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It's Tough At The Top. A Brief Survival Guide For Great Executive Assistants

Posted on 18/01/2016 by Helen Corke

At Charlotte Frank, we are responsible for providing our candidates with career advice extending beyond their next job interview.  Here, I share some of my views on how the best in the business cope with the demanding nature of the EA role.

What makes the difference between being good and being great?  Being proactive.  There are always things that can be done or improved upon, and someone willing to go the extra mile for a manager or team is worth their weight in gold.  An ability to see and act three steps ahead will add far more value to the role than just sticking to your job description.  So, a truly proactive support makes a world of difference.

To be a great Executive Assistant you need to be flexible.  The ability to work around complex issues, and at times people, whilst maintaining your patience and decorum are essential characteristics of any successful EA.

Some key attributes of a successful Executive Assistant:

  1. Excellent communication skills – being able to speak up when needed and understand exactly what’s required
  2. A high degree of accuracy – triple check everything as a matter of habit
  3. Planning ahead – thinking a week, month or even sometimes a year beyond the task at hand
  4. A positive attitude – always remembering to keep things in perspective and let go of things that you cannot control

The importance of maintaining work-life balance.  This is an age-old problem but one that I think is absolutely critical to address.  When we have external responsibilities to worry about, such as children and family, it becomes even more important to get the balance right.  The earlier in your working relationship you can do it, the better.  If you are in a role where the balance is not right, take time to sit down with your manager and be honest.  Your employer would rather you were happy than overworked, and they would much rather fix the issues than lose you – trust me on this one!  So, my advice is please be brave and discuss any concerns openly so you can find a workable solution.

Basic survival rules to achieve work-life balance as an Executive Assistant:

  1. Set expectations.  It is easier to discuss expectations at the start of a new job than it is to do it later.  Discussing these matters early means they are less likely to become a problem and you are more likely to find a happy middle ground to work from.  Each employer will be unique, so the key is to understand what support they need and how best you can provide it.  Ask questions such as: “What will the expected average working hours be?  Do you have a lunch break, if so, how long?  Do you expect me to respond to emails out of office hours?”  Coming to an agreement on what is expected of you is essential and at that point you can work out how best to manage your work-life balance. 
  2. Know your limits.  It is tricky to know your limits until you are in the role and you know what workload you’ll be managing.  Be honest with yourself and set time limits to your work day.  If you consistently find yourself at your desk after 9 pm then ask yourself if there are ways to be more efficient so you can leave on time.  Once you have set a time, and agreed it with your manager, stick to it and make sure you work your day around your needs, as well as your managers'.  Give yourself a break when you need one as you will often find you are far more efficient afterwards.
  3. Look after yourself!  Whether it be visiting the gym or eating healthily, the key to sustained energy and concentration is often in the body and mind.  Each person has their own way of unwinding but whatever yours is, pay attention to what you need to keep healthy, both in body and mind. 

Why Executive Assistants should always remember how valued they are.  The reason for choosing the secretarial area as my field of expertise was due to my sincere respect and true admiration for the people that I meet in these supporting roles.  A great EA is someone who not only has the ability to be highly-organised, meticulous, and immensely skilled with more programs than I know exist, but someone who is also flexible, caring, and deeply proud of the job they do.  Without them, many of us would be totally lost.  Without them, many companies would struggle to operate smoothly.  Without them, there would be an enormous void in all our working lives.  Need I say more?