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The CEO’s Secret Weapon: A Strong Executive Assistant

Often referred to as the gatekeeper, the position of executive assistant can be a very powerful and lucrative career, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.

"The CEO's Secret Weapon" by Jan Jones.

“The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones.

To get a better grasp on what it really takes to be an effective executive assistant and what executives should look for I spoke with Jan Jones, author of the newly released book The CEO’s Secret Weapon.

A former executive assistant to some of America’s high profile bosses herself, Jones tapped her network to interview the assistants of such high profile executives as Donald Trump, Richard Branson, and Barbara Cochran to get their views on what it takes to make it.

As Jones explains these are the individuals who keep their executives on track and focused on the right issues in a turbulent business environment. Think of them “as your face to the world” says Jones. No executive can have sustained success without a strong executive assistant at their side. She points out that some of the most noteworthy executives have had long-time assistants. Jones shares some of the key elements executives should look for, particularly when hiring an assistant for the first time.


First and foremost you must hire for values and to do that you must be clear on your own values. In order to bring on an effective assistant you have to understand how you work and the kind of person it takes to effectively work with you.

Jones advises that you take the time to understand the principles and standards that inform the thoughts and actions of each candidate to see how well they align with your own. “They must be a reflection of your values and who you are as an executive” because they will be representing you both internally and externally. Find out what values have driven their decisions in times when there was an absence of knowledge or the ability to get guidance from their executive.

Trust and Loyalty

Think of your executive assistant as a business partner. Keep in mind you are going to spend a great deal of your time with this person, which means you are going to have to trust this them. When speaking to candidates Jones advises “listen to how they talk about current and former bosses.” Are they loyal or do they readily share the kind of information that would make you uncomfortable if you were their boss?

Trust is also about sharing. Jones points out that you have to be willing to turn over responsibilities and provide open access to such personal information as emails, notes, confidential files… Although this may feel uncomfortable at first, Jones makes it clear this is a critical aspect of the relationship and advises you “to get over it” if you are serious about being a successful executive.

Often your executive assistant will have access to information that even your spouse doesn’t see. Granting open access is critical to a successful relationship. Without it, your executive assistant will be minimally effective at best.

Anticipation and Filtering

Executives don’t like surprises. A good executive assistant must be able to anticipate what their executive needs to know and by when. What many refer to as the gatekeeper function is more often a triage function in that executives are constantly being barraged with a great deal of information, challenges, and noise. It’s up to the executive assistant to determine what their executive needs to know and what they don’t. Often times requests that come in may need action, just not from the executive.

Thus, it’s up to the executive assistant to determine how to best respond and redirect these requests so they are resolved without having to disrupt the executive. It’s also important to anticipate which requests will likely bubble up again or who may look for other routes to get to your boss, so you can prepare the executive just in case.


At times your executive assistant will be speaking on your behalf. As an executive you need to be comfortable with your assistant speaking for you. This is why they need to reflect your values, philosophy, and style while complimenting any weaknesses you may have as a communicator.

This will certainly vary by executive, which is why you must have quality conversations about what, how, when, and where to communicate. Jones also notes that you must show them respect and let others know they clearly speak for you, so they are not easily dismissed.

Article from Dr. Woody Woodward, originally published on Fox Business last November 2015.

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The Most Important Person in Your Office Isn’t Who You Think

No, it’s not your CMO, CFO, or even you. It’s your assistant. These unsung heroes are the ones who really run the show.

Victoria Rabin, founder and CEO of Executive Assistants Organization (EAO), which she launched in early 2012 and continues to grow exponentially. Photo from the Behind Every Leader official website.

Victoria Rabin, founder and CEO of Executive Assistants Organization (EAO), which she launched in early 2012 and continues to grow exponentially. Photo from the Behind Every Leader official website.

Executive assistants spend endless hours catering to- and anticipating the needs-of their bosses. A good assistant keeps a business owner on time and in the know – in other words, it’s an assistant’s job to make the CEO look good, and keep him or her organized. But while there are conferences for entrepreneurs, magazines (plug: like this one), executive assistants have typically been on their own.

That’s why Victoria Rabin, in 2012, founded the Executive Assistants Organization, (EAO) which runs conferences, mentorship programs, and training workshops for EAs. She held the first Behind Every Leader conference in February 2013. EAO now has 12 chapters, and more than 1,000 members, including executive assistants who have worked for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson.

I recently spoke with Rabin about her trade group why every entrepreneur needs an assistant:

What inspired you to launch Executive Assistants Organization?

I began my career as an EA, working for a hedge fund in London. It was the first role I had where I had not only empowerment, but was responsible for the entire team. Having those two burdens on my shoulder was a huge honor. It was also terrifying.

There was no support or resources for assistants. Being in that position and having to not only lead your team, represent your executive when they’re present and not and dealing with all the crazy things they ask you to do, no one could prepare you for that.I started reaching out to EAs from all over the world and asking questions. What are you getting training-wise? Are you hungry for growth? I wanted to find out as much as I could. I started getting messages back like, “What’s in the works?”

Suddenly, I had some allegiance behind me. So I was basically inspired by being an assistant, myself, wanting more, and not getting more.

You’ve called executive assistants “the most powerful person in the office.” How so?

They are the backbone of an organization. They know everything about an executive. It’s not just administrative work. They know what the executive needs, how they think, and they know without having to ask them what they need to do in order to make that executive better.

When they get into the office, they drop all of their own self needs and dedicate everything to that executive or that company. Everything they do is to make the executive successful.

Sounds nice. So, why then are so many entrepreneurs resistant to hiring an assistant?

