The role of executive assistant has been horrifyingly characterized in dozens of books and movies. Who can forget the terror Andy Sachs suffered at the hands of her impossible-to-please boss, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada?
But there’s more to the role than pop culture lets on. At “The Power Job,” a recent panel hosted by Conductor, speakers Katrina Conte, executive assistant to the CFO, The We Company; Morgan Sandoval, executive assistant to the COO of Firstmark Capital; Alexis Soper, chief of staff, Luntz Global Partners; and Melissa Crespo, executive assistant to the CEO of Conductor, discussed what being an EA really entails in the modern workplace, and how to succeed.
“I started at Time Inc. when I was 18. I was part of the secretarial pool, and every day was like secretary roulette—you never knew which man you were going to work for that day,” said Katrina Conte, recalling the start of her career more than 35 years ago. These days, Conte works directly for one person, and during her six years at WeWork, learning every aspect of her boss’s role has allowed her to excel in her own right.
The thing is, an EA job isn’t just an entry-level position anymore. In fact, the longer you’re in this high-pressure spot, the more valuable you are. As a virtual extension of the executive you support, you give her more hours in the day and twice as much brain power to complete tasks. The panelists agreed it can take a good six months to start really becoming adept at anticipating your boss’s every move.
“There is a lot of power in this role,” Conte told the audience. “Be wise with it.” With access to the people at the very top, there are plenty of opportunities to learn, make connections—and even get your own ideas and opinions heard.
The speakers shared the most important qualities of a power EA.
Hyperorganization. Details matter. “Never assume, and always confirm,” said Luntz’s Alexis Soper, who has been in her role for 13 years. She recalled one instance when she realized her boss, who was traveling through Asia, was without a visa for China. After a momentary panic and some quick research, she discovered that travelers going through China to another country can enter without a visa for 144 hours. Crisis averted—and lesson learned.
Ability to solve problems. Even the best executives are only human. When mistakes happen—files are lost, meeting rooms are incorrect—the panelists agreed it’s best to acknowledge it and be prepared with at least one solution. In the long run, being able to think on your feet is what really matters.
A thick skin. You know how you’re more honest and argumentative with your closest friends and family—emotionally or sometimes simply geographically—than with acquaintances? Prepare for a little of that from your boss. Throughout her career, Soper has reminded herself, “I’m the closest person to him, so he’s taking it out on me.” Unless it feels abusive, don’t take it personally. And if you do feel like you’re being mistreated, move on. “Don’t stick around with someone who doesn’t value you,” Sandoval said.
An acute sense of timing. This is another skill that improves the longer you work with someone. For example, consider the best time to deliver certain news; if they’re running for a train, maybe it can wait. “Pay attention to their mind-set,” said Firstmark’s Sandoval. “I am very deliberate with my approach.” Also, learn how your boss likes to receive info: If she understands things better when they’re presented visually, don’t waste time typing up a summary that won’t hold her attention.
A love of the job. Being an executive assistant can be a fulfilling lifelong career, not just a stepping stone to somewhere else. “Get up every day and be proud of what you do,” said Conte of The We Company. “We face a different challenge every day: One day we’re their therapist, sometimes we’re a seamstress—at other times, even the dentist.”
A desire to learn. Yes, there are schedules to maintain and errands to run, but in between those moments, the executive assistant role is like a crash-course MBA. You have access to every department of an organization. The more you recognize how everyone works and what you can do to fill in the gaps, the better the company will run as a whole. And if you ultimately decide that you’re not a career executive assistant, you’ll be better poised to reach for a different role.