Will the “Real” Executive Assistant Please Stand Up?

27 Jan

iStock_000019154392_ExtraSmallThe role of an executive assistant (EA) has evolved and morphed over the last few years, but in a downward spiral. The salary for an EA decreased while menial tasks and additional responsibilities increased. Since EAs are classified as administrative positions, they are categorized as administrative assistants (AAs) and lumped together. Both positions then have seemingly related titles dependent on the salary employers want to pay for such positions. This discrepancy, however, causes employers to advertise for an EA when in fact, they may be looking for an AA. So, when prospective EA applicants are searching for a job, they cautiously sift through a slew of classified ads to find the diamond in the rough. These administrative vacancies are labeled senior executive assistant, executive administrative assistant, or senior administrative assistant. There are even different levels of EAs (I, II, or III). And, of course, there are different duties and responsibilities for each — ranging from an experienced, mature EA to a newly college graduate with two years experience. The latter is the employers’ fault, however, believing they can get a comparable skill set based only on one having a bachelor’s degree.

The description of a true EA — adequately described in a few words — is right-hand assistant to the executive. This in a nutshell means being the executive’s gatekeeper and gateway. One cannot get a certificate, training, or a degree to become a seasoned, qualified EA. This comes from years of dedicated, progressive, and all-around, all-consuming experience starting from the lowest rung on the ladder. You don’t just step into this position haphazardly; you earn the right to be an EA. Therefore, there should be an exclusive title reserved for the EA position and it should encompass distinct duties and responsibilities.

There is so much confusion about the role of EAs. This is due to the many variations in the job descriptions and titles of the position, which make it immediately apparent that EAs are not created equally in either the workplace or the classified world. Yet, this convoluted confusion doesn’t exist in the descriptions of C-level positions — chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO), chief financial officer (CFO), or chief information officer (CIO) — that those EAs report to. There are all kinds of chiefs: chief marketing officer, chief membership officer, chief digital officer, chief risk officer, chief business officer, chief administrative officer, and chief technology officer. Good god, who is creating all these chieftain positions? So, if it is easy to make clear distinctions in regards to these positions — nowhere is there a senior CFO or a level II COO — then, why isn’t it just as simple to make the same distinction between AAs and EAs.

As noted, C-level executives have distinct titles with specific and defined responsibilities. No one has to guess or assume what these executives do (snapshot below):

  • CEO – Head of an organization and responsible for organization-wide decisions. Establishes goals and plans that affect the entire business/organization.
  • COO – Manages the day-to-day activities of the organization, focusing on strategic, tactical, and short-term operations management.
  • CFO – Manages all aspects of financial matters and decisions — controller, treasury, economic strategy, and forecasting.
  • CIO – Conveys technology-related information and knowledge between the departments of an organization and solve problems.

The role of EAs who report to these C-level executives should also have only one designated title. And their duties and responsibilities should align with their qualifications, experience, and skill set.

Companies like Carney, Inc. (Alexandria, VA) and Ernst & Young (McLean, VA) have it right. They understand the significance and importance of an EA’s role as a partnership with their C-level executives. They understand the advantages and benefits this position brings to their organization. Their job postings reflect the duties and responsibilities of a qualified EA:

  • Work independently.
  • Maximize the executive’s time.
  • Provide gatekeeper and gateway roles.
  • Provide a bridge for communication with executives, and internal and external departments.
  • Act as a barometer for issues taking place and keeping the executive apprised.
  • Provide leadership to build relationships.
  • Communicate on executive’s behalf.
  • Manage an active calendar.
  • Handle confidential information.
  • Arrange complex travel plans.
  • Research, prioritize, and follow-up on issues and concerns.
  • Determine appropriate course of action, referral, or response.
  • Manage and coordinate a variety of special projects.
  • Coach and be a role model to others.
  • Act as a knowledge resource.
  • Participate as an adjunct member of the executive team.
  • Prioritize and coordinate work by considering risk, importance, urgency, and potential business, organizational, or client implications.

Other companies like Fox Networks Group (Los Angeles, CA) and Sibley Memorial Hospital (Washington, DC), however, have it wrong. Sibley is seeking an EA for its president. The ad states, “You will directly assist the president by performing administrative and secretarial duties.” Hello! Secretarial duties? The last time I actually heard the word secretary was in 1998 when I corrected the executive vice president I reported to informing him that the term secretary had a derogatory connotation associated with it. There were a few lapses, but he did make the transition. And, quite frankly, before Sibley’s ad was posted, human resources or the recruiter should have either edited the content or at a minimum informed Sibley that the word “secretary” is obsolete unless posting an ad for Secretary of State.

Then, there’s Fox Networks Group’s description of an EA’s role, which is rudimentary and repetitious. The ad states that the position is “under regular supervision.” A summary of duties includes reading and routing mail; composing correspondence from verbal directions and knowledge of company policies and procedures; answering phone and properly routing calls and messages; scheduling appointments; maintaining calendars; and preparing presentations.

These varying duties and responsibilities for EA positions show the huge range and discrepancies in what is expected in that role. “An executive assistant is at the very epicenter of the various managerial tasks that are under the senior management executives,” noted “EAs hold a key role in the management of an organization by supporting the executive managers.”

There must be unambiguous and consistency across all sectors defining who and what an EA is, and what responsibilities and duties that entail. Until businesses and organizations understand the intrinsic roles EAs play in the executive partnership, and can make a distinction between AAs and EAs roles, businesses will continue to find inadequate personnel to fill these very important positions. And “real” EAs will not apply to those menial jobs. Recruiters and human resource decision makers must have one-on-one conversations with employers about the differences between an AA and an EA. There should be a unified front on EAs titles and roles. There must be a no-question distinction between an EA who can work independently and one who cannot.

Today’s EAs make as low as $35,000 to as high as a six-figure salary depending on the size, location, and revenues of a business. Based on those parameters, when you see an EA position paying under $70,000, more likely it’s an AA position in disguise. And if employers happen to score the perfect, seasoned EA at a below-average salary, rest assured the longevity will be short-lived. The EA will only be there as long as it takes her/him to get the true EA position she/he so richly deserves.

So, when the “real” EA stands up, it’s the one who is in a partnership with the C-level executive and is her/his right-hand assistant; not the one whose duties and responsibilities are rudimentary and repetitious.

(Picture source:

Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Employment


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2 responses to “Will the “Real” Executive Assistant Please Stand Up?

  1. jumbledwriter

    January 28, 2013 at 3:04 am

    There is so much here I didn’t know. Thanks for keeping me informed.

  2. Lisa

    February 2, 2013 at 9:41 am

    WOW! This story describes the EA role better than I’ve ever seen written! Kudos to you for addressing the issue, effectively making the distinction amongst titles and making a strong case for an re-examination of EA classified positions.


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