In this article, we discuss the top 10 lessons learnt during Executive Assistant (EA) roles. The EA role involves working closely with one or more executives, supporting them in fulfilling their responsibilities. It can also be titled as Business Manager or Chief of Staff, and our previous article “Executive Assistant: a worthwhile seat at the executive table?” discussed the attraction of such roles and their drawbacks. It was intended as an introduction for those of you considering a role like this.
In contrast, this article focuses on learnings from the experience – while a far cry from actually doing the role, we hope these lessons will prove helpful to those who want a crash course.
Lesson 1: Executives are people too
Working closely with executives lets you observe them in their natural habitat, being part of the territory which they are responsible for. And, rather than seeing executives as rulers of the jungle that need to be feared or revered, many executive assistants talk of the personal relationships they form. This regular personal contact underscores that executives are “only human after all” and helps those starting out in their careers see executive positions as indeed attainable – the role model effect in action. Darryn, for example, described his realisation as “[I] stopped idolising management, and started having more open conversations with them. I realised that they rarely have all the answers, and also value input and challenge from others in the organisation”. Another summarised it as “people are people no matter what level you [are] at”.
Lesson 2: Grow who you know
As discussed in our original article, many people who choose Executive Assistant roles do so to gain more exposure in their organisations, and catapult their career. Marcé described this internal networking with this statement: “Relationships with people and how people perceive you are two of the most important aspects of your career” and Jikku shared his learning that “being an effective CEO is not just about internal relationships but also about [your] outside network”. Another described his role as a “great opportunity to build wide relationships in the business”. Being an Executive Assistant has an exponential impact on the breadth of your network, across multiple levels of your organisation, and also with external parties your executive team interfaces with – the key is to keep building and nurturing this cross-profession network once your EA role is over.
Lesson 3: Making decisions
Another lesson past EAs reference is the opportunity to watch decision-making in action. One described this as “how to get things done in a big organisation and how decisions actually get made”. Their collective learnings in this area include:
I am doing the most rewarding and meaningful work of my life right now”
Another excellent and uplifting talk thanks to TED below. This one is by Paul Tasner, and is 7 minutes long. Paul worked in corporate environments for 40+ years and has been an entrepreneur since 2011. It is an affirming reminder of the phrase “You’re never too old to make a difference”.
Employee to Entrepreneur
In his talk, Paul describes his route to entrepreneurship in an endearing and accessible way, and comments “what I really yearned for [when I began] was to find other first-time entrepreneurs who were my age. I wanted to connect with them. I had no role models, absolutely none.” He sets out his vision to connect the “bold men and women who are checking in when their peers, in essence, are checking out” [i.e. retiring].
Paul’s professional background is as an (industrial) engineer by training, with a PhD in mathematics. His 40+ year employment career was spent in manufacturing and packaging. His last corporate role was in a natural-cleaning products business as Director of Operations. As a result of the late 2000s recession, Paul faced redundancy a few days before Christmas, at the age of 64.
Last month I completed reading a book called "Sprint"* which is about quick prototyping of new ideas, and testing them with customers to gauge their reactions before spending too much time or money on building them. This agile process allows course-correcting based on market reaction. The book is written by three guys from Google Ventures, and is very much focused on business innovation, and how to speed up the learning process. It contains a range of examples, including Slack, FitStar and Savioke. While not the authors' intention, the section on prototyping-in-a-day sparked my thinking about careers, which is what this post is about.
First, some additional detail on prototyping. One chapter described building a prototype like a movie set. In effect, this is hacking a solution that offers just enough so that it appears real to target customers i.e. temporary simulation rather than long-term quality. It must be realistic to prompt genuine reactions: a level such that the customers you're testing it with forget their surroundings and just react (like a movie audience). The book shows this "just enough" in the form of a steep cumulative graph, where, within a day, you can get to a product / brochure / service experience that isn't perfect, but also doesn't take the huge time investment to improve it further. It is an application of the 80/20 rule or "Pareto principle".
Learning new skills
I began thinking about this in the context of learning and applying new skills, and the career distinction between being (i) a manager and generalist or (ii) a technical/functional specialist. As a manager, you need to be familiar with a variety of different disciplines. This is both to support your own team members who deal with each specialism, and also to see opportunities across disciplines and interface with varied functions across your wider organisation. In this context, it can be dangerous to be too wedded to your own discipline that you started from as you can miss the bigger picture. As you rise in seniority, you need to be willing to learn new skills at the same time as trusting those who work for you. The new skills also help you to know enough to challenge where necessary. I worked with someone who wore his lack of knowledge about some of the areas he was responsible for as a badge of honour, proudly declaring his disdain for expertise in those functions. While he probably saw this as bravado, you can imagine how those in his team with that domain knowledge felt when their leader spoke that way...