22 June 2016

The EA: Unsung hero and secret weapon of
modern organisations.

They are the great unsung heroes of corporate life: the executive assistant. Toiling away behind the scenes, taking care of the details that matter, lending a supportive ear, or having a quiet word, the right EA can make all the difference to the smooth functioning of the executive team.

Once upon a time, the EA was a combination of receptionist and secretary, primarily responsible for basic office administration as well as secretarial duties such as note-taking and drafting correspondence. These days, the role of the EA has expanded to encompass a vast range of tasks and duties that go well beyond managing calendars, correspondence and travel arrangements.

The modern EA is an integral member of the engine room for most organisations. Highly talented and with an irrepressible can-do attitude, the EA makes sure things get done. But the scope of what the EA does now is far greater than it ever was in the past. Now, the EA rolls out strategy, marshals the executive team and other staff, and is usually responsible for the maintenance of an organisation’s administrative infrastructure.

An excellent example of the calibre of the modern EA can be found by looking at the career of Ursula Burns. Born in Panama, Burns moved to the USA as a child and grew up in the housing projects of New York City. Extremely bright and tenacious, she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, and went on to achieve a Masters in the same discipline from Columbia University.

After working in various corporate roles throughout the 1980s, Burns became an executive assistant at Xerox Corporation in 1991. Her time working as an EA would become a valuable learning experience as she progressed into the executive ranks and eventually became the CEO of Xerox, a Fortune 500 tech heavyweight company. Burns knew the company inside out. This is one of the qualities of a great EA: they know how a company ticks and what needs to be done to keep it all running.

A significant factor in the changing role of the EA has been the technological revolution of the past 20 years that has totally transformed our work lives, and how organisations operate. Far from rendering the EA redundant, the new technologies that have taken root across corporate life have meant the role is now far more about strategic thinking and organisation.

The modern EA is across digital technology, often being the person in the office instigating and integrating new ways of doing things. They know what software can be used to improve such things as internal communications, project planning, and anything else that falls within the ambit of making things more efficient and productive for the executive team. They’re managing work flows across the office and between teams, coordinating between managers and leaders across the entire organisation.

Of course there is another element to the EA which is perhaps less tangible, but just as important. A good EA has the right personality for the job. As well as being highly organised, diligent and reliable, they will have excellent interpersonal and communication skills, and will bring a sense of calm and positivity to what they do. They will be able to read a room and gauge who and what is important. It’s this emotional intelligence that really sets apart the very best executive assistants from their lesser peers.

An EA’s personal qualities matter greatly because of the close relationship formed between an EA and an executive can be intense. The professional and personal pressures carried by executives can be a heavy burden. In many respects, it is the EA who is expected to alleviate and manage much of this burden by streamlining as much as possible the executive’s day-to-day tasks and duties. The EA becomes professional confidant and sounding board, helping their leader to stay on top of things.

Unfortunately, executive assistants are not always as appreciated as they should be. They can often be taken for granted, overlooked for progression, and forgotten when it comes to training and education. This is not only doing a disservice to them but also to the organisation because an effective EA is a valuable asset. They should be looked upon as such and treated with the same professional respect and care as anyone else in the organisation. Maybe it is because so much of what an EA does seems to go unnoticed, performing magic in the margins, that we can too easily undervalue their contribution.

It’s often said that it’s lonely at the top for CEOs: the same can very much be said for executive assistants. They are loyal, dedicated, committed, determined and highly talented individuals who need support and an opportunity to connect. It’s time we started singing the praises of executive assistants, the great unsung heroes of corporate life, and looking after them a little better.

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