Top Executive Assistants: Crashing the BS Party

Top Executive Assistants: Crashing the BS Party

Phoenix Normand 07/01/2019 7

So...the narrative about Executive Assistants has been diluted so much in the past 3 years or so that it's become more confusing than clarifying. Everybody's an "expert" these days posting fluffy, BS articles that generalize the grind, paint pictures that we're chaos wranglers and do-it-alls with a perma-smile plastered across our faces, and swimming joy laps in the underrepresentation, under compensation, underutilization and lack of empathy often suffered at the hands of the people we're low-key expected to take a bullet for. As someone with 26+ years in the seat, having given up the best years of my personal life to claw my way to the top of the EA game, I'm often pissed off seeing low ROI conferences duping EAs out of thousands of dollars, newbies claiming and weaponizing expertise they haven't actually earned, and articles/vlogs/blogs that serve no purpose other than pushing a personal agenda wrapped in yet another bullshit "Top 5 Ways To..." list or ad campaign.

So I'm snatching the sword for a sec to hopefully bring a little bit of clarity to both the easily deluded Executive Assistant community and to those still confused about the value and unstated requirements of, specifically, top Executive Assistants.

The Work/Life Balance Myth

As much as Executive Assistants, their companies, and their bosses would like to believe that true work/life balance exists, I'm here to burst your little bubble. A top Executive Assistant works a minimum of 10 hours per day. And I do mean a minimum. Think about it. C-suite executives often conduct business across multiple timezones. Given that top EAs manage those calendars, they are up at the crack of dawn to confirm that UK call or staying late to make sure that the conference call with Australia actually happens...on time. And scramble like a mad person when, inevitably, an exec goes off-script.

Another example: Top EAs sit in numerous meetings each day with their execs that typically eat up a few hours per day of productivity. Those meetings are critical for an EA as they provide both much-needed informational context and an opportunity to watch everyone in the room and detect/decode body language, verbal/non-verbal replies, and any other nuance that triggers their highly evolved intuition enough to bring it to their boss' attention or to reach out separately to find out what's really going on. Then, they return to their desks to handle the 50+ emails that landed in their inbox, schedule the internal/external follow-up meetings and calls resulting from each meeting attended, transcribe and distribute the notes taken at those meetings, figure out their boss' lunch, research and provide numerous options for flights to/from City X "sometime in the next week or two," get the boss' car detailed, book his kids' doctors appointments that allows him time away from the office to take them personally...before/after that unconfirmed trip to City X, blah blah blah. Factor in the back and forth with external EAs and execs necessary to confirm timing for just one of the 8-10 calls/meetings per day...across multiple time zones, the numerous starts and stops to answer the bellows emanating from the boss' office likely with another same-day task or two attached, the numerous stops and starts resulting from internal employee requests and "pop bys," and you can begin to understand how quickly 8 hours gets eaten up and 10 hours easily becomes the bare minimum of time needed to just get to even footing. And then when we go home to hungry kids, cranky neglected spouses, a mountain of laundry, dinner that needs to be prepared, homework that needs to be helped with, bills that need to be paid and, of course, the two or three emails from the boss asking you to complete task X or book meeting Y "when you get a sec." Work/life balance, my ass. Welcome to the big leagues, kids.

I find it equal parts comical and annoying when middling EAs feel overwhelmed by one or two 10-hour days per month and take to Twitter or the local comments section seeking validation or a shoulder to cry on to express said overwhelm. Sorry, kids. That shit's lost on me. And likely 60% of our current Executive Assistant community. Business has evolved and executives' accountabilities have increased exponentially since the days of the sweater-vested, cigarette-wielding secretaries of decades past. Top Executive Assistants realize that in order to even keep up with C-suite executives' needs, even down to Senior VP level, long days are a requirement, not occasional. There's simply too much time-sensitive work that needs to be completed in the space of a day that absolutely can't wait until the following day. Yes, this leads to burnout for some. Yes, we're still too afraid to admit to true overwhelm or ask for help. No, we're (largely) not being compensated commensurate with our contribution. But the fact remains that to be considered successful as a top Executive Assistant in today's game, 10 hours per day in that seat is a minimum. On a good day. And then we can talk about the other 2+ hours we're on our laptops at home ahead of the next day's shenanigans.

