EA expectations: What to expect from your Executive Assistant

Written by: Karl Sakas

A client recently promoted an agency employee to become his Executive Assistant (EA), to help him focus on his $1,000/hour activities. She had the aptitude but not the experience—so he asked me to coach her on how to support him better.

Most of my clients don’t have a full-time Executive Assistant with an EA title, but most have someone serving in that role on at least a part-time basis. Sometimes it’s a VA, sometimes it’s an Office Manager who also supports them, sometimes it’s an assistant split between them and another executive. Occasionally the EA has a “Chief of Staff” title.

Ultimately, the key point is that an EA is dedicated—in part or 100%—to making your work easier as an agency owner. They’re a key member of your team of advisors.

Some agency owners work with a career EA—someone who plans to work as an EA the rest of their career. More often, people are an assistant as a stepping stone to another role. (Not sure you can afford an EA? Consider delegating to a virtual assistant on a part-time basis.)

Let’s look at what to expect… and what your EA should expect from you.

What to expect from your EA

This is a list of 15 ideal qualities—you likely won’t have 100%. (If you do, figure out how to keep them forever.)

1) Discretion

They keep things private. They’re going to see you at your worst; they shouldn’t be broadcasting that. This also includes being intentionally vague—for instance, a random caller doesn’t need to know you’re on vacation in the Bahamas.

2) Gatekeeping

They protect you from people who want to infringe on your time and energy. They also recognize when to modulate this—for instance, a salesperson should get pushback but they should probably allow your COO to interrupt.

3) Accuracy

They get things right the first time. (And if they make a mistake, they let you know before you find it yourself.) But they also understand the level of fidelity you need—for instance, when you need a rough answer versus an exact answer.

4) Decorum

Your culture is unique to your agency, but they’ll ultimately reflect your brand—in how they answer the phone, how they schedule people, and how they say “no.” They need to be good communicators.

5) Initiative

They’ll look for ways to make your life easier—both strategic and tactical. This includes anticipating your needs and adjusting their behavior (within reason) to match how you operate. This also includes thinking about “continuous improvement”—how to make things better.

6) Adaptability

Generally, they should adapt to follow your preferred processes. This may include a complicated list of “business rules” for how you schedule. It may also include a certain process for reminding you about something—including how they should escalate if you don’t take action.

7) Questions

If they don’t understand, they’ll ask you to clarify. They’ll also ask for your input when they need it, and use past answers to become increasingly self-sufficient.

8) Service Mindset

They recognize their job is to make your life easier. They’re not servants, but they are there to serve you.

9) Judgment

They make small and large decisions on your behalf, based on the swim lanes you and they define. Over time, they’ll be able to make many decisions without needing to consult you. For instance, as George Washington’s adjutant, Alexander Hamilton responded to correspondence on behalf of General Washington. This requires good judgement on their part, including applying your (the agency owner) values to the situation rather than their own.

10) Autonomy

The ideal EA finds a balance between getting your input and doing things themselves. Over time, they should do more and more themselves (consulting you only as needed).

11) Candor

Sometimes you ask them to do something that doesn’t make sense. They should feel comfortable [diplomatically] pushing-back to question your assumptions.

12) Industry Acumen

They understand your business and your industry. Your EA eventually may know more about the agency industry than many of your employees. This expertise means they can make better decisions, and offer you better advice.

13) Tech-savvy

They use technology to do their job better, and they’re looking for new ways to automate processes. Technology isn’t always the answer—but if it is, your EA will figure it out.

14) Firmness

They’re helpful but not afraid to say “no” to others if something isn’t a top priority for you. They may not love saying “no” but they know they need to put your needs before others’ needs.

15) Humor

By definition, you and they are going to be in some tense situations. It’s a lot easier to get through those if you have a compatible sense of humor.

What you owe your EA

This is a two-way relationship—if not a partnership. Here are eight things that you owe your Executive Assistant.

1) Respect

Someone has committed their work life to making your life easier. I hope you recognize what a commitment that is. Business owners—agency owners especially—can be difficult people.

2) Fair Compensation

You should pay them well. Consider that “career” Fortune 500 executive assistants typically get a six-figure salary—and follow their boss from company to company. (Note: I haven’t seen salaries like that for EAs at the agencies I work with.)

3) Appreciation

Say thank you. And pay them well (above). In the corporate world, a strong relationship between an executive and his/her EA could last 20-30 years.

4) Input

Your EA probably knows you almost as well as your spouse. You should get their input as you’re making decisions. And listen—asking for input but always ignoring the input isn’t a good way to get continued input.

5) Clarity

Be clear about your expectations. This includes letting them know if a deadline is flexible or fixed, where to find a resource that (currently) only you know about, and (as I noted above under “Accuracy”) whether you need a rough or ballpark answer versus an exact answer.

6) Boundaries

If you expect them to be available nights and weekends, you need to negotiate that up front. If you expect them to handle more than the occasional personal task, you need to negotiate that, too.

7) Backup

Sometimes your EA is going to annoy or even anger clients or employees, typically because the client or employee was unreasonable. It’s your job to assess what happened, and lean toward backing-up your EA.

8) Time Away from You

As much as you’d like them to work 24/7, they need time away from you. And their vacation time away will help you appreciate how much you need their help.

Working with your EA

Do you have an EA, or someone who provides aspects of an EA? What’s it like? If you aren’t getting what you need, it’s up to you to speak up—they can’t read your mind.

Want the benefits of having an EA but not ready for a full-time hire? Consider hiring a virtual assistant and structuring the VA role as an executive assistant. You can hire them directly, or go through a VA agency like Don’t Panic Management to do the vetting for you.

Question: What do you love about working with the person who assists you?

Image credit: Life ring photo by Richard Leonard, via Creative Commons.

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