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.
Often individuals who do these roles talk about them not being a conscious choice or planned… Some say they were recommended by a senior colleague or boss. One was asked to support an executive struggling with increasing reporting and governance who needed a “safe pair of hands” with strong communication and networking skills. In other cases, availability of the role caused a u-turn away from existing plans.
Some spoke of wanting to make a job change, but not being sure of their career path, so they used a role like this for variety or to form a view on their future career, and create opportunities for themselves.
Others describe making a definite choice to get broader business experience in order to move from a technical to a generalist role, or seeking the role to be able to work with a specific executive e.g. one said “I only agreed to it because of the person I was going to be working with – at the time one of the most highly rated executives in industry, and also one of the youngest”. Another said she “was interested in the diversity of the role, [its] unstructured nature and the opportunity to work with senior people in the business and learn from them. I also wanted to develop other (non-technical) skills and wanted to understand the business better”.
The attraction of these roles
Aspects which can be attractive include:
Reflections on the experience
Reflecting on the role afterwards, most people were positive about having done an Executive Assistant role, with some neutral or balanced. Some highlight that all Executive Assistant roles are different, and depend significantly on the executive you are working with. The best experiences were described as “terrific”, “the role catapulted my career”, and I “don't think I'd be where I am now without it if I did something else in that time”.
One individual who has done a number of Executive Assistant and Business Manager roles speaks of her realisation that for her these roles have been perfect. “I have stronger EQ than IQ and it is in this area that I have added most value – in particular as senior executives are most commonly the opposite and have lower EQ. Doing what I do well makes me happy”.
Others refer to the positive impact on their outlook on how companies operate. One enjoyed the “exposure to new ideas and debates quite early on in my career”. Another said the role helped her to “now do a lot more strategic and operational type roles which I really enjoy”. A third added “this insight has surely made me more effective in whatever role I’ve done since then. It’s also raised my profile… and that role has helped me enter new roles… On the CV it demonstrates your appetite to look at things from a broad perspective”. The breadth of relationships and network they were able to build, and the exposure to multiple market segments were also mentioned. “I understand the context [of my later more technical roles] better and know who to approach about various issues. It has made me more grown-up”. Some didn’t appreciate all of this while in the role, but speak of really appreciating it later.
One described his EA role as probably the worst role in his career if he measures it by level of enjoyment and impact he felt he had while doing it. But, he recognises what it taught him for future roles: to pick work that he’s extremely passionate about in order to be fulfilled.
Every role has its drawbacks
While an Executive Assistant role does have its advantages, there are some drawbacks which come up consistently. One is the role’s focus on influencing, but not directly doing anything. This was described as “I never really felt I delivered anything tangible”, “it felt like I was not responsible for anything meaningful” and “[for my next step] I’m looking to now own and deliver something tangible [to demonstrate my skills on my CV]”.
The perceptions of the role were also referenced: “[it can be seen as] more junior than it often is and as an ‘uber-personal-assistant’ role” and “you are sometimes viewed as a glorified personal assistant or a ‘mailbox’ - it’s up to you to show how you add value”. One mentioned “the Executive Assistant isn’t always seen as a contributor [by the rest of the Executive Committee], so a strong manager who encourages your views and participation as an equal is key”.
The solo nature of the role can be challenge for some: no reports to develop your managerial skills, and no team to bounce ideas off or derive energy from which can make you feel isolated. And where the executive is very stretched, an individual can feel like they have “hardly any time to spend with me, so I felt quite under-utilised and under-valued”. Another said “there is a risk of plenty of downtime so you need to find opportunities to get involved; you get out what you put in”. Given the individual nature of the role, EAs can find support from others doing similar roles for other executives (as they understand the pressures), especially where they work in the same organisation – some liked being part of this community, and others not: “some [of the other EAs] were great to work with, others not so much”.
The role also involves “lots of reporting and chasing up on (very busy) people”. One commented: “Whilst this isn’t an issue in itself, there are times when I felt I wanted to ‘get my hands dirty’ rather than report on other peoples’ projects. I opted to work on a few projects during my time as an EA which helped in this respect.” Others described this as “a lot more repetitive admin type activities than I realised” and “some repeating elements that can become quite routine”. One said an aspect she didn’t enjoy was “spending time on something that was not used or just for the sake of ticking a box”.
Difficulties in finding another role afterwards were mentioned, especially as it removes you from a typical career progression path within a specific profession, and your technical development can stall. “Getting back onto the path can be difficult, but hopefully the profile you gain will help open doors”. “Sometimes it is very difficult to get back into business. One also needs to ‘return to earth’ as you move back down the corporate ladder”.
One final aspect worth contemplating is the level you are at in your career when you start a role like this: it is less likely to be suitable if you are later in your career, having run departments previously. As an illustration: For part of his career development, I encouraged a member of one of my previous teams to consider what his next role could be. I had been developing him to take on more responsibility by adding more direct reports over time. Among others, he explored an Executive Assistant role. He ultimately decided to take on a finite project working with the CFO which achieved a good balance of exposure to the senior team and a specific delivery he could point to. Today he is happy with that choice, and it has contributed to further advancement in his career.
Questions for you
If you’ve done a role like this, please let us know how you found it. What did you like? What didn’t you like? If you’re considering a role like this, and want to discuss it with PROTAGION’s mentors who’ve been through it, please contact us. And if you’ve hired your own Executive Assistants, please let us know what you look for. Given the career trajectories described earlier, it shouldn’t be long before there is a meaningful group of executives who themselves were Executive Assistants… the virtuous cycle of the protege-mentor partnership in practice.
Many thanks to Elaine Thomson, Willem van Rooy, Nimol Rajkumar, Darryn Padayachee, Jikku Joseph, Abu Addae, Marcé Marx (and others who asked to remain anonymous) who kindly shared their thoughts and experiences with us as part of our research for this article. All errors are ours.
Thanks to their generosity, we have a lot more content, and are planning a future article on the things they’ve learnt from their EA roles. If you’d like us to write other articles on specific aspects inspired by this one, please let us know in the comments what you’d find helpful or interesting.
[Update November 2017: the follow-on article on lessons from Executive Assistant roles is now published]