They don’t want to lose control. I have an assistant. I’ve been on both sides of the desk. It’s scary for small to medium sized business owners, who have lived and breathed their business that’s their dream and vision, and all of a sudden they give control to another person who isn’t even their cofounder. It’s hard for them to give up that control.

Also, a good and trusted EA has access to the finances, the accountants, everything about the business. I was daunted when I hired an assistant because I knew how much I knew when I was an assistant.Then, once you do realize you can’t live without him or her, you worry about them getting poached. Not only because you’ll miss that person, but because you don’t want that person who knows your entire world to go work for a competitor or another entrepreneur.

What makes for a successful EA/CEO relationship?

It starts with trust. That’s the main thing to establish. You do that by having both parties manage expectations. An assistant needs to go into the workplace immediately and say, “What do you need from me. How do you want me to work with you, and how do you communicate it?” That how they know what the boundaries are, or they’ll know not to take a one-word email personally. Or they’ll know they need to have a whole essay presented to that EA to make them feel comfortable.

It’s all about learning each others intricacies and learning what makes then tick. And after trust, you need respect on both sides. It’s crucial, because it’s really a partnership if it’s done right.

Source: Article from Issie Lapowsky, published in January 2014.

Are Executive Assistants Worth The Trouble?

Meet five whose bosses couldn’t do their jobs without them.

The last thing many business owners want to do is spend money on an executive assistant. But, as these five high-profile founders will tell you, a good EA is worth his or her’s weight in gold, fretting over details and schedules their bosses are better off avoiding. As one EA says: “My job is to worry about it.”

Gail Abrahamsen, assistant to Barbara Corcoran of Barbara Corcoran Inc., New York City.

Gail Abrahamsen and Barbara Corcoran just after a Today show appearance, and changing heels for the journey to their next appointment, taken in November 2013. Photo by Gus Powell.

Gail Abrahamsen and Barbara Corcoran just after a Today show appearance, and changing heels for the journey to their next appointment, taken in November 2013. Photo by Gus Powell.

When Barbara Corcoran wanted to book an actress to play a mermaid at her book-launch party, she knew just whom to call: Gail Abrahamsen.

Her assistant, for eight years now, has mastered the art of managing the real estate mogul’s wacky life. A typical day? Abrahamsen fields some 300 emails a day and answers every one within 24 hours. She also arranges Corcoran’s endless media appearances, from Shark Tank (Corcoran is a shark) to the Today show.

And if Corcoran just happens to leave her Chanel suit at JFK airport, Abrahamsen is on it. “There’s never a dull moment with Barbara,” she says. Of course, Abrahamsen knows all about chaos.

A former business owner herself, she ran a children’s store franchise called The Elephant’s Trunk before working for Corcoran–and thus attacks her duties with the work ethic of an entrepreneur. “Everything funnels through Gail,” says Corcoran.

Peg Fitzpatrick, assistant to Guy Kawasaki of Alltop, San Francisco.

At the L.A. Auto Show's Audi exhibit: Peg Fitzpatrick with Guy Kawasaki, who was helping Audi with its social media, taken in November 2013. Photo by Gus Powell.

At the L.A. Auto Show’s Audi exhibit: Peg Fitzpatrick with Guy Kawasaki, who was helping Audi with its social media, taken in November 2013. Photo by Gus Powell.

Guy Kawasaki, the renowned speaker and co-founder of Alltop, the news aggregation site, hired his assistant Peg Fitzpatrick before they ever even met.

In fact, they didn’t meet in person until months later. Fitzpatrick is a virtual assistant, based in Keene, New Hampshire, one of three on Kawasaki’s payroll. He has one to manage his calendar and another to answer his emails, and, last year, after interacting with Fitzpatrick on Twitter, he hired her to manage his social media.

“If an entrepreneur has the time to do everything Peg does for me, the entrepreneur cannot possibly be running his or her company properly,” Kawasaki says.

On Fitzpatrick’s watch, Kawasaki’s fan base on LinkedIn went from nonexistent to more than 400,000 followers. Twitter fans? Thanks to Fitzpatrick, he has more than one million.

“Online, he’s like Madonna,” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s different from a regular person tweeting. For Guy, social media is 24/7. Now, he can forget about stuff, because he knows I’ll check on it. My job is to worry about it.”

Helen Clarke, assistant to Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group, London.

Helen Clarke with Sir Richard Branson sitting shotgun, as he prefers, on their way to the Endeavor awards in Midtown Manhattan. Next stop? Jamaica. Photo by Gus Powell, taken in November 2013.

Helen Clarke with Sir Richard Branson sitting shotgun, as he prefers, on their way to the Endeavor awards in Midtown Manhattan. Next stop? Jamaica. Photo by Gus Powell, taken in November 2013.

If Sir Richard Branson booked his own travel plans, he would probably run out of time to actually travel.

In any given year, the world-famous jet setter and his assistant Helen Clarke visit some 50 cities, meaning Clarke, once a Virgin flight attendant, spends the majority of her time travel planning.

She’s on the road so often, in fact, that she has her own assistant back at the office on Branson’s private island in the Caribbean. Her second biggest task is managing the barrage of emails Branson receives. He verbally dictates every response to Clarke, so she’s always informed and can be a human hard drive for Branson.

“Helen is always one step ahead of me in terms of what I am likely to forget,” he says. She’s also a vital sounding board for Branson. “He’s very good at asking my opinions on things,” Clarke says. “At first, I was like, ‘Why is he asking me?’ Then, I realized he’s asking because he genuinely wants my opinion. We can debate.”

Brandi Cheek, assistant to Drew Houston of Dropbox, San Francisco.

