Executive Assistants are like secret super heroes. Instead of capes, they carry planners, but behind their bright-eyes and modest smiles rests the extraordinary power to manage life seamlessly and efficiently. Look around and you will find that next to every powerful or public-facing individual sits an equally magnificent EA working the backstage so her boss can shine on-stage.
Worn-out cliches paint EAs as dispensable employees – a luxury expected to compartmentalize work-life from home-life in order to streamline office-life. Think: Peggy Olson in the early seasons of Mad Men. Before earning her role as Don Draper’s “right-hand man,” Peggy works from a desk outside his office to perform her trite list of clerical duties. As a result, both the audience and her higher-ups perceive her intelligence as commensurate with the low-level work issues she handles.
In recent years, the work-life boundary that permitted this out-dated compartmentalization has blurred to a near nonexistence. Today, work life bleeds into home life every time we check our email after 5PM or find ourselves leaving less time for family in lieu of more time for work. With this decline of free time came its inflation, and soon thereafter, the luxury of an asset surpassed the luxury of the mere image.
As the role of the EA shifted from dispensable to indispensable, the job description transformed a banal office assistant into a custom-fit “life manager.” Fast forward a few seasons and Peggy Olson’s character shatters the glass ceiling as she climbs from a mere supporting role to a career star worthy of Don Draper’s admiration.
Although ahead of her time, Peggy’s evolution on Mad Men showcases the continually evolving shift in EA employment, its job description and the newly minted “pre-requisite” expectations. Long gone are the days of preset lists and mindless tasks. Executive assistants are now expected to shoulder a heftier responsibility, leaving only what they must on an executive’s plate.
*For the purpose of this post, I will use Executive Assistant (EA) and Life Manager (LM) interchangeably.
Defining Life Management (LM)
Life Management is not simply the art of maintaining balance – it is a way of life. While difficult to comprehensively define, in practice – Life Managers are expert jugglers. By standing one physical step behind the executive and five mental steps ahead of everyone, EAs fulfill their role as MVP by helping the VIP achieve his or her visions of personal and professional success.
In addition to scheduling, filing, organizing and errand-running, Life Managers commonly offer a second set of ears to new ideas and a second set of eyes to high-level documents. It is not unusual for an executive to bestow so much trust on their Life Manager that they expect everything in both their work and life to pass by their LM’s discerning eye.
To give you an example of what Life Management really means, I will recount one of my favorite experiences from the field. For a time, I worked for Space X’s former VP of Strategic Relations. It was obvious that he was a serious man with a serious career, which meant I was clearly in for some serious work. Even still, nothing can prepare you for your duties as an assistant like an open mind. The tasks I handled for him ranged from facilitating the sale of his house and a cross-country move to the construction of a large wooden shipping crate built on my back porch for the purpose of shipping a 6-foot painting 3000 miles to its new home aboard the houseboat in Seattle.
There is a photo taken of me amidst this endeavor that sums up my career experience as an EA. It is 11:30 PM on a Wednesday night. I am wet – part sweat from moving heavy boxes all day and part rain from the torrential downpour that began shortly before moving day. I am sitting crosslegged on the VP’s kitchen counter in a home that is empty except for me and an antique wood table. The transfer of that house the next day to an ambassador and his family hinged on the removal of that table. As I stared at the rain pouring down outside, exhausting all possible ways to remove and store this table, I decided to open the bottle of champagne the VP had been saving for a rainy day. About five minutes after I pressed that bottle to my lips, the rain stopped, the manager from a storage unit returned my call and I had that table on its way out the door shortly thereafter.
What it Takes to Be a Good EA and LM
If you saw me that night, you probably could not discern that I went to a top preparatory school, can speak three languages, or that I graduated from college in 3 years with a high GPA. Executive Assistance and Life Management is like that. Unlike many other careers, an EA’s success balances on a multifaceted plethora of seemingly unrelated skills. EAs’ academic pedigree can span over many fields of study; but a sharp brain, an extremely high level of emotional intelligence, infinite patience and low self-maintenance needs are non-negotiables.
Here is a list of some of the ideal qualities of a successful EA:
- Problem solver
- Event planner
- Empathetic listener
- Information broker
- Plus many more!
These non-negotiable skills are often overlooked if prioritized after the more traditional pedigree requirements. A great EA may not be showcased within the confines of a resume, but rather by their ability to hold a dynamic conversation or mold something from almost nothing.
My greatest inspiration and teacher for my career in Life Management came from my grandmother, a respected public servant. I admired the effortless way she organized people and lead them toward common goals. I coveted the way she never spoke unnecessarily, which meant she always spoke authentically. While by her side, I stood amongst some of the nation’s brightest leaders. Little did they know that the woman standing before them took a high school education and became a presidential advisor all because of a gift she called emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.” http://www.helpguide.org/articles/emotional-health/emotional-intelligence-eq.htm
Over my 15 year career, I have learned so much about the world, about people, about different industries, about myself…. the list goes on. I liken its impact on my character to the way yoga shapes muscles. Flexibility is the key, as it is one of the few careers that requires a person to constantly evolve and be dynamic in order to excel, but flexibility is also the reward. If done properly, at the height of an EA career the world truly is your oyster.
One of the most important things that I hope to teach you is that being a good assistant isn’t about scheduling appointments, handling research or running errands, despite being tasks often expected of the position.
Being a good assistant is about streamlining the expected and minimizing the unexpected. It’s about developing intuition, perfecting the art of spin control and using your education and experiences to manage expectations – both those of others and your own.”
How the Role of EA Has Changed
The other day, a journalist asked if EM was designed to elevate assistants from the role of ‘lackey’ to that of a partner. My answer to that is both yes & no. The actual executive assistant job description never needed to be elevated from “lackey” status. As expectations grew, EAs rose to meet them, elevating themselves to an indispensable position in the process.
Unfortunately, as these expectations increased, the tools and actual workflow management did not improve accordingly. What EAs need, and what EM is designed to provide, is a voice to shatter this prehistoric “lackey” stereotype and elevate their workflow as one worthy of intuitive streamlining.
Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly voiced that his executive assistant is the most valuable player on his team. She might manage a billionaire’s madness, but at the end of the day, she handles the same tasks most Executive Assistants handle day-in and day-out. (Read more about her here)
I have always known and appreciated the skill required to be a good EA and have made it my mission to support them in every aspect of their journey. Knowing what I know about the field and learning from other EA’s and LM’s I am witnessing the growth and evolution firsthand. I am so excited to play a part in defining what the future looks like for our career field!
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