Today I am beginning my search for an Executive Assistant to start April 1st.
Now, why do I want an EA and why might you? In a nutshell, if you are a senior leader and you don’t have an assistant, there comes a point where you should. Once this point is crossed, it is a false economy to do without.
Where that point lies will undoubtedly vary between ministries. It depends upon the complexity of the executive’s work, time demands, and the governance model (which determines how the work is distributed between the board and the senior leader). Expanding the budget to include an EA will likely be a stretch, but regard it as an investment with a quick payback period.
The Case for Executive Assistants in the May 2011 Harvard Business Review makes several good arguments for why leaders should have executive assistants.
Assistants: Executive vs. Administrative
Many of the tasks that an EA performs are also done by administrative assistants: travel arrangements, scheduling and so forth. What distinguishes an EA from an administrative assistant is that normally tasks are delegated to an administrative assistant while the EA operates at the level of a true partner in the executive’s work.
The best EAs learn to think like the person they are assisting, and this allows them to take on a significant amount of the executive’s work, even sometimes speaking for and making decisions on behalf of the leader when authorized to do so. This level of partnership doesn’t just happen; it develops over time as the observant EA grows in understanding the executive and, based on experience, the executive learns to trust the assistant. Since developing this level of working relationship takes a while, it’s been said that when leaders move to a new organization, the executive and the EA often move together as a team.
Here are some of the ways that an Executive Assistant can improve the leader’s productivity.
- Focus: As with any employee, the executive has all kinds of responsibilities and related activities. But they do not all equally need the personal attention of the executive. The best way to think about dividing duties between the executive and the assistant is to think about which portion of the work can be done by someone other than the executive, and which parts must have the personal touch of the leader. Ideally, with an EA’s help the executive can focus exclusively on those areas where their personal attention is required and the EA can do the rest. Think of the dentist who hires an hygienist. The dentist can see many more patients when someone else is doing the cleaning, leaving the dentist to do the work that requires a dentist’s education.
- Leverage: The flip side of greater focus is leverage of time. When EAs take on work that others can do, they free up significant amounts of time that executives can spend in their high focus areas. An EA may easily allow an executive to pick up at least a few more major projects than could be handled by the executive alone. What projects have you postponed due to lack of time? An EA can help you bring them back on to the front burner. Think of a chef overseeing sous-chefs. The chef has many ‘projects’ on the go, provides overall design and coordination, and lets the sous-chefs do the rest of the work.
- Home Base: When an executive is away from the office, if they are like me they rely on other staff back in the office to help them out. Since these people already have their own jobs to do, when I travel I am adding to their workloads. With an EA in the office, they are not burdened as much. The EA is on-site and can continue the executive’s day-to-day work, stick handle anything that pops up unexpectedly, and access staff and office resources as needed. Much of the executive’s work can therefore continue while he or she travels, instead of being put on hold until the executive returns.
- Representation: A trusted EA can meet with other staff to organize or coordinate work, talk with external people and respond to their requests, and make commitments for the executive.
I’d be really interested in your experience working with an EA, or if you are an EA, your experience working with an executive. What makes it go well? What must you watch out for? What do you think are the best practices for executives and their EAs? Please comment.