Not All Assistants Become Executive Assistants: Here’s Why

Where do the best executive assistants come from?

Every top EA had to start somewhere – most don’t get thrust straight into a role working alongside a Fortune 500 CEO! The executive assistant role requires a certain level of poise and initiative – traits that tend to be built up with experience.

For many, that means starting out as an assistant. Not an executive assistant, but something like an administrative assistant or a virtual assistant. These are roles that can reasonably be picked up at an entry level, as long as the person has the key attributes to do them well.

However, an assistant isn’t always on a trajectory to become an executive assistant. Sometimes, that would be entirely the wrong move.

Why is that? Here are some factors that come into it:

It’s not a fallback option

Let’s be honest, many people look at administrative roles as some kind of fallback option. Whether that view is fair or not, some assistant roles really are quite simple. The job holder is there to do their tasks and that’s it. Someone else tells them what those tasks are and they’re comfortable working “within the lines.” These sorts of roles tend to be easily picked up by anyone who has a certain level of administrative and organizational skill.

The key with the executive assistant role is that it is most definitely NOT a fallback option. It’s a highly specialized role and it’s not something absolutely anyone will be able to do well in. Companies that hire EAs are developing an executive – it’s a chosen career path that has a lot of time, energy, and skill invested into it.

In short, the Executive Assistant role can be hard! EAs adopt the executive’s pressures, work styles, and timelines. They must operate well with the personality of the executive and the pace of the environment. They have to operate “outside of the lines” often, finding new ways to help achieve company goals or to improve processes. Where someone else says “that’s impossible,” the EA says “let’s try this.”

As you can probably gather from these points, it takes a certain kind of proficiency to make it as an Executive Assistant and quite honestly, not all assistants are up to that level (many don’t want to be!).

There’s a natural EA limit

The number of executive assistants are limited to the number of executives who need one. Not all companies will hire someone at the level of an EA, with many opting to go for other types of assistants (who are cheaper, but don’t do the same level of work).

If you have 1,000 Fortune 1000 CEOs, then that’s 1,000 executive assistants for CEOs. Of course, that’s not counting other C-Suite employees who may need an EA, but you get the idea. There’s a natural limit.

What this means is only the cream of the assistant crop is likely to be able to move into an EA role. Typically, those who do are highly educated (college degrees are common amongst almost all EAs), have some level of experience working in an executive environment, and are highly self-sufficient. One of the big differences between an EA and a regular assistant is the level of self-determination required. While an assistant tends to be task-focused and work with a to-do list, an EA tends to be more big-picture focused. They need project management skills and a keen eye toward the goals of the executive, as well as the wider company.

Some people prefer less pressure

If you sign up for an executive assistant role, expect some pressure. Clients in town unexpectedly and stopping by? Guess who is asked to find the hottest restaurant tables or tickets in town. Executive under pressure to move quickly on a new deal? Guess who is also under pressure to move quickly to do anything that helps to facilitate their work.

Pressure comes with the territory and it’s simply not for everyone. Another aspect of that is the need to be able to think on their feet and come up with innovative solutions. For some people, that is the ultimate anxiety. They prefer to be given their task list and to stick with it. Coming up with things outside of the list will feel like too much pressure.

On the other hand, the world still needs assistants who stick to the task lists! Those things need to be done, too. It’s just that doesn’t necessarily translate to a competent executive assistant.

An EA must be able to operate under pressure. That alone won’t suit all candidates Click To Tweet

They need to be able to be a representative

High-performing executive assistants act as a “face” or ambassador for their executive. They’re often a first point of contact for customers or team members and are relied upon to relay the view of the executive. 

To do this well, an EA needs to have a high level of understanding of the executive, excellent communication skills and a certain level of finesse in dealing with people. Part of that ambassador role is also acting as a gatekeeper. That doesn’t mean taking on the role of a club bouncer where people often feel like they’re being pushed away, it means being able to communicate with diplomacy, ensure the person gets what they need and that they leave feeling that they’ve been treated well.

In essence, the EA is acting as an extension of the executive and needs to be able to give people similar responses or results to what they’d get from the real thing. 

Assistants need resources around them to advance

It’s difficult to advance to the level of an executive assistant if you don’t have the resources to help you get there. Operating at an executive level involves a learned set of skills and not everyone gets the opportunity to develop them.

For example, if an assistant works in a role where they have to strictly remain within the bounds of the task list or job description, that doesn’t give them much opportunity to advance. If they’re always printing the meeting materials but never attending any meetings or taking notes, they’re not being exposed to how the executive level operates.

Assistants who develop into excellent EAs tend to have had good opportunities to advance and develop their skills. They get chances to “step up” where possible and they’re supported in taking those chances.

Final thoughts

Those were some of the main reasons that not all assistants become executive assistants. If you’re an assistant hoping to move into an EA role, these are good to take notice of. If you’re in need of an EA and wondering if you can simply promote an assistant, bear in mind the highlighted differences between the roles.

This also explains why many executives struggle in their search for a good EA. They’re out there, but they’re just not easy to find! EAs have a strong skill set that is not necessarily common.

If you need help finding an executive assistant who will be a great fit for you, that’s where Worxbee comes in. We’ve done the work to source the best in the business and match them up with the right executives. Talk to us today about how we can help!

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