How can you be the best Executive Assistant?
Problem — People don’t know how an EA adds value
Chad Dickerson the CEO of Etsy posted on his blog that he was looking for a new executive assistant. He commented that early in his career he thought having an EA was a bit vain but he grew to realize most companies would fall apart without them.
I worked as Kevin Spacey’s EA then Chief of Staff for many years so I have had a lot of time to think about what an EA actually does and how they add value. This post attempts to define the attributes of a stellar EA.
How does an EA add value
Imagine you are an executive managing the 200 person product team in an organization like AirBnB. You spend all your time managing others so it becomes impossible to manage yourself. It’s like driving a car while reading directions from a map. The faster the car is going and the more complex the route the more likely it is you will crash or get lost. An EA acts as your co-pilot mapping out the most efficient route and directing you so you can focus on driving.
A bad EA can’t prioritize
To be effective you have to prioritize the use of your Exec’s time, energy and attention. There could be a million people vying for their attention on any given day but it is impossible to do everything. It’s also counterproductive to do everything as you spread yourself too thin. The EA’s main tool is a schedule which seems pretty straight forward but in order to effectively schedule the EA needs to prioritize and you can’t know what’s a priority without having a deep understanding of the companies goals and your team’s strengths and weaknesses. You have to effectively know as much as your Exec which means listening to and reading everything. It’s a real challenge to constantly absorb this much information while continually rearranging a complex schedule.
The EA’s mission
Often people in large organizations lose sight of the mission and they define their job by their title rather than results. I love this post by Steve Blank which illustrates this problem all too well. Moving entries around on a calendar is not your mission. The calendar is pointless if it’s not helping your Exec to achieve their goals. Your mission is ensuring your Exec is able to achieve their goals. Your execs goals probably roll up into a companies mission which at AirBnB is “Belong anywhere”. Next time you sit down in front of your computer remember to acknowledge that the work you do is integral to the company achieving its mission.
You need a lot of Empathy
An EA without empathy is like an internet router, great at moving information but terrible at everything else. Empathy is vital if you want to be an A player in pretty much any role where you interact with people. Brene Brown does an amazing job of explaining how to be empathic in this video. Side note if you don’t know Brene Brown I highly recommend reading her book The Power of Vulnerability.
Standardizing, documenting and improving process
EA’s do a lot of repetitive shit. Scheduling, itineraries, events, briefing documents, storing information (contacts, account info, documents, photos) etc. You will waste an insane amount of time if you don’t standardize these processes. I used to work with a PA who would have a nervous breakdown every Christmas because they had no process for organizing a few hundred Christmas gifts. All they needed to do was list out the process once and they wouldn’t have to reinvent it each December. Documenting a process enables you to improve the process each time rather than reinventing it. You will do a tonne of calendaring as an EA so make a checklist of all the info you need to confirm for each calendar event then copy and paste it into the calendar notes so you can easily see what info is missing. (All processes are essentially a checklist. Read The Checklist Manifesto if you want to learn more).
EA’s can be awesome whether you are using the role as a stepping stone or it’s your chosen career. Please feel free to comment if you think I got anything wrong or missed anything out.