Posted almost 7 years ago by Career Moves Office Support

Rise of the EA: What to Look for in an Executive Assistant


​This is part two of a guest post by Melba Duncan. Read part one here.

This article focuses on what skills and personality characteristics to look for when hiring an Executive Assistant.

What Should I Look For When Hiring A Professional Executive Assistant?

Performance Skills

  • Experience (how the person has expanded in the role).

  • Competences (what are the areas in which this person excels?).

  • Personal Attributes (does this person reflect confidence and a centered ego; someone who gets it done?).

  • Knowledge (does this person have the reliable skills?).

  • Social/Interpersonal Skills (does this person have the charisma to manage global relationships?).

  • Character: professional courage (the intention to do the right thing). Strategic Competence (knowing how to do the right thing).

  • Imagination: Intellectual Integration (the ability to deliver and execute the right thing).

The expert Professional Executive Assistant focuses on results and on maximising efficiency. The Assistant understands the importance of clarifying the employer’s objectives by putting himself/herself in those situations and applying good judgment. The goal is to weed through ambiguity, manage inherent unpredictability, zero in on the most important points, reach a decision and execute on behalf of the Executive.

The key is to have the ability to connect unrelated questions or ideas to an unexpected event.

The Secret Of A Great Executive Assistant

The secret of a great Executive Assistant is the principle of attitude, the breadth of collaboration and relentless attention to detail.  The Executive Assistant’s major contribution is in the ability to handle work that is fast-paced, requiring an extraordinary number of skills that are displayed in quick motion.  Processing information, making evidenced-based decisions quickly, grouping tasks and making intuitive judgments on the fly are manifestations of intelligence and adaptability to change.

Additionally, smart Assistants pay attention to clues in the Executive’s behavior and shifts in temperament, because timing and judgment are the foundation of a smooth working relationship.  This helps Assistants not to take information passed on at face value, or to make assumptions in their decision making.  Why? Because they know that priorities and concerns change, and that they have to be on top of these shifts all the time.

Professional Executive Assistants do not operate in a world of excuses. They have the emotional maturity to manage distracted behaviors, the endurance capacity to sustain themselves in environments where they will encounter: uneven temperaments; rapid pace; limited signs of appreciation; conflicting instructions; behavior that deters productivity; and, the demand for high levels of intelligence and superb response skills.

Defining the Business Partnership

Most Senior Executives now rely more than ever on their professional Executive Assistant, who fills the roles of “advance person”, and “right- and left-hand person”. This is the business partner whose job it is to provide strategic support, as the need arises, as technology resource, trouble-shooter, translator, help desk attendant, diplomat, human database, weather advisor, travel consultant, sales executive, amateur psychologist, spousal interface and ambassador to the inside and outside world.  Often the Executive Assistant most resembles Executives themselves: by mastering the art of delegation and exercising fluid, decisive action.

While the Executive Assistant’s role will continue to be defined in relation to the Executive’s responsibilities and the structure and culture of the organisation, in this new world economy, the work of the Executive Assistant is placed squarely in the middle of the work of the Executive.

This is an opportunity for the Executive/Executive Assistant Partnership to exceed past accomplishments and enter new territory by incorporating different constructs of the role of assisting.  This level of skills development and expertise can be achieved by hard work, study and an active self-development strategy on the part of the Executive Assistant in order to yield talent that must be apparent.

If you have hired the Assistant who is (1) engaged in your work (2) knows your company’s business criteria (3) knows what drives your decisions (4) knows your triggers and sources of stress (5) knows your areas of responsibilities and for what you will be held accountable (6) knows how to incorporate his/her work into your and your company’s mosaic (7) is “able to see around corners” and prepare for the worst, then pay that person well, provide expanding challenges in the role and support educational opportunities to enable this Assistant to evolve.

For those Executives who are skeptical about this level of collaboration and partnership reliance, pretend you are on an Executive Outward Bound course, and that this is the only person on whom you must rely to get you through the most difficult challenges.

Executives Speak Out

In a one-day seminar for executives on how to hire the best Executive Assistant, an Executive proceeded to define a top-level Assistant: “An exemplary Executive Assistant is technology proficient, has common sense and does not make mistakes in judgment. By that I mean that he/she has the ability to diagnose a situation, does not reveal information that should remain in confidence, has an understanding of boundaries, does not act outside of established procedures and policies, and does not argue a point of view.  A terrific Assistant,” he continued, “will remember that he/she gets paid to treat everyone well, and to make the day go as smoothly as possible, with a willingness to develop work habits that challenge ordinary thinking and the status quo. Selective flexibility is unacceptable.”

Executive Assistants Speak Out

“My employer asks me the same thing 500 times and, each time, I act as if it’s the first time he has asked the question. I work for someone who will be unhappy even in Heaven.”

“Hello. Did you arrive on time?” the Assistant asks of her employer.

“Yes, and thank you for arranging for the family to be in the car to save us time… and for the sandwiches. I see that you also arranged to have the prep material for Monday morning’s meeting.”

“I thought that lunch in the car would be fun, and would keep the kids calm, while you reviewed the contents of the file, allowing you a bit more free time over the weekend,” she responded.

“Yes; one thing, though, next time, no mayonnaise.”

“Ok”, she responded. “By the way,” she asks, “do you know La Bruyere’s famous quote?”


“There is no excess in the world as commendable as excessive gratitude. See you on Monday morning.”


“I just called back to say ‘thank you’,” says the Executive.

“You’re welcome…” responds the Assistant.

A Vision For This Role

As Executives face the growing pressures of competitiveness, they will of necessity drive creativity and innovation at the Executive Assistant level, as they begin to grant decision-making power and authority to those Assistants who (1) view change as an opportunity (2) provide a source of new ideas (3) function interdependently (4) who manage communication that is face-to-face, by phone or email (5) demonstrate that they know most about a task by creating well-designed systems (6) take on the elements of general management, and (7) are truly committed to their employer’s success.

As with every profession, those who perform in this role will face an unprecedented level of difficulty in trying to keep up. Functional knowledge in global business, critical thinking, leadership and management are becoming basic requirements for the Executive Assistant position. Ongoing education becomes essential and necessary for Assistants to be able to continue to evolve strategically, and to provide expertise in solving problems by placing facts in context and delivering them with impact, which requires fast response time and flexibility.
If the goal is to become more skillful in reducing superficial complexity to simplicity, to recognize how to get it right, and how to think the right way, how do you get there? You need a career-development strategy.

Employers must invest in Executive Assistants by offering specialised, functional training and development the same way that they invest in all of the top-level talent in our high-performing organizations. It will not happen by chance. Any well-seasoned Executive will agree that inspiration and talent alone will only take you so far.

This article first appeared in Executive Secretary Magazine, a global training publication and must-read for any office professional. You can get a 30% discount when you subscribe through us. Visit the website to find out more. To get your 30% discount email and quote ‘Career Moves Group’.