Brandi Cheek and Drew Houston at their usual side-by-side workstations at the Dropbox San Francisco headquarters. Photo by Gus Powell, taken in November 2013.

Brandi Cheek and Drew Houston at their usual side-by-side workstations at the Dropbox San Francisco headquarters. Photo by Gus Powell, taken in November 2013.

Drew Houston’s Silicon Valley friends used to call him crazy for waiting so long to hire an assistant. “I never imagined all the ways it could be helpful until after the fact,” he says.

He finally caved three years ago and hired Brandi Cheek, a former legal assistant. Now, she is still teaching Houston how to use an assistant in the first place.

“His default is to book his own flights,” she says. “I have to remind him I can do that for him.” Her most important job, though, is keeping Houston in touch with his staff. Aside from routine duties, like handling Houston’s calendar for meetings, Cheek gives him candid feedback on the mood of the company and schedules weekly powwows for him and 10 employees.

“He always gets my opinion on messages he relays to the whole company,” says Cheek. “He can get so busy; I try to keep him connected to Dropbox.”

Evening Galvin, assistant to John Mackey of Whole Foods, Austin.

John Mackey and Evening Galvin outside the Whole Foods headquarters. Photo by Gus Powell.

John Mackey and Evening Galvin outside the Whole Foods headquarters in November 2013. Photo by Gus Powell.

“She’s the best assistant I’ve worked with in my 35 years of Whole Foods,” says John Mackey of Evening Galvin. Mackey has known Galvin since she was a baby–her parents were also in the natural-food business.

A few years after Mackey and Galvin went on a group hike on the Appalachian Trail, he hired her as his assistant in 2006. Says Mackey: “I think one of the most important things she does is quickly prioritize my schedule to make sure I am making the best use of my time. She also does an excellent job of shielding me from phone calls and meetings which she knows would waste my time.”

Galvin spends about 10 percent of her week on Mackey’s personal requests and the other 90 percent on Whole Foods business. The two never have face-to-face meetings, though; they only email. That way, Galvin says, work doesn’t get in the way of their friendship.

Original article from Inc. Magazine by Issie Lapowsky, published in November 2015. Photos by Gus Powell.

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The 10 Characteristics of A Rockstar Executive Assistant

You can’t make it on your own, and that’s not a putdown. It’s reality. And the bigger your goals, the more help you’re going to need in reaching them.  In this article, Michael Hyatt shares with us what every leader needs to know about the most important member of the team.

In the corporate world, I relied heavily on my executive assistants. When I struck out on my own, I thought I could manage without one. Crazy. I just couldn’t keep up.

It didn’t take long before I enrolled a virtual assistant. Now I have two and couldn’t run my business without them. But what makes a great assistant, whether virtual or in the office? If you’re a leader, you’d better know the answer to that question.

A good executive assistant is like an air-traffic controller for your life. Not just your business—your whole life. They help manage not only the intricacies of the office, but all the treacherous intersections between work, family, social obligations, and more.

An executive assistant is an extension of the executive he or she works for. In my case, Suzie and Danielle are thinking and acting on my behalf all day long—things I wouldn’t even think of or do because I just don’t have the bandwidth. And they help coordinate all the needs and demands of my life so there are very few—if any—collisions between the personal and professional.

They’re so good their reputation proceeds them. One of the men I mentor recently hired an executive assistant and asked me if he could get help onboarding his new team member.

I asked Suzie what she thought, and she (characteristically) outdid herself. Part of her training involved walking my mentee’s new hire through the ten characteristics of a rockstar executive assistant. If you’re looking to hire—or be—a rockstar executive assistant, Suzie’s list is the closest thing to a formal job description you’ll need.

These are the ten characteristics to watch for:

  1. They have a servant’s heart. This is the foundation for everything else. A rockstar executive assistant wants to serve—and not just your company or organization. A rockstar EA wants to serve you. Whether the task is big or little, he achieves his goals by helping you achieve yours. If potential EA’s don’t have this quality, no problem. But they probably should look for a different opportunity.
  2. They have personalized expertise. A rockstar EA is like a second brain. She knows what you like and don’t like. She knows where you are and where you need to go. She knows when to schedule meetings and when not to. A rockstar EA will gather as much of this information as possible as early as possible—and proactively keep learning.
  3. They master the calendar. In business we live and die by the calendar. Deadlines, appointments, meetings, presentations, calls—the calendar is the flight plan that keeps all of these moving parts from crashing into each other. And don’t forget scheduled commitments at home. If your EA doesn’t have mastery of the calendar, we’re not talking about a rockstar EA.
  4. They anticipate needs. A rockstar EA sees in advance what an executive needs and plans accordingly. If it’s lunch before a meeting, reports emailed to a client, whatever, she’s already seen the need and addressed it. Anyone can take a direction. But a rockstar is already moving the way you want to go.
  5. They prioritize the personal. When I said an air-traffic controller for your whole life, this is what I meant. If your EA defaults to prioritizing the professional at the expense of the personal, he’s not a rockstar—at least not yet. Protecting my personal time lets me maximize my professional time. A rockstar EA knows that and helps me guard that time.
  6. They are willing to push back. A good EA will keep you from burying yourself. I call Suzie my “calendar czar,” and that’s exactly what I need. At any given moment I don’t know the full range of our commitments, obligations, and initiatives. Because it’s her job—and she’s a rockstar—Suzie does know and will push back when I start getting overcommitted.
  7. They create and master systems. Whatever line of work you’re in, effective performance depends on a certain number of set preferences and procedures. What works best for you and your team? A rockstar EA will document and systematize these things so you’re not always reinventing the wheel.
  8. They know what’s on your plate. We all have too much on our plates. Your EA should know all that you’re dealing with and what’s critical to your success. If he knows that, he can keep you focused on the high-leverage activities and decline or delegate the rest.
  9. They respect your confidentiality. A rockstar EA will have all sorts of personal information and access. It’s critical she has integrity and a sense of discretion. It’s also important she sees when people are trying to get insider access or influence.
  10. They have great communication skills. And by this I don’t just mean he can carry on a conversation. A rockstar EA will help facilitate communication in your organization—especially if you’re bottlenecking things. Whether it’s email, calls, or other communication, a rockstar EA will accelerate response times and keep the messages moving.

