These 16 Skills Will Make You an Insanely Effective Executive Assistant
Gatekeeper. Guardian. Goal tender. Traffic cop.
As an Executive Assistant, I’d bet you’ve been called one of the above labels before.
It must be frustrating. While there’s a grain of truth to the idea of the EA as “gatekeeper,” this description barely scratches the surface of all the value that you provide.
Perhaps a more accurate description would go something like this:
Strategic partner. Trusted confidant. Professional problem solver.
Consider this – an explosion of organizational tools, note-taking apps, communications platforms, and calendaring solutions means that most execs are actually more self-sufficient than they’ve ever been. If anything, today’s execs need less admin support, not more.
And yet, Executive Assistants are arguably more valuable now than they were in decades past.
Why is this the case?
Simple. The EA function has transformed from a supporting role to more of a strategic one. Today’s executives lean on their assistants not just for admin help, but for strategic counsel, technical expertise, and critical analysis. EAs are expected to dabble in things as wide and varied as project management, event planning, and internal communications.
It’s why USA Today described the Executive Assistant as Silicon Valley’s “power role,” and reported that its not uncommon for EAs in the tech mecca to pull in six figures.
A demanding role like this requires expert-level skills. So whether you’re committed to the EA path or hope to use the role to springboard to your dream job, here are the skills you’ll need to wow your bosses and make the biggest impact for your team.
(PS – Join one of our private FB Group exclusively for Executive Assistants. It’s a community to connect, collaborate, and share advice on how to overcome the wide spectrum of challenges you face in your role.)
As an EA, how many times have you been asked to pull off the impossible?
A good Assistant knows that making the impossible possible comes with the territory. To do it, you need scrappy resourcefulness and a resolve to just get sh*t done.
One of the most impressive EA feats I’ve ever seen was a few years back at an LA tech company. One of the Exec Assistants there got a request from her boss around 10 am on a Friday:
“Hey, I’m entertaining a VIP investor tonight,” he told her as he was passing her desk. “I need two courtside seats to tonight’s Laker game.”
The thing is, courtside Laker seats are hard enough to find under normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances. This was the playoffs. It was the hottest ticket in town.
I’ll never forget what she did after her boss walked into his office after so casually dropping that bomb on her –
She paused, took a deep breath, and immediately got to work. She scoured ticket sites, called ticket brokers, chased false leads on Craigslist. When that didn’t work, she picked up the phone and tapped into her network of other EAs, cashing in longstanding favors and negotiating for favors down the line.
To be honest, I still don’t know exactly how she did it. What I do know is that I saw her boss and his VIP guest on TV that night, sitting on the sidelines and going bonkers every time Kobe drained a three.
Calm Under Pressure
Let’s not sugarcoat things – executives can be demanding! Most execs have high-pressure jobs, and that pressure often gets passed on to you.
Not every day will be a fire drill, but it’s critical that you can function under the high-pressure situations that will undoubtedly come your way.
Going back to my previous example, there was something besides her resourcefulness that helped the EA in my story snag those Laker tickets – that deep breath she took.
She stayed calm under the pressure of a difficult task with a tight deadline. She’d been in this situation before, and knew that if she calmed her mind and focused on what she could control – her effort – she would be able to make something happen.
Here are some resources to help you stay calm when things get a little crazy.
Here’s another hat to add to the long list that the average EA has to wear – personal IT professional.
In addition to the usual professional tools like Microsoft Office or Google’s G-suite, today’s EA has to be proficient in the myriad systems, apps, and plugins that executives use to do their jobs. This may mean a working knowledge of Slack, Calend.ly, Evernote, Hootsuite, Salesforce, and Zuora, just to name a few.
When things go sideways technology wise, an EA rarely has time to wait for IT fix things. The ability to troubleshoot for your boss is a must-have skill. This is especially true in startup environments, where an EA might be the closest thing to an IT specialist that the company has.
Big Picture Thinking
The best EAs become trusted confidants and counsel for their execs.
Remember, you have a perspective that very few in the company have. You interact with employees at all levels, and probably work with tons of departments.
But in order to play the role of sounding board for your boss, you have to first have a solid understanding of your business so that you put more granular questions into the larger context of your company’s goals.
If you’re not quite confident in your understanding of the ins and out of your company and your competitors, there’s a fun and easy way to quickly get up to speed. Lunch!
Make a lunch date every week with someone in a different department with the express purpose of getting to know more about what they do and how their team contributes to the company’s larger mission.
Really dig in. Ask questions like, what has been your team’s biggest wins? Biggest challenges? Which of our competitors keep you up at night? If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the company overnight? The industry?
