the position to another assistant in the company. The job was above her experience level and seeing how apprehensive she was, I offered to coach her. Later, when she left the job, she called to thank me for my support. She said she would never have made it through but for our initial conversation where I said to her “Above all, you must be willing to do this job. If you are willing you will find ways to get the job done, even when facing great difficulty.” She said she kept that in mind every day. Without that advice she would not have been able to handle the rigors of that position.
The EA role is so varied and complex, it can be a major challenge to put up with all of its demands if you don’t approach it with the desire to be of service – not to a person, but to a purpose. The purpose you signed on for when you accepted the job. It requires you to be selfless, but not submissive. Above all, it means meeting the specific needs of the executive you are there to serve. And serve does not mean subservient. It means to be of service.
Recalling the example of the assistant I mentioned earlier, willingness surely is an absolute requirement for doing this job. I’d like to say to the assistants I come across on social media, who believe they are superior EAs, yet are deriving no satisfaction from their job: No matter how talented and skillful you are, without that desire, drive and willingness to do the job, you will not experience fulfillment or appreciation. Comments by some of you suggest that you think you are better than the assistant profession itself, better than the people you work for, better than other assistants who are holding you back because you are a “business partner” and they are “admins.” You feel angry, used and put upon. It causes you to lash out against the profession, against those you believe are standing in your way, not giving you what you deserve, or not giving you the respect you feel entitled to.
While you may have managed to secure an impressive title, and hopefully good pay, it makes no difference because you still feel no satisfaction in the profession. You are scornful of those who are enjoying their job and you don’t hesitate to put them down on social media because their optimism and enthusiasm irks you. It would help the profession if you could regain your respect for this role. Search your soul for where things got off track, and restart your mojo. If this is not where your true ability and passion lie, if it’s no longer the job you want to do, is it possible another career choice might help soothe your despondency?
There is also a tendency, in some pockets of the EA profession, to insinuate that the word “assistant” is somehow belittling. Strange, because those who excel in the job are those who show leadership, are self-assured, courageous, good decision-makers, resourceful and optimistic. Hardly the characteristics you would associate with someone being belittled. It’s a mistake to equate “service” with “subservient.” The best and most effective assistants are anything but. They are clear about their intention and the purpose of what they are doing, so they get on with it. They want to do the job and it shows.
The executive assistant’s job is multifaceted. How it manifests itself depends on the needs of the partnership it is serving. There is no one size fits all. Don’t allow your performance to be constrained by formulaic definitions of the job, which could potentially trap you or inexperienced assistants into a hierarchical mindset. To avoid that, practice thinking broadly. Develop your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They are essential elements of the EA role. Desire to do the job allows you to work unconstrained with passion and optimism, giving all of yourself to the work you love, like entrepreneurs do. Entrepreneurs are people who create value. When they see the need, they address it. They don’t consult a rulebook. They trust their experience, instincts and common sense.
There are written rules and there are unwritten rules. The highest performing EAs function deftly in that area of unwritten rules where their intelligence is their guidance system. Executives are expected to get the right things done, so their assistants need to tune into those “right things” and constantly ask “What needs to be done and how do I make it happen?” That’s the operating criteria of farsighted assistants who want to perform the executive assistant role. The strategic interests of their executive and their organization are their first priority. It takes exceptional commitment and skill to perform at this level. These are true executive assistants, self-starters doing executive-level work.
In the Foreword to executive assistant Rosanne Badowski’s book, “Managing Up,” her boss, the revered CEO Jack Welch said there’s a “kind of crazy, unrelenting zeal that makes you put the job first.” He talked about wanting an assistant who “lived and breathed work because work was so exciting and important.” I’ve always admired Jack Welch and my heart leapt in delight when I read that, because it’s exactly the kind of thinking I brought to my work as an executive assistant. Very few people understand or can relate to it, but that level of passion will set you apart and get you noticed and sought after in a hurry. You have to want to do it, and there are no shortcuts.
The role of the executive assistant is a calling, it’s not merely a job. And you have to treat it as such. Not everyone in this role is called to it. Typically, you don’t know that when you start, but after a while, the rigors of the role surely will give you a clue, and the often-inadequate financial compensation should leave you in no doubt! That’s what I mean by you have to want to do it. The more you care about it, the better you’ll be at it and more likely you are to be successful at it. How you’ll define “success” is up to you. To me, the exhilaration of accomplishment in my job on a daily basis was one measure of success that led to other successes like better remuneration and opportunities for advancement.