I’ve worked with people whose assistants were more liability than asset. If you’re a leader, you can’t afford to get this wrong. Why? They’re hindering your goals and everyone around you knows it—even if you don’t.

I’ve had great assistants and not-so-great. All of them have taught me one thing: Few people are more responsible for your success than your assistant. It’s critical that you find a rockstar.

Michael Hyatt is a best-selling author, and the founder and CEO of an online leadership development company helping overwhelmed high achievers get the clarity, confidence, and tools they need to win at work and succeed at life.

4 Ways to Ensure Successful Assistant-and-Executive Communication

Today’s featured article comes from Julia Schmidt and Carla Stefanut of the European Management Assistants official website, published in February 2016.

“An assistant cannot passively wait to be told something.” (From "The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones)

“An assistant cannot passively wait to be told something.” (From “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones)

Julia Schmidt and Carla Stefanut were inspired to write this post after reading the book “The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness” by Jan Jones. Julia and Carla agree that the CEO and the Assistant are both responsible for making their partnership a success.

Adapted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” here are 4 recommendations to ensure successful Executive-and-Assistant communication:

1. Start laying the foundation for good communication during your interview.

Ask the executive you will be working for what skills they want to see in the new assistant. Ask why these specific skills are important to him/her. Discuss the company’s values and ask how the executive applies these values to the workday. Clarify expectations – not only the executive’s, but yours as well.

JULIA: When I was interviewed for my current job, I was curious to find out how the CEO would explain to me the company’s values. I was positively impressed by the way the company lives the leadership values. I could feel authenticity from a great CEO and founder.

CARLA: When I was interviewed, my boss asked about my favorite hobbies and sports and I asked about his. Soft skills are important to set the foundation for an open relationship.

2. Understand the value of feedback and ask for it often.

“An assistant, in order to help her manager helps her, needs to learn to appreciate feedback. If my boss gives me feedback that I don’t like, I can’t take it personally. I’ve realized that he’s helping me to improve.” (Assistant Ann Weaver, quoted in “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones)

“An assistant, in order to help her manager helps her, needs to learn to appreciate feedback. If my boss gives me feedback that I don’t like, I can’t take it personally. I’ve realized that he’s helping me to improve.” (Assistant Ann Weaver, quoted in “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones)

Feedback from your executive is an excellent benchmark for you to know if you are performing up to expectation.

Get in the habit of asking for feedback and find out if your boss is open to feedback from you, not necessarily about his or her performance, but about things you notice happening in the business. If you are asking for feedback, be prepared to take the criticism along with the praise. That is how you will learn and grow in your position.

An assistant must be proactive in asking the boss about a phone call or meeting, in order to find out if there is any follow up the assistant must handle. Some of Jones’ standard follow up questions are:

“Is there any follow up for me from this meeting?”
“Is there anything I should be aware of from this phone call?”
Or, “Do you need me to…”

3. Become a mind reader

Get in the habit of finding out the actions you can take independently to become your executive’s best business partner.

To learn the skill of anticipating, the assistant must ask questions, listen, be curious, take notes, read up about the industry and develop an understanding about the business. Don’t be afraid to ask your executive to explain things to you, or to recommend how you can develop your understanding of the business and your executive’s job. This will allow you to start taking independent action.

“If you need to ask the boss something, ask yourself the question first. A lot of times you’ll know the answer already and save your boss time.” (Donald Trump, a businessman who was interviewed for the book The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones)

4. Face-to-Face conversations are an essential routine to make certain you are in sync with each other


“When the boss communicates frequently, the assistant develops a knack for knowing what the boss wants, and over time appears to be a mind reader.”

“A lot of issues between assistant and executive can be resolved through dialogue. Assistants should not use technology as an excuse for not having that dialogue.” (Adam Fidler a top trainer of EAs, who is interviewed in “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” by Jan Jones)

The above quote refers to a trend among younger assistants and even younger executives of sending each other text messages when they are sitting next to each other in the office.

One-on-one meetings give you the opportunity to check in with each other relevant information, make sure projects are on track and that each person has whatever they need, nothing is being overlooked, or any miscommunications are happening.

These times together give the assistant the opportunity to learn first-hand what the executive is thinking, what are the latest projects, business goals, etc. They are good opportunities for learning about each other and building the personal side of the relationship so that you can build trust and rapport with each other.

Change and urgency are ever present in all C-level offices. As assistants we know that what is a priority today, might not be a top topic on the agenda tomorrow.

Put your one-on-one meetings on your boss’ calendar and come prepared to get down to business. Have your questions ready, and be willing to answer questions about any projects you are working on.

Remember top executives have to make good use of their time. Use this opportunity to learn about current projects, new products and customers. If you are informed and show interest, your executive will realize that you want to know more about the business and will start sharing the big picture and goals with you.

Being proactive is crucial to earning the trust of your executive and helping the relationship to evolve into a valuable partnership. You need to take responsibility for growing the relationship.

We wish you a successful journey.

Executive Assistants Are The Powers Behind The Throne

If you define power as simply who makes the most money, then the most powerful person at a corporation or startup is the CEO or founder. But if you define power as access and influence, then executive assistants are downright formidable.

