I have interviewed hundreds of CEOs and Managing Directors about their administrative and operational support needs and the specific skills they seek in their EA. From my 30+ years of experience, I could write a book detailing a myriad of skills and traits that top executives want in an EA, but to keep it simple, here are the top 10 qualities CEOs look for in a great EA.
You must be discreet with the information you are privy to – even with other executives and their EAs. You will know many things before they become known publicly or internally, such as if your company plans to go public, merge with another company, or even if a key C-suite executive is about to be let go. You must be very careful in handling confidential information and ensure that your knowledge does not impact how you work with others. This is imperative if you support a CEO.
Anticipate Their Needs
What does your exec need to prepare for a meeting, a trip, or a presentation? Prepare it for them so they don’t have to ask you for it. Check them in for their flights – if you find out the flight is canceled or delayed, research in advance to know what alternate flights are available. If they are already on a plane and let you know they’re stuck on the runway, keep track of their departure time and updated ETA. Alert the driver on the other end, the hotel (if they will have to check in late), and anyone they were scheduled to meet upon arrival, including the restaurant or meeting location.
Your job is to maximize your executive’s efficiency so their day runs like clockwork. Get ahead of their needs by thinking strategically through all the motions and contingencies of their day and proactively resolve issues quickly so your executive is not impacted (or even aware of all the fast work behind the scenes you’ve been doing!).
Time is a CEO’s most valuable asset, and every CEO is different in how they want their time managed. One might prefer to start at 7:00 am with breakfast meetings and back-to-back meetings until 10:00 pm through dinner meetings. Another executive may prefer to block time in the morning for emails, then schedule meetings or calls with 15-minute breaks between each.
Get to know your CEO before making assumptions about how they want their time scheduled. As a baseline, learn their preferred meeting cadence: understand the time of day they prefer different types of meetings or focus times. Schedule meetings with time allowed for commuting, bio breaks, eating, or responding to urgent emails. You are the air traffic controller of the executive’s office. Diverting or delaying conflicts requires minute-to-minute focus and execution.
Excellent Verbal and Written Skills
Understandably, anything said or written from the CEO’s office represents that CEO. It’s vital to have an impeccable command of the native language and hold to the highest standards for all written correspondence and posts. You are not ready to be a CEO’s EA if your writing includes typos or grammatical errors. Use a tool such as Grammarly and pay attention to the grammatical hints within Microsoft and G-suite. Just so you’re aware, as a recruiter, I pay close attention to LinkedIn bios and resumes to see how people write.
Many CEOs will ask their EA to help with the huge volume of emails they get. If this is the case, you are responsible for reading these emails, understanding the priority level, and flagging the most important. If an email is simply an internal request for a meeting with your executive, you can likely handle it.
Some executives have their EAs draft responses for them to emails, saving them time – they can review what you wrote, tweak it, or personalize it and hit “send.” If your executive routes emails to you instead of sharing inbox access with you, it is still critical that you understand the priority of each request and handle them appropriately.
You embody and reflect the organization’s culture through your interactions. Most CEOs want an EA who interacts with everyone internally and externally in a professional, positive, kind, caring, gracious, and service-oriented manner. The EA is the ambassador of the CEO’s office. How the EA treats people reflects on the CEO and the company.
Successful EAs have a fluidity and range of tech knowledge and keep up to date with the best productivity, organizational, and project management tools. Beyond having proficiency in Outlook and G-suite, you need to be proficient in Excel, PowerPoint, video meeting and conference software (Teams, Zoom, WebEx, etc.), instant messaging tools, project management tools (Asana, Trello, Confluence, Notion), and the board portal that your company uses (Diligent, Boardvantage, etc.).
Continuously seek out training modules to get yourself up to speed on the best productivity apps. If you find a great tool that enables you to work more efficiently, you’re improving your productivity and the amount of work you can get done for your executive. Remember, it’s up to you to sharpen your technical skills.
Effective Decision Making
A CEO’s EA constantly makes decisions that impact the executive and it’s critical to know the executive’s preferences and priorities. For example, when your CEO travels, you will be responsible for deciding the flights, types of restaurants and table choices for business meetings, and the types of hotels to book. I’ve heard many stories from CEOs about how their EA booked them at a hotel 45 minutes from their meeting location when there were hotels to choose from right next door.
Most executives want a reservation in the closest hotel to their meetings. Making ineffective decisions or providing incorrect information about time or location can derail a CEO, who is already under pressure to perform at their best, which can result in them losing a crucial deal.
Often EAs make mistakes when not taking the time to think through their decisions. An effective EA considers where their executive needs to be and does their research. If you are unsure while making travel decisions in an unfamiliar location, I recommend calling a four-star hotel concierge for local information and recommendations.
EAs to CEOs need to work quickly and respond to their requests with a keen sense of urgency. Even if just to acknowledge you are “on it.” Continually adapt to your executive’s changing priorities and focus your work on what is the most critical. Things can move very quickly in the Office of the CEO, and the EA needs to understand the nuances of each request and how it fits into the ever-changing landscape. An EA must own the follow-through for all requests in as timely a manner as possible!
This is a term I coined to explain the ability to think strategically – and as if you were in your executive’s shoes. First, it requires you to understand and articulate the business, its’ mission, and your CEO’s objectives and priorities. Get to know your company’s org chart. Keep abreast of your company’s press releases. Your role is to think strategically – look out front and plan for future events while working proactively if your exec’s day needs to be shifted around if priorities change or a crisis happens.
This list could go on and on, but these are some key characteristics that CEOs seek in an Executive Assistant.
Kathy Macdonald is the Founder of Kathy Macdonald Associates, Inc., a retained search firm specializing in placing top-tier executive support and consulting with CEOs on optimizing how to leverage their EA to increase their effectiveness. To read additional articles and learn more about our services, please visit our website: https://kathymacdonaldassociates.com/