After your conversation, write down the two or three biggest takeaways from your conversation. Keep these in a spreadsheet for easy reference.
Not only is this a great way to network within your company, but before long you’ll have built the foundational knowledge you need to provide valuable insights to your boss.
Back to the idea of EA as “gatekeeper.”
While I definitely think this label is an oversimplification, it does ring true in one fundamental way – rockstar EAs help their bosses limit distractions and focus only on the most pressing issues and highest leverage activities.
In simpler terms, EAs need to help their bosses prioritize, and they need to be absolutely ruthless about it.
It takes sound judgment on your part to figure out what warrants attention and what you need to shut down. But it’s not all on you. Prioritization is something you work on in collaboration with your boss, and is definitely something you’ll both get better at over time.
The critical first step is in being clear on big picture goals. Simply put, you can’t prioritize without crystal clear objectives to help guide you.
Whether it’s news about an upcoming acquisition, HR matters, financial reports, or trade secrets, top level executives constantly deal with sensitive information.
Which, of course, means their assistants do too.
Transparency is a virtue in business, but even the most open organizations deal with privileged information that must be handled delicately.
Trust is probably the single biggest determining factor when it comes to success in the EA role. One of the surest ways to erode the trust between you and your boss is to be careless with sensitive info. Gossiping, adding fuel to office rumors, or posting about private company affairs in public forums like social media are never ok.
Of course, mistakes happen. A slip of the tongue or an errant email can have the same effect as a public Tweet about your company’s upcoming layoffs.
The best thing to do is to own up to it. Let your boss know the situation and work together to remedy the situation.
This might go without saying, but organization is an absolute must for Executive Assistants. The EA role is a fast-paced and constantly changing one, so you can’t afford to waste precious seconds being unorganized. In fact, a good EA develops organizational systems and improves messy legacy processes.
If your organization game could use some improvement, check out the organization section of our time management tips.
Yes, we know, multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains just aren’t made to handle more than one complex task at a time.
However, as we’ve heard time and again from Executive Assistants, some degree of multi-tasking is essential to the role.
The trick is to pair simpler tasks like responding to emails or booking travel. If you’re on hold, why not do some quick filing or data entry?
Definitely prioritize your focus-intensive tasks and knock them out one by one. But when you can, pair the more mindless activities together to maximize your time.
How else can you get more done in the same amount of time? Focus.
After you’ve prioritized your tasks, give them 100% of your attention, even if your thoughts try to wander to all the to-dos you need to tackle next. Many task masters swear by the Pomodoro Technique for getting through their to-do lists.
Simply select a task, set a timer for about 25 minutes, and focus only on that task until the timer runs out. Then take a break and repeat. The short increments make focused attention more accessible.
Truly great EAs play chess, not checkers.
To really thrive in the role, you have to be able to see ten moves ahead, and anticipate issues before they become full blown problems.
This plays out in two ways. The first is what I call “situational anticipation.” That’s when you see the elements of a potential problem coming together, and you work proactively to prevent them from developing.
The second is “personal anticipation,” and is about knowing the preferences and idiosyncrasies that are unique to your boss.
For instance, if you experience has taught you that your boss is sharper in the morning hours than after lunch, schedule that tough meeting in the morning not the afternoon.
In both cases, anticipating problems and nipping in the bud can save you countless headaches down the road, and allow you and your boss to focus on the important stuff.
EAs deal with people – lots of them. Internally, you interact with employees at every level within the org, from entry level contributors to managers, all the way up to the c-suite.
Externally, the same applies. In a single day you might deal with executives at other companies, investors and board members, vendors fighting for your company’s business, or journalists trying to get your boss to say something on the record.
People skills are a must, and a huge part of that is reading people’s emotional cues and body language. Doing so might be the difference between diffusing a fraught situation or throwing your boss to the lions (something she definitely won’t appreciate).
Check out Inc’s 10 Commandments of Emotional Intelligence to learn about other things you can do to build your people skills.
Expert Level Communication (and a Penchant for Real Talk)
For much the same reasons, communication skills are a huge part of the EA equation. An Executive Assistant is like a spokesperson for their executive. In many situations, your words are treated as if they are your boss’s, so polished emails and proper phone etiquette are a must. You also need to be able to present situations clearly and accurately, as well as be persuasive from time to time.
Many EAs also take on de-facto internal communications roles, drafting internal emails on behalf of their boss. These emails can reach entire departments – even entire companies – so top-notch writing skills are a huge asset.
Beyond that, communication is foundational. Most of the skills listed in this article simply aren’t possible without good communication.
Here’s something else to consider when it comes to communication – a good EA knows that real talk rules the day.