500x500px-executive-assistant-02People might dismiss executive assistants as glorified gofers. But these employees are often well-educated individuals with a broad range of responsibilities like event planning, scheduling, research and IT support. Depending on the relationship, an executive assistant can morph into a trusted confidante or de-facto adviser.

“When I was looking for an assistant, what people didn’t understand is what I was not looking for was a senior secretary, I was looking for a true business partner,” Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers once told the Executive Assistants Organization in San Francisco, “someone who makes it a point to know the business, what my priorities are, and who could represent me, as well as the organization, in the absolute best professional light.”

They certainly know the business. As the employees who spend the most time with top executives, they are often the gatekeepers of information at companies.

“You know things before other people,” said Michelle DiGiacomo, the executive assistant to Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann. “You handle a lot of confidential information. I have a front-row seat to some of the most fascinating business events for our time. I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be an executive assistant.”

DiGiacomo and Shana Larson, executive assistant to Pinterest product chief Tim Kendall and head of engineering Michael Lopp, were speaking to their peers at a leadership conference in Santa Clara, “Behind Every Leader.” Or perhaps a more appropriate name would have been “Leading from Behind,” since the work of executive assistant, though crucial, does not get much attention.

Unless you screw up.

“You’re doing a job that, when done well, goes unnoticed,” DiGiacomo said. “And you learn to accept that.”
As it turns out, the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas boast some of the country’s highest concentration of executive assistants. Nearly 11 jobs per 1,000 in San Francisco are executive assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For San Jose, the number is 8.36 per 1,000. Executive assistants in these areas are also among the best paid, with employees in San Francisco earning an annual mean salary of $68,850.

500x500px-executive-assistant-03Women, by far, dominate this profession. About 95 percent of the nation’s 4.1 million executive and personal assistants are female, according to the Executive Assistants Organization.

In these jobs, women have the numbers, access to leadership and in many cases influence. Why is it then, those at the executive assistants conferences wondered, that gender diversity remains such a problem in the business world, especially in Silicon Valley?

Some executive assistants lack the confidence to speak up, said Bonnie Low-Kramen, who worked as the personal assistant to the Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis for 25 years.

“I know what it’s like to be mute or paralyzed,” she told the conference. “I had difficulty finding my own voice. I felt stupid and didn’t talk.”

That can be because it’s difficult defining the position, especially if the assistant’s responsibilities are mundane. It’s tough to find time to talk strategy with an executive when you are picking up the dry cleaning or on the phone with caterers.

“We undervalue our work, and we underestimate our value,” Low-Kramen said. “We’re comfortable being the eyes and ears of managers but not the voice. But (assistants) hold more information than they do. You’re already natural leaders because you have to manage the managers.”

Sometimes employers might not know what their executive assistants should do. Many CEOs or leaders, especially at startups, will not instinctively hire an executive assistant, and will only do so once someone offers such advice.

Take DiGiacomo at Pinterest. She went from working for two demanding veteran real estate investors in Los Angeles to serving a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who didn’t really know what to do with her.

“You constantly need to define yourself,” DiGiacomo said. “You have to say: ‘These are the things that I’m doing to make it work for you.’ ”

500x500px-executive-assistant-01Over time, that relationship can grow into a true partnership.

Ann Hiatt has served as an executive assistant for some of the biggest names in tech: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, former Google executive and current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and now Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. In each case, Hiatt was able to accomplish more than she ever thought the job would allow, she said. For example, Hiatt helped organize Schmidt’s annual “intellectual salon” conferences that draw big names in business, science, politics and entertainment. These projects have given her the confidence to pursue more ambitious assignments.

“My goal is to contribute more to the content side instead of just the logistic side,” Hiatt said. “I want to contribute in a deeper way.”

Given the demands of her job, that can be difficult.

“We want today to be perfect, so it’s hard to give equal weight to something less tangible,” she said.

Article by business columnist Thomas Lee for, originally posted in August 2014.


Hand Over Your Inbox, And Other Ways To Let A Great Assistant Maximize Your Productivity

In pop culture, the boss-assistant relationship rivals the buddy-cop one for comedic fodder. This past spring, Lydia Whitlock’s “To My Assistant” book made a splash (and became the subject of at least a pilot episode at FOX) by cataloging the sins of self-important sorts who torment those who help them. Among the things the “good boss” narrator promises not to do that others will? “I will not make you start an office-wide witch hunt because I am absolutely certain that someone maliciously lowered my chair by half an inch while I was at lunch.”

If you’re truly leveraging your assistant, you may just reverse the cliche and go fetch her coffee, because you have time to wander to Starbucks.

In a perfect world, you’d be the one fetching coffee with all the time your assistant has saved you. If you’re truly leveraging your assistant, you may just reverse the cliche and go fetch her coffee, because you have time to wander to Starbucks.

But done right, having an even semi-dedicated assistant—a disappearing reality to be sure, with the majority of assistants now supporting three or more people—isn’t remotely about status displays. “This person is spending your time,” says Melba Duncan, president of The Duncan Group, a firm that places executive assistants with C-level executives. An assistant decides how to allocate one of your company’s most precious resources: your minutes. There are just 168 hours in a week, and there’s evidence that most people can’t (and don’t) work 80-hour weeks.

Reaching the optimal allocation of your work hours “changes the bottom line,” says Stacia Pierce, host of the International Women’s Success Conference and a coach who frequently works with entrepreneurs hiring their first right-hand men and women. “You can see a percentage increase in 30 days if someone is really working on the right things.” That’s because the right help “frees you up to do what really brings in the income” instead of being tied down to your desk “doing things that still need to be done.”

