A role that has become popular over roughly the last ten years is that of Executive Assistant (EA), also sometimes referred to as Business Manager or Chief of Staff. The role involves working alongside a senior executive committee member (such as a CxO) and supporting them with specific projects or deliverables. This includes coordinating the technical content of meetings, and following up on outcomes with the executive’s team. Some executives may have more than one Executive Assistant and/or can overlap people performing the role to improve handover.
Two types of people
Working so closely with senior executives can be very appealing, and I recall a conversation I had with a colleague a few years ago about the types of people who choose to become Executive Assistants:
A) ambitious individuals with three to ten years of experience who see the role as a stepping stone to greater things, similar to an on-the-job MBA; they often fulfil the role for 12-18 months
B) people who are committed to supporting executives for the longer term, and enjoy complementing the specific executive, adding sanity, structure, and coordination to the directive get-it-done-yesterday-or-else style of some leaders
Advantages for executives
The benefit to the senior executive is the support they get, including the comfort of handing technical aspects over to someone who will get it done for them, through relationship-building, cajoling and reminding others. Some may recognise their younger selves in their Executive Assistants (especially when Type A), and others enjoy developing the careers of future company leaders. One past-EA told us she worked with a CEO who was “very focused on developing people and often shared lessons he had learnt over time”.
Onwards and upwards
There is a lot to be said for the stepping-stone effect: considering the cross-section of people we know who’ve done such a role during their careers, the heights they’ve reached subsequently in their careers is impressive. Some examples:
Your personal experiences
Over recent weeks, we’ve asked some of the people who’ve done these roles (both Type A and B) what their experiences were. For those of you considering what’s next in your career, we hope this will provide food for thought and prompt personal reflection.
Anne Ye is a mid-thirties professional, and mom to two children. She grew up in South Africa, speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English, and spent much of her career working for an international retailing group. She currently lives in Sydney, having relocated within the group to Australia a few years ago. Here is her career story so far:
“As a child, I remember wanting to be a teacher when I grew up. Later, it was to be a doctor.
In high school, as I excelled in accounting, I chose to become a Chartered Accountant (CA) upon the recommendation of many well-meaning relatives and teachers.
Planning my career path
Based on this choice, I planned my sensible career path as follows:
1. Study finance & accounting at the top university in my country
2. Serve my articles at one of the big 4 accounting firms
3. Qualify as a CA
4. Become a CFO (Chief Financial Officer)
Over the first decade of my career (including my university studies), I achieved the first 3 goals with total focus and relative ease. After qualifying as a CA, I joined the corporate world and began working steadily towards my final goal of becoming a CFO. The company was awesome, colleagues were wonderful, my role was interesting, the pay was great and the potential was promising. On the surface, life was peaceful, stable & looking good!
However, as the years passed, my original ambition of becoming a CFO seemed less and less appealing. Instead, a sense of emptiness set in and grew stronger and stronger. While my accountant friends around me were still working fervently towards the same CFO goal (and some began to reach it), I just couldn’t summon enough energy or focus to propel myself towards that goal. I realised that my original goal just did NOT interest me! I thought there must be something seriously wrong with me! I felt confused, but as I was not sure what to do, this feeling lingered on but was bearable. I suppressed it until the birth of my son brought on the urgency to re-examine my life. I felt a strong need to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life for me.
Exploring my future
This is when I decided to see a life coach to help me find a solution (upon the suggestion of my wise husband who was seeing a coach and benefited from the experience). Being an accountant, I am sceptical by nature, so it took me a few months to do tons of research to feel comfortable with this novel idea of life coaching and another few months to find a coach that I felt would be practical as well as resonate with me personally. I found her! A Chartered Accountant turned life coach; she was very gentle yet insightful. She asked such powerful questions that empowered me to find myself. Just 3 sessions in, I was able to have a clear look at my true self which I had been unable to do on my own after more than a decade!
My light bulb moment
She used the analogy that I was an apple tree among orange trees: that’s why becoming a CFO was of no interest to me and there was nothing wrong with me. It was a huge light bulb moment for me! The profound impact continued after I left that session and one day I had an epiphany! “Why not become a coach myself?” popped into my mind while I was in the middle of a financial meeting. Having understood myself better, I examined the various aspects of being a life coach and how it fit in with my interests and natural talents. The ability to work anywhere anytime was also very appealing to me, especially with small children. Having benefited immensely from the power of coaching myself, I felt I would be able to help other people in similar situations as me and help them find their apple tree selves.
Orange Grove Photo: Rolf F. Katzenberger ; https://www.flickr.com/photos/rfkatzenberger/7595759332
Putting my plan into action
So, I researched more about how to become a coach and decided to give it a try to see if it was really what I wanted to do.
I love it! I feel more energetic and happy when I am coaching and I get to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives which is priceless!
Although I haven’t changed to my specific childhood aspirations of being a teacher or doctor, I am back on the right path for me, as the essence is the same i.e. to help other people. My new, inspired journey has just begun!”