Not saying that work/life balance doesn't exist at the top of the game. It does. But it looks nothing like the fluffy, pink, marshmallowy picture that recruiters and the HR sect like to paint online and certainly not aligned with these cornball, BS portrayals I'm seeing in print by "experts" and reporters who have never actually sat in the seat. Come correct or have a seat, please.

The REAL Expectation

I often wish HR departments didn't exist because it would allow executives to tell the 100% truth about what they're really looking for without fear of reprisal. It would also give EAs 100% truthful context about how an executive perceives the role (and them), what type of person they really are, and immediately conclude whether or not the role, expectations, and personalities align. For both parties.

"We were both actually looking for a hot chick with a big rack, but thought you would bring more energy to the team with the whole gay thing. So, we hired you."

I would much rather have heard this bullshit during my interview cycle with the two idiots masquerading as my bosses from a previous job (in SF, of all places!) than to find out months into the job, after one too many beers, their real hiring criteria and expectation of the role...and me.

We've created a dynamic in business, specifically between EAs and executives, where people simply don't tell the whole truth. And, due to the revealing nature and expectations of the role, the truth always comes out in the wash. Executives need to risk being labeled a douche or a hard ass or having impossibly high expectations and tell the whole truth, up front, about what they're looking for in an Assistant. And Assistants have the responsibility to show up prepared with blatantly honest questions, the "balls," and the knowledge/intuition to crack the verbal and body language codes in those interview conversations to reveal the truth or at least glean enough information to make an informed decision as to whether or not the partnership will work.

Executives, in my experience, expect top Executive Assistants to mirror their hours and work style. They may not say it verbally, but it's the expectation...don't be deluded. They also expect their EAs to do their homework, know as much as they do about everything re: the business (often more), and to operate as autonomously as possible from day one, only breaking the silence with things that require their immediate attention. And that's where middling EAs fall short. Middling EAs often focus solely on the tasks at hand without understanding (or wanting to) the larger context of how those tasks fit within the company's and their boss' objectives. When shit gets real, hours get long, and bonehead mistakes start creeping in because they've allowed their emotions to overrule their logic, their feelings get hurt and executives start losing faith in their initial hiring decision resulting in further communication breakdowns, blatant disrespect and eventual separation. The lack of radically honest communication at the interview table could easily have prevented the inevitable as both sides would have shed the kid gloves from the jump and asked the realquestions behind closed doors that would likely make HR reps reach for their, "Wait...Can They Say That?" book.

Top EAs Need New Recruiting Methods

It still amazes me that after all of these years executives and recruiters haven't realized that the role of a top Executive Assistant defies any job description ever created. It actually requires a separate recruiting, expectation, and compensation conversation, different than any other role in the organization, because it's a role with completely different expectations, accountabilities, and success metrics than any other in the organization. Our success in this role depends mostly on the intangibles that aren't quantified (and compensated) in a typical job req. Sure, a certain level of skill and business acumen is necessary to be a beast in this role. But the nuance and intuition created from actual experience as an EA can't really be quantified on paper. For instance, how do you quantify a top EA decoding a flagging employee's body language and email replies, and taking their own preemptive, empathetic action to keep that superstar Engineer from heading for the exits? I'm sorry...I've yet to see that on any job req I've ever been given and certainly not paid "extra" for that very service I've provided many times for my bosses throughout my career. And I know, for a fact, that each time I've snatched a couple of these kids from their desks, taken them down the street to a Starbucks or a little further down the street for a shot of Patron (and an Altoid or two) to hear them out and give them a little sage advice, saved the company tons of money and time from not having to recruit and hire another superstar Engineer. In fact, it allowed those superstars to create products that inevitably scored them numerous career-affirming patents and actually made the company millions of dollars in revenue. I'm still waiting for that "Thanks, Boo!" check. I won't hold my breath.