Indeed, if you’re truly leveraging your assistant, you may just reverse the cliche and go fetch her coffee, because you have time to wander to Starbucks during the day if you want. Here are the top three things you can do to help your assistant make you a star:

1. Let your assistant deal with your inbox.

If you get hundreds of emails a day, you simply can’t deal with all of them. A program like Sanebox or Gmail’s new tabs can file promotions and social media alerts, but as you go up the chain of command, the volume of email that passes a filter’s assumption of importance will still be unreadable.

If you assume primary responsibility for your inbox, you will never get anything else done. The problem? Even very busy people cling to their inboxes. Seeing new messages—like wrapped presents under a Christmas tree—gives them an endorphin rush. Answering an email in between meetings feels productive. And then there are personal matters—emails from a spouse or friends—that people don’t want to share.

But a good assistant can make sure that you see only things that need your input in batches at times when it’s convenient, so you can actually think during the work day. You know there is nothing exploding, because if there was, you’d be told.

2. Empower your assistant to align your time with your priorities.

Once you’ve articulated your priorities (which, by the way, you should do), your assistant can make sure that your schedule actually reflects those decisions. Everyone knows that’s what should happen—putting first things first and all—but you might go wobbly.

"Saving you time and anxiety is what this role is all about," says Melba Duncan. As for personal matters? Ask family to call or text.

“Saving you time and anxiety is what (an assistant’s) role is all about,” says Melba Duncan. As for personal matters? Ask family to call or text.

A good assistant makes sure that if you have a huge speech on Wednesday, there is time on your calendar before Wednesday to practice it, and possibly will have a coach show up in your office during practice time to critique it. You may know that you’re grumpy all day if you don’t get your run in from 6:45-7:30 a.m. but you don’t have the bandwidth to argue that a conference call scheduled for 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. really involves only 30 minutes of discussion points.

Your assistant will. “Every leader that has a lot to do has certain things that make them function better,” says Pierce. Maybe you’re embarrassed by your quirks, but if it’s important, tell your assistant. He or she will likely believe that “somehow, this is making the company profitable.”

You can also ask your assistant to seize opportunities to free up time in general. This person can look at your schedule, Duncan says, and tell you “I’ve taken Melba off your calendar because you’re going to see her next Sunday at an event anyway.” The point is “not putting the person in the position of doing work he or she shouldn’t be doing.” After all, the ultimate sign of success is an open calendar.

3. Work as a team to optimize travel time.

In an era of global organizations, people spend a lot of time on the road; Duncan reports that a number of her clients travel 80% of the time.

Your assistant can book your travel, of course, but a simple flight, hotel, and rental car combo is Travelocity-grade work. What’s really critical is working with your assistant to be clear on “what it is you need to achieve,” says Duncan, and why you’re hauling yourself halfway across the globe beyond racking up frequent flier miles.

If the top priority for an excursion is to meet with a potential client in person, that meeting gets rescheduled first when your plane is three hours late. You might land with a note to go straight to a different gate to say hello to the potential client, who will be there in 30 minutes because she’s also on a flight that day. Sharing your goal for the trip would, in that case, keep you from mostly wasting the trip.

The second part of optimizing travel time? Entrusting your assistant to run things in your absence—checking in on ongoing projects, identifying potential problems, and being a “spokesperson,” says Duncan, who is able to speak to a team on your behalf. When your absence is no longer a bottleneck, you can travel as much as you need to, and your team can still get amazing things done.

Article by Laura Vanderkam for Fast Company, originally published in 2013.

The Case for Executive Assistants

Among the most striking details of the corporate era depicted in the AMC series Mad Men, along with constant smoking and mid-day drinking, is the army of secretaries who populate Sterling Cooper, the 1960s ad agency featured in the show.

An American period drama set in the 1960's, Mad Men was one of the most popular TV shows in recent history, and ran for seven seasons on AMC. Photo courtesy of Silvercup Studios and Lionsgate Television.

An American period drama set in the 1960’s, Mad Men was one of the most popular TV shows in recent history, and ran for seven seasons on AMC. Photo courtesy of Silvercup Studios and Lionsgate Television.

The secretary of those days has gone the way of the carbon copy and been replaced by the executive assistant, now typically reserved for senior management. Technologies like e-mail, voice mail, mobile devices, and online calendars have allowed managers at all levels to operate with a greater degree of self-sufficiency. At the same time, companies have faced enormous pressure to cut costs, reduce head count, and flatten organizational structures.

As a result, the numbers of assistants at lower corporate levels have dwindled in most corporations. That’s unfortunate, because effective assistants can make enormous contributions to productivity at all levels of the organization.

The Value of Executive Assistants

At very senior levels, the return on investment from a skilled assistant can be substantial. Consider a senior executive whose total compensation package is $1 million annually, who works with an assistant who earns $80,000. For the organization to break even, the assistant must make the executive 8% more productive than he or she would be working solo—for instance, the assistant needs to save the executive roughly five hours in a 60-hour workweek.

ckc-featured-750x390px-executive-assistantsIn reality, good assistants save their bosses much more than that. They ensure that meetings begin on time with prep material delivered in advance. They optimize travel schedules and enable remote decision making, keeping projects on track. And they filter the distractions that can turn a manager into a reactive type who spends all day answering e-mail instead of a leader who proactively sets the organization’s agenda. As Robert Pozen writes in this issue: A top-notch assistant “is crucial to being productive.”

