We have been approached by a few executive coaches and HR groups that ask— what to look for in a great Executive Assistant (EA). The key is to know that a “great EA” for one executive might not be so great for another!
A starting point is to review a previous article entitled “The DNA of a Great EA.” When consulting with clients, we take the conversation to deeper levels. First, it’s essential to start with the executive in mind who requires administrative support. It’s best to drill down on their exact support needs and prepare a job description outlining the different job functions and underlying responsibilities and capabilities needed.
For example, see below five of the typical questions we ask executives when we take on a retained search to find the best EA for them. On average, we ask about 25 questions.
1. How do you currently work with your EA on your emails?
The answer to that question is critical! If an executive does not want his/her EA to review their emails, that tells us the type of assistant to recruit for them who would be happy working that way. If the opposite, and the executive wants their EA to review all emails, prioritize, flag, and respond to as many as possible; or draft responses for the executive to briefly review and then send, that is an entirely different type of EA who is interested in and has the business acumen for doing that kind of work.
2. We always ask what type of personal-related support the executive needs.
For example, do they want their assistant to help buy gifts for family members, research and plan holidays, or pay personal bills? These job functions require a specific “type” of EA who will be happy to perform those tasks. Remember, not all EAs want to do personal-related support, whereas others love the diversity of it!
3. What is the workstyle of the executive?
Is he/she working through the night, sending emails, and expecting ongoing access or responsiveness from the EA, or are they more of a 9:00 – 5:00 type of executive who lets go of work to spend time with family during the evening and weekends? The answers to these questions again point to the kind of EA who will be right for the executive. It is critical to be upfront with EA candidates about the real needs and workstyle of the executive so as to find the individuals who work in parallel.
4. We ask about the culture and growth rate of the company.
If the executive runs a well established nationwide bank, it’s a different work culture than a fast-growth tech company or startup. It’s important to consider “culture fit” with not just the executive but with the overall company’s culture as well.
An EA who would be fantastic working for the CEO of a bank might struggle or fail if tasked with supporting the CEO of a startup where he/she has to wear many hats and working long hours/weekends are typical. Keep in mind that one kind of EA will thrive in a startup environment while another EA type would not survive!
5. We ask the executive to describe some qualities of their ideal EA.
Sometimes that question catches executives off guard since they don’t always know what the EA does. Other times I hear executives say they want a “trusted partner” – someone who will manage them and be involved in everything! Whatever they say, it provides insight into their mindset about the role and how an EA could best leverage them with their work.
In short, when looking at any new hire, you need to start with a clear understanding of the tasks and responsibilities involved in the job.
When it comes to finding the right long-term match, you must also look at various factors of the executive— including workstyle, preferences, temperament, company culture, and work pace (to name a few). As the old saying goes, there is a lid for every pot; you just need to know the pot first before you can find the lid!
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/
Based on the number of inquiries we’ve had about this subject, we now offer individualized training sessions to help executive coaches work with executives to hire and optimize their working partnerships with EAs and Chiefs of Staff. Please reach out directly to [email protected]