Twenty-eight years ago, I was called in by a VP of HR to find an Executive Assistant for my very first client: Steve Jobs.
Much has been written about Steve’s work style, so it will come as no surprise that finding an assistant who could meet his standards and handle his temperament was a challenge.
Before I became involved in the search, the HR team had already interviewed hundreds of candidates over the course of six months and had even hired an assistant who only lasted a few days on the job. That’s when I got the call that catapulted my business, specializing in Executive Assistant search and consulting.
Since then, we have received thousands of inquiries from CEOs and HR professionals throughout the country needing assistance in finding top-caliber EAs. During our initial conversations, I usually learn that one of three things is happening.
The first is that the HR team has spent weeks or months looking at dozens of candidates and has not found the caliber of talent that they need for their executive.
The second is that they hired an EA, but the EA is not the right fit for the executive or the culture of the company.
Third, the executive is new to the company or promoted from within and has inherited his/her predecessor’s prior EA, and they do not work well together. In all cases, our clients are at the end of their rope, and my firm is called in to urgently “fix” the situation.
We are often asked why hiring a great Executive Assistant is so challenging.
Great assistants do exist, but finding the right assistant for an executive requires a more complex, and strategic recruitment approach than most other hires.
There are two sides to the equation in finding the right EA for an executive: the executive and the EA. Most people tend to focus solely on one side of the equation: finding an EA with the right skill sets and resume.
Many books and articles have been written about what makes a great EA: outstanding technical skills, superb organization, excellent communication skills, and more. However, even more essential than the assistant’s skill set is the workstyle fit and chemistry between the assistant and the executive. Just because an EA was an excellent assistant working with one executive doesn’t mean that EA will be a great assistant working with another executive.
In my professional experience, when you’re looking to make this kind of hire, you can’t start with the Executive Assistant – it is best to start with the executive.
The first step in hiring the ideal long-term EA is gaining a complete understanding of the executive’s work style, expectations, and scope of support needs. Every executive is different. It’s important to fully understand the type of executive to know what kind of assistant is best suited to complement them.
For example, is the executive an analytical or creative thinker? An introvert or an extrovert? Extremely organized or disorganized? A micromanager? Someone who texts and emails 24/7 or enjoys work/life balance? Once you establish the executive’s work style or the distinct traits and factors that are unique to that executive, you can begin to build a complementary profile of the type of Executive Assistant who will match them well and be able to support the executive for the long term.
When I began my search for Steve Job’s Executive Assistant, I knew he was an extraordinarily brilliant visionary who had high expectations for everyone around him. During our short time together, I asked him two fundamental questions:
- What were the most important qualities he wanted in an assistant?
- Did he prefer to work with his assistant as a business partner or as a secretary/assistant taking messages and carrying out his requests?
What I learned was that Steve had zero tolerance for mistakes, for unprepared people, and “low-level thinking.” I concluded that he needed an assistant who possessed the following traits:
- Business acumen and excellent judgment – the ability to effectively prioritize tasks and to independently execute on high-level decisions
- Highly competent and detail-oriented – someone who has high personal and professional standards, who would not make careless mistakes
- Thick skin – An assistant who could take feedback well and not get flustered easily
- Calm temperament – similarly, Steve wanted someone who had previously worked in high-intensity environments and could keep their cool at all times
- Strong work ethic – Steve was a 24/7 person and needed an assistant who could keep up
In the end, I presented three candidates, and Steve hired the first person he interviewed on the spot. It was a great long-term match! In short, if an executive asks me how to hire a “great” assistant, my answer is simple: know yourself first.
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 http://kathymacdonaldassociates.com/