That’s true not only for top executives. In their zeal to cut administrative expenses, many companies have gone too far, leaving countless highly paid middle and upper managers to arrange their own travel, file expense reports, and schedule meetings. Some companies may be drawn to the notion of egalitarianism they believe this assistant-less structure represents—when workers see the boss loading paper into the copy machine, the theory goes, a “we’re all in this together” spirit is created.

But as a management practice, the structure rarely makes economic sense. Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well. Although companies have embraced this logic by outsourcing work to vendors or to operations abroad, back at headquarters they ignore it, forcing top talent to misuse their time. As a longtime recruiter for executive assistants, I’ve worked with many organizations suffering from the same problem: There’s too much administrative work and too few assistants to whom it can be assigned.

Granting middle managers access to an assistant—or shared resources—can give a quick boost to productivity even at lean, well-run companies. Firms should also think about the broader developmental benefits of providing assistants for up-and-coming managers. The real payoff may come when the manager arrives in a job a few levels up better prepared and habitually more productive.

An experienced assistant can be particularly helpful if the manager is a new hire. The assistant becomes a crucial on-boarding resource, helping the manager read and understand the organizational culture, guiding him or her through its different (and difficult) personalities, and serving as a sounding board during the crucial acclimation. In this way, knowledgeable assistants are more than a productivity asset: They’re reverse mentors, using their experience to teach new executives how people are expected to behave at that level in the organization.

Getting the Most from Assistants

Two critical factors determine how well a manager utilizes an assistant. The first is the executive’s willingness to delegate pieces of his or her workload to the assistant. The second is the assistant’s willingness to stretch beyond his or her comfort zone to assume new responsibilities.

Delegating wisely.

The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant. Triaging and drafting replies to e-mails is a central task for virtually all assistants. Some executives have assistants listen in on phone calls in order to organize and follow up on action items. Today many assistants are taking on more-supervisory roles: They’re managing information flow, dealing with basic financial management, attending meetings, and doing more planning and organizing. Executives can help empower their assistants by making it clear to the organization that the assistant has real authority. The message the executive should convey is, “I trust this person to represent me and make decisions.”

ckc-featured-750x390px-executive-assistants-02Not every executive is well-suited for this type of delegating. Younger managers in particular have grown up with technology that encourages self-sufficiency. Some have become so accustomed to doing their own administrative tasks that they don’t communicate well with assistants. These managers should think of assistants as strategic assets and realize that part of their job is managing the relationship to get the highest possible return.

Stretching the limits.

Great assistants proactively look for ways to improve their skills. When I was the assistant to Pete Peterson, the former U.S. commerce secretary and head of Lehman Brothers, I took night classes in law, marketing, and presentations to burnish my skills. Today I see executive assistants learning new languages and technologies to improve their performance working for global corporations.

In my work, I frequently encounter world-class executive assistants. Loretta Sophocleous is the executive assistant to Roger Ferguson, the president and CEO of TIAA-CREF; her title is Director, Executive Office Operations. She manages teams. She leads meetings. Roger says that he runs many decisions past Loretta before he weighs in.

Another example is Noreen Denihan, whom I placed over 13 years ago as the executive assistant to Donald J. Gogel, the president and CEO of Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, LLC. According to Don, Noreen fills an informal leadership role, has an unparalleled ability to read complex settings, and can recognize and respond to challenging people and circumstances. “A spectacular executive assistant can defy the laws of the physical world,” Gogel says. “She [or he] can see around corners.”

Trudy Vitti is the executive assistant to Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi. Often when you ask him a question, he’ll say, “Ask Trudy.” He travels for weeks at a time and says that he has utter confidence in Trudy to run the office in his absence.

Compared with managers in other countries, those in the United States do a better job of delegating important work to their assistants—and of treating them as a real part of the management team. Outside the United States, educational requirements for assistants are less intensive, salaries are lower, and the role is more typically described as personal assistant.

ckc-featured-750x390px-communication-02You can often tell a lot about an executive’s management style—and effectiveness—from the way he interacts with his assistant. Can the executive trust and delegate, or does he micromanage? Do assistants like working for her, or does she have a history of many assistants leaving quickly or being fired? Not every boss–assistant relationship is made in heaven, but an executive’s ability to manage conflicts with an assistant can be an important indicator of his overall ability to manage people.

Finding the Right Fit

Hiring the right assistant can be a challenge. In some ways, it’s trickier than filling traditional management positions, because personal chemistry and the one-on-one dynamic are so important—sometimes more so than skills or experience.

Expert assistants understand the unspoken needs and characteristics of the people with whom they work. They have high levels of emotional intelligence: They respond to subtle cues and react with situational appropriateness. They pay close attention to shifts in an executive’s behavior and temperament and understand that timing and judgment are the foundation of a smooth working relationship.

A good assistant quickly learns what an executive needs, what his or her strengths and weaknesses are, what might trigger anger or stress, and how to best accommodate his or her personal style. Good matches are hard to come by: That’s the reason so many good assistants follow an executive from job to job.


After many years of debriefing assistants who’ve been fired, I’ve identified several factors that make for bad relationships. The most common missteps an assistant makes are misreading the corporate culture, failing to build bridges with other assistants, failing to ask enough questions about tasks, agreeing to take on too much work, and speaking to external parties without authorization. Bosses usually contribute to these deteriorating relationships by not being open in their communications or not being clear about expectations.

There’s an assistant I placed recently who’s having trouble developing the right relationship with her boss. The executive called me and said, “Melba, I expected her to read through these memos and then get them out very quickly to my managers. But she left them on my desk, didn’t call me over the weekend, and didn’t send them out.” I asked the assistant about it, and she said, “He didn’t tell me it was important—I can’t read someone’s mind.” But in fact, in this job you’re supposed to be able to read minds—or, at the very least, you’re supposed to ask questions.