All of that automagic shit that we do on a daily basis, that 99% of the company could never pull off if tasked with it, conveniently gets lumped into a hyper generalized expectation of the role which often leads to burnout, and EAs eventually growing sick-and-tired of not being acknowledged/compensated/respected for the daily miracles they create. I'm here to tell execs and recruiters, in no uncertain language, remove your stupid job descriptions. Especially as a top Executive Assistant. They're lame and don't represent the whole truth about your expectations. And, they give you an excuse to unfairly judge, level, and compensate us based upon them. Be blatantly honest and upfront with your needs and intentions, dismiss HR from the room for a sec, and task us with that responsibility. I assure you, we can handle it and, together, we'll create expectations and a contract that mutually aligns or we'll flash deuces to one another and keep it moving...with minimal time wasted.

It's time for companies, executives and recruiters to wake the hell up and realize that the recruiting practices and negotiations for this role need to adapt to today's expectations of the role. The real expectations. Not that bullshit internal recruiters keep copying and pasting to LinkedIn Jobs every time the previous, top EA maxes out and moves on to greener pastures. This role is unique from every other in the organization and needs to be treated as such. Personally, I believe EAs should operate completely separate of the company. It would force EAs to be bosses instead of being "bossed" and create a more equitable client/vendor dynamic based on performance and leader:leader communication vs. top-down, hierarchical, leader:follower edicts with executives holding EAs to ridiculous standards they don't even hold their external vendors to. Moreover, if either party wasn't performing in accordance with the terms of the original agreement it warrants a renegotiation of the terms. If new terms can't be set and met, deuces. Simple as that. I think they call that a business agreement, right? Yeah.

In Conclusion

Executive Assistants have a lot of work to do in 2019. And those who "educate" and advocate for us have an even more urgent responsibility to cut the crap. Sure, one size doesn't fit all when it comes to being an Executive Assistant. My journey as an EA would leave 96% of EAs in a fetal position in the furthest corner of their shrink's office. But let's not over glamorize this role with awards ceremonies, expensive conferences that don't teach us squat, and fluffy, bullshit articles that paint us as martyrs when 90% of us can't even create a simple scatter chart, negotiate a raise effectively, know our company's product offerings well enough to represent them to clients, or understand (in detail) our the company's and our boss' objectives and proactively align our objectives with theirs so that our accountabilities and individual contributions are more easily quantifiable. We've got to do this whole thing differently this year. And that's what I'm committing to as a coach/mentor/educator to a community of top EAs who "get it" and are here to revolutionize this industry by serving as the new Gold Standard. No trophies. No worthless acronyms after their names. No cheeseball, half-baked online presence created from constantly reposting cheeseball, half-baked, hyper-generalized articles while providing zero original content of their own. I'm DONE!

This is a revolution. At least as I see it. It's time to true-up the expectations of this role both within our ranks AND with executives and recruiters who are still out-to-lunch. The narrative about us lies with us, no one else. Until we pull our heads out of the clouds and realize that when this next recession hits (shortly) and companies get more and more comfortable with the idea of employing AI and operating leaner (starting with ourjobs...don't be fooled), we will continue to be looked at as accessories to the business, not the critical, highly strategic, highly intuitive, soft skill mastery beasts we are. Well, some of us.

Execs need us. The high performing, super reliable, in-it-to-win-it, mini-me versions of themselves. And we need them. The forthright, honest, slightly more vulnerable, mentors who truly believe in us and challenge us with opportunities above our pay grade to help us grow into future execs ourselves or, at a minimum, the very best, most comprehensively equipped Executive Assistants we can possibly be. That's the new game. Be here for it.

Share this article

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

terms and condition.
  • Lucy Brown

    Powerful read

  • Scott Marsden

    You hit the nail on the head

  • James Todd

    Great info

  • James Todd

    Amazing post !!

  • Shane Mccarthy

    Well written, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  • Claire Newton

    Authentic and refreshing

  • Paige

    I need an awesome EA for a CEO if you can refer one in the NY area! Someone who knows the role is what it is, just like you've laid it out! If you feel like referring someone let me know!

Share this article

Phoenix Normand

Society Expert

Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.


Latest Articles

View all
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Companies
  • Environment
  • Global Economy
  • Finance
  • Politics
  • Society