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.
People 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.
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.’ ”
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 SFGate.com, originally posted in August 2014.