Simply put, the best executive assistants are indispensable. Microsoft will never develop software that can calm a hysterical sales manager, avert a crisis by redrafting a poorly worded e-mail, smooth a customer’s ruffled feathers, and solve a looming HR issue—all within a single hour, and all without interrupting the manager to whom such problems might otherwise have proven a distraction. Executive assistants give companies and managers a human face. They’re troubleshooters, translators, help desk attendants, diplomats, human databases, travel consultants, amateur psychologists, and ambassadors to the inside and outside world.

After years of cutting back, companies can boost productivity by arming more managers with assistants. And executives who are fortunate enough to have a skilled assistant can benefit by finding ways to delegate higher-level work to him or her.

Executive–assistant relationships are business partnerships: Strong ones are win-wins between smart people. In fact, they’re win-win-wins because ultimately the companies reap the benefits

Source: “The Case for Executive Assistants” by Melba J. Duncan, from the Harvard Business Review, published in May 2011.

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Don’t Call Me a Secretary. I’m Much More Than That

Never underestimate the power and influence of an executive assistant. Just as technology has rapidly evolved, so too has the role of a secretary. In fact, calling an executive assistant a “secretary” is about as archaic as that typewriter. Article by Sarah Daffy.

What was once a low-paid, subservient “secretarial” gig is now a valuable career that comes with great benefits and opportunity for career progression.

The job requires a high level of intellect, professionalism, and resilience. Often times your intelligence needs to match that of your boss and you need to be three steps ahead of them all the time. It’s just as rewarding as it is exhausting.

And for those of you who still think executive assistants are just secretaries or admin clerks, it’s time to update your knowledge.

So what’s changed?

It’s not breaking news, but these days we live in a digital age and staff productivity has tripled. We’ve needed to upskill our workers to take on larger responsibilities in all levels of business. Large companies and even small start-ups are now tackling things like innovation, strategic development, multi-channel social profiles, operational effectiveness, and cyber security. Companies have reshaped the way in which they operate to facilitate the expansion of unpredictable market trends and demands.

An executive who oversees the interest of a company needs someone reliable to depend on — a right-hand man, or woman, in most cases. The secretary who used to sit on the end of the phone opening mail and making coffee doesn’t cut it anymore. Power players in the digital age need a smart assistant they can rely on to oversee much larger responsibilities. Someone who can think for them and de-clutter their brain when they’re managing smartphones, laptops, ipads, desktops, tablets, blackberry’s, Skype, and global video conferences from their desk.

Successful EAs are born with the ability to be abnormally intuitive. We know what our boss is thinking before they’ve thought it and it’s our job to deliver on that need before a request has been made.

We are the masters of multi-tasking and pro-activity. The most important part of our role is discretion, so you need to be able to prove that you can keep your mouth shut.

I’ve done just about everything during my time as an EA. I’ve sprinted in six-inch-heels to florists and jewellers on the uneven surfaces of Brisbane’s CBD in a last-ditch attempt to buy roses and diamonds to save my boss from divorce when he “forgot” his wedding anniversary.

I’ve worked 24-hours straight with execs on multi-million dollar proposals and strategic reports. I’ve been the eyes and ears for my bosses who have climbed the corporate ladder high enough to not know who they could trust. I’ve coached staff members on how to approach my boss for a pay rise or the best way to confess to making a catastrophic mistake.

I’ve been privy to the types of conversations that could bring businesses unstuck. I have been the confidant, adviser, friend and ally to executives who needed to know that there was one person in the building that they could rely on.

The thing that I love most about being an EA is that the scope of the role is endless. If you work hard and show your boss that you can manage their correspondence and schedule with your eyes closed and demonstrate your insight and knowledge about their business ventures — eventually you’ll be asked to provide your opinion on massive business decisions before your boss has made them.

You’ll get phone calls at all hours of the day or night to help with something that’s come up unexpectedly. You’ll be the sounding board they need and the person who they see as more than a “secretary” or “assistant”. You’ll be the person that goes to their meetings with them, no matter how confidential. You’ll be the person they trust to give advice to others on their behalf without their consultation.

If you’re really good, you’ll be their shadow, they won’t be able to get through a day without your help, and you’ll be someone who they call into their office one day to promote.

So please, don’t underestimate the ability of an EA or her intelligence. She may be the person sitting outside of the chief’s office letting you in, but she knows exactly what he’s going to say to you before you’ve walked in and she knows that by doing more than getting his coffee order right.

Sarah Daffy is an Executive Assistant at News Corp. Her article, “Don’t call me a secretary. I’m much more than that”, was originally published in The Daily Telegraph on 23 February 2016.

4 Reasons Successful Entrepreneurs Need Executive Assistants

Today’s featured article on executive assistants comes from Ryan Westwood, CEO of Simplus, author, speaker, and experienced entrepreneur.

As an entrepreneur, you put a great deal of thought in surrounding yourself with talented and dynamic people who add to the success of your business endeavors. Yet there is one position often overlooked by the most ambitious and successful entrepreneurs. No, it isn’t your VP or manager. It is your executive assistant.

 The abilities and contributions of your team often determine the overall outcome of your project.

The abilities and contributions of your team often determine the overall outcome of your project.

I’m not referring to someone who spends the day merely opening mail, pouring coffee, and answering the phone. I am talking about an individual who, if well placed, can enhance your productivity and brand ten-fold by compensating for weaknesses, enhancing professionalism, expanding productivity, and increasing the organization of your company.

While some entrepreneurs utilize current software or mobile devices to help with their administrative tasks, nothing compares to the benefits of a skilled executive assistant. Here are 4 reasons why hiring an executive assistant is a great idea.

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