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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: Inc.com. Article from Issie Lapowsky, published in January 2014.

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 SFGate.com, originally posted in August 2014.

 

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