Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Medium, written by Phoenix Normand who is a career executive assistant and operations manager turned professional development coach. Phoenix’s content has been lightly edited to fit the OfficeNinjas style and is published here with permission.
A quick search through Executive Assistant job listings typically throws me into a fit of rage. Those which dare to print salaries of $40–50K in an insanely expensive market like San Francisco, while requiring 0–2 years previous experience, are the ones that will one day land me in jail for arson.
Having been a career EA for more than 20 years, surviving and thriving through two dot-coms, several insane bosses, two ICU/CCU visits for “stress related heart incidences,” and enough internal organizational dramas to fill most of the pages of the book I’m currently writing, I’ve become a savant when it comes to C-level executives and navigating hierarchies. I know what it takes to be a successful Executive Assistant. And I assure you, someone with 0–2 years experience does not qualify. They’re still chum in a sea of gangsta sharks.
The “secretary” is now folklore. They’re dead, along with argyle sweaters. Please only use the word when referring to Board seats. Executive MEGA Assistants are a new professional breed that most organizations still have no idea how to use. We are tech savvy. We research the heck out of everything. We have business acumen on par with the people we support. We have deep connections throughout numerous industries. We can pick up a phone or send an email and make the world stop on a dime. We can spot a flagging employee and tell you when he’s quitting, along with why and what company he’s going to. In short, we have super powers.
Yet, time and again, companies hire us as the “calendar whiz” or the one who “creates calm from chaos.” We’re often reduced to note takers, coffee procurement specialists, and scapegoats for staff ineptitudes.
So it’s newsflash time, kids—the rules have changed.
And please, don’t get all beat up about your job descriptions, “overqualification” monikers, and budget constraints because you’re a startup. YOU CREATED THIS MONSTER. I’ll explain.
You hired us at your startups and proceeded to not only give us an administrative role, you then added receptionist, office manager, Board liaison, human resources lead, facilities manager, vendor procurement specialist, interior designer, event planner, social media coordinator, and travel agent to the role. That’s zero increase in pay and an exponential increase in expectation and accountability.
There’s not a single other human in the building with as much aggregate responsibility. This includes the CEO.
So we adapted, we studied up. We learned about anything and everything we could. We formed alliances. We created efficient processes so we could simply get through a work day with everything completed. We started listening, watching, and got really good at seeing how things worked—how others behaved in certain situations and what it took to be successful. We also tested our theories on the unsuspecting and figured out ways to circumnavigate the rules in order to achieve our intended outcomes.
And now, if our bosses are out of the office for any amount of time, we can literally run the company in their absence. We know all of the players, their roles, have comprehensive knowledge about all of the projects/initiatives on the table, which Board member to call (confidentially) to ask how to do something, or whom to assign it to. We have the respect of the entire organization because we’re the omnipotent resource (read: go-to) for the company. In short, we know how to get things done … even if it’s (mis)perceived as being way over our heads.
This will probably scare most employers. And to my EA Ninjas out there, those are the employers you should avoid like the plague. They will strip you of your most basic hopes, talents, career momentum and aspirations, and stuff you into a box to have complete control over you. RUN! Those days are done.
For employers who want to attract and keep an Executive MEGA Assistant, here’s what you need to know:
1. Pay Up
We’re martyrs. While you’re at home with your families, so are we … but one hand is preparing dinner while the other feverishly texts and answers emails ahead of tomorrow’s meeting. We’re usually first to arrive and one of the last to leave. We constantly take the blame when execs butt in unnecessarily and throw something that was airtight into peril.
We often get no recognition for the wins, but will get ripped for any and all mistakes we make. We keep our ears and eyes open to counsel and reel in key employees headed for the exit. We are your parent, your second spouse, your marriage counselor, your press secretary, and your biggest fan.
No one—except your mother—will have as big of an effect on your overall business success and personal life as your Executive Assistant. So reflect this impact in what you pay.
2. Let Us FLY
These days you’re requiring senior level business acumen and advanced degrees. So why do you excuse us from conversations and make us fetch donuts (that no one eats), when you should be having us at the table and asking our opinion? We see everything. We can spot a sketchy liar the moment it walks through the door. We’ve dealt with enough of them to know how to flesh out the truth when something just doesn’t add up.
We have mutated and trained ourselves to be indispensable. We’ve been underutilized and overlooked for so long that we’ve had to take our careers into our own hands. We’re constantly finding ways to make contributions to our companies that last long after we’ve left, likely due to poor pay and unnecessary glass ceilings blocking our ascension.
We know what you’re doing, often better than you do. Instead of being threatened (or just lame), partner up!
Let us shine when there’s an opportunity. Course-correct us, sure, but allow us to be bold, contribute, and have a say.
Of course, you still need us to get you on that flight to Boston, but guess what? We already suspected as much and booked it (no change fee) last Thursday. Exit row, aisle, left side of plane, vegan meal.
3. Surprise Us
Spoiler alert: it’s actually impossible. We know what you’re up to at all times. But we’ll find it cute and a sign that you actually care and appreciate us enough to expend the effort. We’re in the line of fire all day, every day—with a myriad of diverse, detailed, exhausting responsibilities, no less. Most of us are single because our jobs scare off our partners. If our boss throws us a bone from time to time, it can literally send us over the moon.
In my 24 years as an EA, I’ve only had one boss actually buy me flowers on Administrative Professional’s Day. Seems kinda trivial right? It’s not.
If you find a great EA, show you appreciate them. Offer them a sign-on bonus. Just like you constantly remind us that we’re not the only game in town, you’re not either. And when we leave, chaos ensues.
4. Watch “The Devil Wears Prada”
No, really! It’s homework. My bosses laugh when I insist they download and watch this movie. Funny thing is, it’s pretty much the story of our lives. There’s not one C-suite Executive Assistant who wouldn’t agree with me. It chronicles our evolution through the ranks, how we’re treated/mistreated/abused, not just by our bosses but by everyone in the organization.
It shows the peril we’re often thrown into by our boss’ requests.
It shows the struggle to remain relevant in position when there’s always someone gunning for your spot.
And it highlights the struggles with our own moral compass as we try to advance as far as we can in our own careers. If I accept a job with an exec, the movie is required viewing. Simple as that. And they typically thank me later. They still don’t get it, but they pretend to at least.
There you have it. A CliffsNotes version of “The New Executive MEGA Assistant.” We’ll still get you coffee—but only if we’re headed that way. And we’ll return with an overheard stock tip, already researched and vetted, and set up a quick con call with you and the CEO—you know, to introduce yourself. You’re welcome.
Anything else you’d add to this, Ninjas?