I want to point out something here, especially to assistants accustomed to working with CEOs, or other senior-level executives. Be careful what you wish for in being promoted to another role in your organization, or even accepting another non-EA job elsewhere. You’ll have a respectable title, new accountabilities, new colleagues, new workload and no visibility or access to insider news and information about what’s happening at the very top levels of the organization. You will be in lower or middle management territory, away from the company’s top decision makers. Strategy and direction for the organization will trickle down to you; you won’t be at the source. I’ve had opportunities to work like this and realized it was not for me.
In one job in particular, my CEO set me up with a new division completely suited to my talent and interests. I sat on another floor and I didn’t enjoy the lack of instant access to the CEO, even though his door was always open to me. It was the work I missed. I discovered I’m too accustomed to the power and excitement of the CEO suite. I’m most comfortable being seated side-by-side with the person at the apex of the organization. At the top, next to fast-moving, results-driven dynamic thinkers with powerful personalities, who are on a mission. Prove yourself and you’re in. They give you free rein, encouraging big thinking and calculated risk taking. That exhilarating environment is much more in tune with my mindset, style and pace. So think on it. While you may yearn to break away from the title of “executive assistant,” the executive suite may be where you, too, are the most productive and comfortable.
To help assistants who want to do the job, but who feel hampered by the idea that assisting is somehow menial, let’s use the analogy of the “assist” in basketball. The Assist is someone who passes the ball to another player who scores the point. The Hoops Addict basketball website says that the pass from the Assist gives the receiving player “a positional advantage they would otherwise not have had.” Sounds like the role an executive assistant plays in setting up their executive for success. The website says the Assist is “crucial” for the team. The Assists are players who are “unselfish and pride themselves on finding the best shot for the team.” The executive assistant is likewise crucial for the team. Without you, your executive or team might struggle to score. They are counting on you to make certain everything is lined up so your team has the best shot at scoring a win.
Another example of the importance of a supporting role is in the movie industry where they give awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress. The supporting actor backs up the lead actor, moving the story forward. Sometimes, the supporting actor is so good that they carry the film. Sound familiar? How many times have you, the executive assistant, single-handedly carried a project to successful completion? You took responsibility. You wanted to and you did it with passion. Even now you can’t suppress that satisfied smile when you think about it.
It is imperative that you never lose sight of why you love this profession and the contribution you make to it. To be successful you have to want it and love it – yes, love it.
Find ways to expand the role without biting off more than you can chew and wearing yourself out.
Take on projects that may not be directly related to your job, but that will give you experience and visibility, and keep you mentally stimulated and alert.
Volunteer to run or join in a company-wide project, especially if it offers the chance to collaborate with senior members of your firm, or outside stakeholders.
Develop your reputation for getting things done, being reliable and keeping your word.
Invest in job training and development. Ask your company to sponsor you. If they won’t, pay for it yourself. You’ll be the beneficiary.
Expand your network, especially with your fellow EAs. Share and learn together. Be a resource for each other.
Grow your sphere of influence.
Take responsibility. Show what you can do. Don’t wait to be told or asked.
Don’t let your work quality or output slip. Quickly regain control of it if you do.
Keep your motivation and your spirits up. Don’t yield to negativity.
Develop your instincts and your intuition.
Know your worth. Value and respect yourself and your abilities.
Have respect for your job and make sure it respects you.
Honor your contributions, don’t make light of them. Keep track of all over-and-above performance. Review it from time to time to remind yourself of your successes and include them in your performance review.
Make sure you are looking after yourself. You can’t run on empty indefinitely.
Hold on to your passion for the job. Bring your passion for life to the EA role because it requires passion: passion to excel, passion to exceed yourself – to be much better tomorrow than you are today.
All of these traits and practices will keep you engaged and enthusiastic for the role you play. Sure, there will be days when you think you are nuts for wanting to do this job. But then the next challenge lands in your lap and you are back in full swing. All systems are go as you realize you are one of the privileged few who gets to do what you want to do and love to do.
©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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