What Are the Top Skills an Executive Assistant Should Master?

The executive assistant role has evolved over recent decades.

Where previously, an executive assistant was usually seen as part of the support staff, the role has morphed to take more of a strategic path. Executive assistants are highly skilled and very much in demand. As one USA Today article referred to EAs, it is the new “power role.”

As strategic partners for the executives they serve, EAs are expected to have a wide range of key skills. Hiring managers and aspiring EAs alike often want to know what those are, so here we’re taking a closer look:

Top skills for effective executive assistants

Executive assistants are called many things – gatekeepers, right-hand, traffic-cop – these all apply but only touch on the multiple skills of an experienced EA. Here are some of the top skills we believe every EA should have…

Ability to perform under pressure

Let’s be direct here – executive assistants work for busy executives who are often under a lot of pressure. That pressure naturally gets passed on, especially during any urgent situations that may crop up.

A highly prized skill in an executive assistant is therefore their ability to not only remain calm under pressure, but to be able to perform well, even if the situation is highly stressful. 

This doesn’t mean acting with extreme speed – this can often lead to mistakes. An EA should have the ability to take a breath and make considered decisions. In a high-pressure situation, they will probably still have to act quickly, but more along the lines of the “more haste, less speed” adage. 

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Time management skills

The best executive assistants have impeccable time management skills. They’re managing their boss’s calendar as well as their own and they’re juggling multiple tasks – many that compete for priority.

EAs need to be strategic about time management. They need to be very good at prioritizing the most urgent tasks. It’s easy to get distracted, but a good EA will have laser focus on strategy.

Some of the very best EAs have systems to help them prioritize and get through work more efficiently. For example, while multitasking is a myth (you’re really rapidly serial tasking), EAs use strategies such as grouping like tasks together, to make them more efficient.

Project and process management skills

This is kind of related to that last segment on time management, because no one is more required to have a handle over time than a project manager! While an EA might not actually be in a project manager role, their work often consists of projects of varying sizes. They usually play a vital role in any projects their executive is involved in.

Project management involves things like tracking and follow-up of tasks that other people are responsible for. EAs need to have a finger on the pulse and know where things stand at any given time.

Process management is a separate but equally important skill. EAs and the people they work with do their best work when processes are efficient and repeatable. Process management skills include being able to assess and put together processes around key tasks.

Resourcefulness and organizational skills

Resourcefulness and overall organizational skills are also highly prized. Resourcefulness means that an EA isn’t afraid to pull off what may seem impossible at first glance. 

This might mean being very dogged and persistent. If an executive needs to entertain a client tonight and there are no bookings or tickets to be had at the usual places, an EA will keep digging until they’ve either secured something at one of those places, or found an alternative.

With the EA role being genuinely fast-paced, organizational skills are a must. Whether those involve a last-minute scramble to find a reservation or the normal day-to-day of the EA, they can’t afford to waste time on disorganization.

Vast general knowledge (they know secrets!)

The best EAs seem to have an answer for everything. Either they genuinely do have the answer or they know exactly where to find it. EAs tend to gather encyclopedic knowledge on a range of things and keep that knowledge in their own black book (or electronic version of one).

This could include anything, from services to handy tools to contacts. EAs keep records “just in case” because they know they could be asked for almost anything at any time.

Technical prowess

EAs tend to be asked a lot to act as technical support. Today that means having proficiency in a wide range of apps and software. They learn the most productive ways to use those tools and help out when needed.

It’s not that EAs should have the skill level of your actual IT support, but they should have good general knowledge (and actual IT on speed dial).

Complete discretion

An EA is often a fly on the wall to all sorts of potentially sensitive conversations or information. No matter how excited, shocked, or otherwise they might be, they need to be able to keep a lid on it and keep it to themselves.

EAs are entrusted with a lot of “closed door” information and upholding that trust is one of the most important parts of their job. Mistakes (like the accidental sending of an email) can be worked through, but gossiping is a huge no-no, likely to be a “career limiting” move.

Emotional intelligence (EQ)

A huge part of the EA role is dealing with people. This means people at all levels, both inside and outside the business. They must be very good at managing and relating to people, including picking up any emotional cues.

Emotional intelligence involves being able to identify emotions in themselves and others, recognize how those emotions might drive a response, and use that information to guide how they respond. Being tactful is a skill related to EQ. 

Strong initiative

The best executive assistants get to know their executive so well that they become masters of anticipating their needs. You tend to find that the longer an EA has been with an executive, the better they become at anticipating their needs several moves ahead.

For example, an EA will learn about how the executive operates, including the times of day when they do their best work. The EA can then assess tasks coming into the executive’s schedule and diarise them at times that make sense  for them.

Excellent communication skills

This is one skill related to almost all the rest – an EA’s communication skills must be impeccable. They’re tasked with getting hold of meeting attendees or informing people of any changes. They often have to respond either in written or verbal form on behalf of their executive – communication must be clear, timely, and via appropriate channels.

Relationship-building skills

EAs increasingly have to move and shake among movers and shakers. They need strong networks and the ability to relate to all sorts of people.

An EA is often able to solve problems by tapping into their networks. Those “impossible to get” tickets? They know someone who can hook them up.

Where do good EAs come from?

One of the skills we didn’t mention that will almost always be listed on a vacancy for an EA role is “experience as an EA.” For anyone wanting to move into an EA role, this obviously leaves the question, how do I get started?

The skills we mentioned are important to master, so other assistant roles can help you to build those, especially if you take on extra responsibility. Developing a service attitude and strategic mindset is important. If you have the opportunity to assist or shadow another executive assistant, this can be another great way to build up experience.

Volunteering is another way to potentially build up transferable EA skills. There are many nonprofits that look for volunteer administrative help. Look for opportunities that might fill gaps in experience, such as booking travel or calendar management

Lastly, if you’re an executive or entrepreneur looking for a good EA, check Worxbee out! We work tirelessly to find and recruit the best EAs and to match them with the right executives. Talk to us today about how we can help you.

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