The Eye-opening Reality of Being an Executive Assistant

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There are two different types of Executive Assistant: the ones for as long as they could remember have known that they wanted to be Business Support Professional, researched the role and “knew” what they were getting themselves in for.

Then there are those individuals who became Executive Assistants by accident; the “I just fell into this career and haven’t looked back” types.

You’d think type 1 would be way ahead when it comes to knowing what was expected as an EA, but the interesting thing is that no amount of research, education or industry mapping could prepare any of us for what being an EA really entails.

Here is what nobody told you, me or the anyone else about being a support professional…

Having a thick skin should be on every job description…

Before becoming an EA, I didn’t realise how emotionally intelligent and thick skinned you need to be to succeed. My background was management and I always thought I was quite thick skinned due to the nature of the role. I took criticism well, was always confident enough to share my views but open to other opinions and loved a healthy debate. I learnt very quickly that, as an EA, you needed all these skills but on steroids.

Not only can your boss be challenging, but some Executive Assistant or Personal Assistant communities come with their own challenges of group politics, being overly cliquey. These colleagues, if you allow them to, can damage your confidence, make you question your worth and doubt your abilities as an EA.

As a support professional you need to be able to put on that armour, pick your battles and focus on the task in hand. If your boss is coming down hard on you, try and empathise and remember that they need you to succeed. 

Perhaps there is an important deadline coming up and the boss is under pressure? Have received some bad news that will change their mood? Or maybe they are naturally quite aggressive in their tone? EAs end up being the closest colleague to their Exec which unfortunately means you end up with the brunt of their emotions.

Having strong emotional intelligence means you are able to identify an overloaded boss and when a situation is becoming out of hand so that you can step in and take control. Managing up is critical to the success of your career.

NB: Workplace bullying is a different issue and should not be tolerated. If you feel that you are a victim of bullying or discrimination, you should flag this to HR as soon as possible.

Your role will often include wearing many hats…

At different times throughout your role, you will most likely be HR, Procurement, Facilities, Office First Aider and Bouncer to your leader’s office. These different ‘hats’ offer you excellent opportunities to immerse yourself into areas of the business that aren’t in your “day to day” role. However, this can also be a prioritising nightmare when tasks outside of your usual scope crop up during a particularly busy time full of time sensitive projects. 

It is important to maintain control of your tasks, making sure to prioritise and not take on too much outside of your main responsibilities. If you feel like you are being pulled in too many directions that are not directly benefiting your boss or his/her business priorities, pushing back with confidence or having a discrete word with your Exec is crucial.

Sometimes it can be your own boss asking you to leap completely out of your job spec, such as asking you to assist in personal matters when you are not a private PA. Boundary setting is important and there is no harm in subtly reminding them that you are unable to complete a task because you are working on other priorities for them. If, however, you have the capacity and want to take on more, it is always great to learn new things!

Which leads us nicely to our third point…

You’ll need an answer for everything, even if it’s not in your job spec…

As an Executive Assistant, you have probably been asked some of the strangest questions which have had absolutely nothing to do with you or your job role. Sound familiar?

EAs are often the first port of call for absolutely anything, be that knowing where the closest place to the office is to buy sushi, how to fix the printer, where someone can re-heel their shoes, the list is endless. The advice here would be to be prepared! If you don’t know the answer to something, be sure afterwards to either find out the answer, or find out who does know the answer so you can redirect the person asking.

Your little black book aka every assistants professional bible..

My little black (business card) book is my absolute go-to for anything and everything. Those random questions you’re asked? I’m sure I have an answer in there.

Need to book a last minute corporate dinner? My little black book should have a connection who would be more than happy to make space for my Exec. Need a guest speaker on a particular topic? My little black book has a number of speaker contacts, with their particular subject matter highlighted.

I can’t stress enough how important your little black book is; I truly don’t know how I managed before getting one.

Top tip: get some blank cards in the size of a business card for those connections that you make without a business card. Create your own card for them and add it to your book. Be sure to divide your book into categories that suit you, such as restaurants, event spaces, transport, speakers etc. Having that one location will revolutionise the way in which you work!

If done well, it is one of the most rewarding jobs in the office!

This brings me back to my original point. Some of us always knew we wanted to work in support as an Executive Assistant or a Personal Assistant whereas some of us fell into it.

There is a great deal of us still working as EAs after years in the industry, even though it wasn’t what we “wanted” to do. Why? Because being an EA can be so incredibly rewarding. If you want constant praise and pats on the back, this job isn’t for you; but if you like to witness your hard graft benefit your boss and the business from behind the scenes, then this absolutely is for you.

I love knowing that what I do every day is helping move the business forward and, when I do get those moments of praise from my boss, or from internal and external stakeholders it makes the ridiculous questions, long hours, constant juggling and the thick armour I wear absolutely worth it. 

Written by Kelsea Lindsey, EA at Intuit and Ambassador at The Assistant Room.