Since I started Kathy Macdonald Associates, Inc. in San Francisco almost 30 years ago, there’s been a sea of change in the advancement of our technological tools.
In parallel, the role of the Executive Assistant has morphed from Secretary to Administrative Assistant to Executive Assistant (EA) and more. We are noticing an explosion of new titles across the country as the EA role evolves to a new level.
The professional scope of responsibilities of the EA role has broken through barriers leading assistants to more of an executive team member with a seat at the table rather than just the person outside the door taking messages.
This past January, there was a WSJ article entitled “The Vanishing Executive Assistant,” which seemed to indicate EAs were disappearing, although we see it quite differently.
From a search consultant’s perspective, I don’t think the EA role is vanishing at all, the role itself has leveled up and evolved. In fact, in my business, the demand for top-caliber assistants working with CEOs around the country has never been more robust.
Case in point, we often have clients willing to relocate a great EA, proving the critical importance of the role! This shift is due to the increased needs of executives, with the expanding volume and 24/7 flow of information in the global economy.
Executives’ needs directly impact the type of assistance they require to optimize their productivity.
As a result, some EAs have taken on higher levels of responsibility to assist their executives. It’s important to note the evolution of the EA role when thinking about titles, starting with the difference between an Executive Secretary and an Executive Assistant.
In essence, an Executive Secretary is a person who is excellent at typing with speed and accuracy, taking messages, receiving telephone calls, keeping paper files, doing expense reports, and providing confidential materials for their executive. This title generally depicts someone who works well in a systematic, task-oriented way.
We still see this title used in large corporations or specific geographic regions. An Executive Assistant is someone working at a more involved level – someone who is capable of acting proactively, scheduling meetings, using sound business judgment, and anticipating the needs of the executive, keeping ten steps ahead.
We are at a new tipping point in this profession, and the new breed of EA is upon us: the “Executive Business Partner.”
You may wonder, what is the difference between an Executive Assistant and an Executive Business Partner (EBP)? The bottom line is that the EA is all about providing administrative support; the EBP is all about providing strategic leverage.
The EBP not only sits at the table but prepares the PowerPoint presentations, takes notes for action items, and holds the executive team accountable. The EBP acts on behalf of the executive and makes critical decisions for the business.
The EBP has the opportunity to be involved with project management or business analyst components.
The administrative vocation is clamoring for recognition and growth opportunities. A new title will add fire to the movement, encouraging top talent in the profession and beyond increasing the supply side of limited high-level EAs.
The business acumen needed has grown for the role, but the supply is not there. It’s a tight market, especially in the tech-infused Bay Area and Boston. Most people don’t get their bachelor’s degrees in the hopes of becoming a career EA, but we slowly see a shift in the market.
The new title will fuel the flames and growth of the profession, attracting candidates seeking a challenging and rewarding career as EBPs or Chiefs of Staff.
It’s also important to note here that not every executive requires an EBP.
The reason is that not all executives are alike. Neither are assistants. Depending on an executive’s background, career track, industry, culture, current role, set of responsibilities, work style, expectations, and temperament, there is an assistant best suited to work with him or her.
The initial evaluation of our clients’ work style is a critical component of our process in determining the type of assistant he/she needs to maximize their productivity and effectiveness.
The fast-changing landscape of the administrative profession has led to a variety of new titles already used in the job market.
These titles have been all over the map! We have seen EAs calling themselves Chiefs of Staff, Executive Business Operations, Executive Coordinator, Senior Executive Assistant, Executive Associate, Chief Executive Assistant, Project Manager, Business Analyst, Executive Business Partner, etc. Unfortunately, the underlying set of core job functions does not correlate to the titles we are seeing.
For example: in a much-needed attempt to re-classify and distinguish themselves, we have seen EAs take on the Chief of Staff (CoS) title.
In the SF Bay Area, we have spoken with numerous candidates that have the CoS title that are performing the job functions of an Executive Assistant, and they are not working at the CoS level. It’s common that the highly coveted CoS title is being mistakenly used as a placeholder for the Executive Assistant and is being used indiscriminately.
We have noted that many EAs do not think the title of “assistant” accurately reflects the high-level responsibilities they have and skill-sets required to be successful in their roles.
The time has come for a refinement of titles, tied to specific job responsibilities and level of involvement in the execution of critical business functions.
For example, an “executive” is a term used to describe a group of workers with management and leadership responsibilities. As I see it, the term “Executive Assistant” is also a term used to describe a category of workers that work with a specific type of executive, providing varying levels of support.
In both cases, there are many types of roles unique to each category, for example, an “executive” could be a VP of Marketing, SVP of HR, CFO, COO, CEO, etc. Each “executive” has a unique role and set of job functions and responsibilities.
Likewise, there are just as many roles within the “executive assistant” category.
One EA is not necessarily like another EA at all! The roles and titles should be based on an assistant’s career track, work style, job responsibilities, skill sets, business acumen, aptitude, depth, and scope of involvement in working with the executive.
In parallel, the demands on CEOs are ever-increasing, with more and more channels to manage – including business and personal emails, voicemails, text messages, Slack conversations, Twitter, LinkedIn requests, etc. With constant accessibility, the concept of “regular business hours” is rarely held to, and workdays blend into work nights and never seem to end.
What some executives need today is a partner.
Executives need someone who is not just providing administrative “support” but who is the most critical ally, liaison, and ambassador in their professional and personal lives. The role needs to be integrally aligned with the executive’s objectives, applying high-level business judgment to assess and execute on key priorities. A great partner can sort through, manage, and prioritize that constant information flow.
It’s not about assisting based on an executive’s requests, but rather about adding intellectual value. An Executive Business Partner is a trusted confidant privy to highly sensitive information, sometimes knowing more than other direct reports.
The Executive Business Partner understands the dynamics of the company’s organizational chart, reads business journals and watches the competition. They are involved in executive team meetings, often serving as a key interface with other executive team members to ensure their meetings with the CEO are on point.
Beyond that, the Executive Business Partner embodies the best of the company’s culture and serves as an ambassador for the CEO.
In conclusion, the Executive Assistant role is not vanishing; it’s transforming and elevating to new levels. The role is even more integral, high-functioning, and viewed as a strategic thought partner with strong business judgment.
The role is highly valued, respected, and compensated as part of the leadership team. We think the EBP title more accurately represents the elevated role of the EA and fills a critical need on the executive team. The new title will provide a much needed progressive step in the profession and will hopefully attract great talent to feed the increasing demand for high caliber executive leverage.
About the Author
Kathy Macdonald is the Founder of Kathy Macdonald Associates, Inc., a retained search firm that specializes in top tier executive support. To learn more, please go to https://kathymacdonaldassociates.com/