Remember, execs want to be able to bounce ideas off you or gauge your reaction to proposed solutions. But this only works if you stay true to your actual point of view.
Your boss doesn’t want a yes-man or yes-woman. She wants (and needs) to hear what you really think.
So keep it real. Executives can live in a bubble. It’s up to you to be their reality check from time to time.
Speed and Decisiveness
There’s no time for equivocation in the fast-paced world of the Executive Assistant. A good EA sums up the situation, gathers the necessary info, asks the right questions, and then most importantly, acts.
True, you’ll rarely have all the information you need. But it’s best to act quickly and confidently and move things forward rather than wait around for further clarity, or worse, permission.
Writing for the Muse, Decision Coach Nell McShane Wulfhart outlines 4 steps that help anyone make faster, smarter decisions. Here’s what Wulfhart says you should do when making an important decision:
“Get clear on what you really want.”
“Don’t choose something just because you’re “supposed to.”
“Remember that doing something trumps doing nothing.”
“Practice being decisive.”
Read the full post here.
Thick Skin and A Sense of Humor
Here’s the thing. There’s no doubt that you have an important job, as does the executive with whom you work so closely day in and day out. You might have a hand in some pretty big decisions, ones that affect the future of your company and the livelihoods of the people you work with.
But at the end of the day, the odds are that most decisions won’t be life or death. It’s important to keep things in perspective and be able to laugh at yourself (and your boss) every once in awhile.
The ability to roll with the punches, reset after a bad day, and keep things in perspective are all essential to becoming a killer EA.
Remember the EA who scored impossible-to-find Lakers tickets? She tapped into her solid network to make magic. Without support, advice, and extra connections, the EA might not have been so successful; one can only accomplish so much asking for favors on Craigslist. When tasks grow to legendary proportions, it takes a village to accomplish them.
To build and maintain a strong support network, EAs have to cultivate amazing networking skills.
Here are some of our favorite networking tips and tricks:
- Join as many Facebook and online groups as you can. These make perfect venues for quickly getting answers to difficult questions.
- Use Meetup to build your own EA support group that gathers weekly.
- If you often interface with any EAs at other companies, send them LinkedIn connection requests and invite them on casual coffee dates.
- Pay it forward. If you’re browsing an online board or attending an event and hear of another EA in need, offer your services immediately. If you ever want to get support, be sure to give it generously.
- Start a niche blog. Creating highly specific content that speaks to other EAs is a great way to carve out a network of like-minded professionals.
Want to know what else the EA who scored impossible-to-find Lakers tickets did well? She used negotiating skills to nab tickets that everyone wanted.
Both an art and a science, negotiating mystifies many. It can seem like some people are just born with a certain je ne sais quoi that inspires others to do their bidding, and maybe they were. But more than likely, these people cultivated their impressive negotiating skills. You can too.
Santa Clara University has a fantastic resource page on developing negotiating skills. Here are some key takeaways:
- Practice negotiating often, especially when nothing is at stake. Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation Teaching Negotiation Resource Center offers hundreds of simulations to get your practice going.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How do they view the situation?
- Consider the leverage on both sides. Do you have an even seesaw, or does it skew to one side? How can you skew it toward your side?
- Toss out a “win” or “lose” mentality. After a good negotiation, everyone should walk away with something.
In the introduction, we mentioned that EA roles have been steadily growing more strategic. Keep up with the shifting expectations, and increase your ability to think strategically by building up analytical skills.
You can leverage a strong analytical skill set in any situation, from handling tricky social scenarios to making far-reaching company budget decisions. These skills turn solid employees into indispensable critical thinkers that always seem to have the answers.
To build more analytical thinking skills, the education experts at Udemy, an online learning platform, recommend a variety of simple steps. Here are some adapted takeaways:
- Visualize your hypothetical actions and expand your thinking skills through thought experiments. When a real-world situation springs up, you’ll be ready to tackle it with your sharpened reasoning skills.
- Evaluate the world through a logical lens. When you hear a statement or read a piece of news, consider if it could be proven or not. This practice aids in strategic decisions, and it trains your brain to supplement your decisions and ideas with evidence.
- Question the numbers. Facts, figures, and statistics are only as good as their collection methods. Since many executives want numbers to back up decisions, it’s important that EAs know how to question sources. For example, if a report from a recent survey suggests that most employees would be happier if they had free coffee, you could ask about the sample size. The numbers might seem significant, but if only 20 people out of a 500-person company actually took the survey, then the results might not tell a conclusive story after all.
What about you? What’s the one skill that has been most responsible for your success?
Anything we missed? Sound off in the comments below.
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