How to Hire an Executive Assistant: The Advice Execs Actually Need
Most articles on how to hire an executive assistant focus on basic hiring steps like creating a job description and conducting an interview. This article provides more useful advice for executives, covering the 3 main options for hiring and the tradeoffs of each.
When we looked around online at what’s been published on the topic of hiring executive assistants, we noticed that most articles tend to focus on listing the generic steps in the hiring process. For example:
- Create a job posting.
- Write a job description.
- Craft your interview questions.
- Check references.
- Make your choice.
But for people who need an executive assistant, these steps are pretty obvious. What business owner, entrepreneur, or startup founder wanting to hire an assistant doesn’t know this?
What’s more useful to understand is: What are your options for hiring an executive assistant? What are the tradeoffs involved with each? And which option is best for you?
That’s what we’ll help you understand in this article. Below, we’ll cover:
- What makes a great executive assistant in the first place (i.e. what should you be looking for?)
- The 3 main options for hiring executive assistants and tradeoffs to consider
- The process we use for hiring world-class executive assistants
If you’ve been wanting an assistant but haven’t had the time to hire one, or have had bad experiences with your first executive assistant, click here to get started. You can try an assistant for a month or two and see how you like it. For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.
We’ve spoken with hundreds of founders over the last 3.5 years, and many of them have had bad prior experiences with executive assistants. The assistants either weren’t that organized or they required a lot of micromanaging, or they weren’t at the level of competency the executive needed.
The underlying issue and the reason people have these bad experiences is that their assistants weren’t vetted properly during the hiring process.
Most companies, and even recruiters and staffing agencies, only have a vague understanding of the qualities that make highly competent executive assistants. And very few have tools or systems to effectively evaluate candidates based on these qualities.
So what should companies look for in their executive assistants? There are 3 qualities that have been shown to predict the success of a person in an executive assistant job:
- Problem Solving Ability: How smart are they? Can they figure things out in new and complex situations?
- Key Character and Behavioral Traits: Are they organized, reliable, detail-oriented, etc.?
- Communication Ability: How well do they write and communicate? Can they communicate on your behalf or alongside you with key people (executive team members, board members, investors, etc.)?
You might be thinking, “that’s obvious.” And yes, on the one-hand, it is. But as I mentioned above, the problem is that even if you intuitively understand this, most companies don’t know how to evaluate and measure candidates to see how they actually perform in these areas before hiring them. They only find out after they’ve made their choice when the new hire is on the job.
If the assistant is lacking in one or more of these key areas, they’re unlikely to be worth the investment—and the time and effort spent hiring and onboarding them is wasted.
To solve this problem, we’ve built our entire company around the ability to measure these qualities before we hire our executive assistants, a process we’ll explain below.
But first, let’s look at the common options companies have to hire executive assistants and the tradeoffs associated with each.
There are 3 main paths for filling an executive assistant position:
- Doing it yourself or through in-house HR.
- Using a recruiting or staffing agency.
- Using executive assistant or virtual assistant services.
Below, we’ll break down what you should understand about each option.
1. Hiring an Executive Assistant In-House
By hiring an executive assistant in-house, you have the most control and involvement in the hiring process. If you understand how to vet candidates on the qualities that matter (i.e. problem solving, communication, and relevant character traits), you can increase the likelihood that you end up with a high-performing assistant.
However, managing the hiring process yourself can take weeks or even months to execute properly. We’ve written extensively about this in our article on how to hire a virtual assistant, so we won’t go deeply into it here.
In that post, we cover:
- How to get specific about what you want your executive assistant to do.
- How to synthesize your needs into an executive assistant job description.
- How to choose the right job boards (and which ones to avoid).
- The importance of running paid or “pro” job posts.
- How to vet candidates through structured interviews, work sample tests, and reference checks (with detailed examples).
If you want to hire an executive assistant yourself, it’s a must-read.
For founders and senior executives who don’t have the time, desire, or resources to execute this hiring process in-house, they tend to use one of the following 2 options.
2. Using a Recruiter or Staffing Agency
In theory, using a recruiter or staffing agency is a great option to save you the time and effort it takes to find and thoroughly vet executive assistant job candidates. However, both of these options have drawbacks that aren’t necessarily obvious from the surface.
With recruiters, there are 3 core issues:
First, the way traditional recruiters get paid causes misaligned incentives between them and their clients. They get paid to put butts in seats and have little accountability or incentive to guarantee great long term outcomes.
Second, recruiting agencies tend to assign entry-level recruiters to executive assistant recruiting projects (and other administrative roles like administrative assistants, office managers, etc.)—again, because of the way recruiters get paid. More experienced recruiters tend to focus on hiring for specialized positions like engineers because they get paid more for filling higher salary roles.
And third, traditional recruiting processes are ineffective at evaluating candidates for executive assistant roles. They don’t tend to have effective ways of measuring candidates on the qualities that actually matter (overly relying on resumes and interviews which are not very predictive of on-the-job performance).
We discuss these issues at length in our article on why you shouldn’t use a recruiter for your executive assistant.
In contrast to recruiters, staffing companies generally have better aligned incentives. Where recruiters only need talent to make a great first impression and work out for 2-3 months, staffing agencies stay in the picture for as long as a contract exists. Thus, staffing firms have to make sure that the assistant they provide to a client company is really good. If the client doesn't like the person, they can cancel at any point and the money flow stops.
However, like recruiting agencies, most staffing agencies also do not have sophisticated hiring methods for assessing candidates on the qualities (described above) that make great executive assistants: problem solving ability, communication ability, and key character traits.
For these reasons, while recruiters and staffing agencies can save you time in the short-term, they often don’t provide high-quality assistants who work out over the long-term.
3. Using Executive Assistant or Virtual Assistant Services
The other option for hiring an executive assistant without doing the work yourself is to use an executive assistant or virtual assistant service.
Again, in theory, these services offer great benefits:
- They find, vet, and hire assistants so you don’t have to.
- You pay them for access to one of their assistants.
- You don’t incur the costs associated with hiring an in-house employee.
The problem is that many of the executive assistant and virtual assistant services on the market use the same flawed hiring practices used by recruiters, staffing agencies, and most companies. They don’t tend to have effective ways of evaluating candidates on the traits that are actually predictive of good on-the-job performance in an assistant role. And therefore, most of these services also tend to result in low quality or average assistants.
This is the gap in the market that we set out to fill when we started Persona.
Consider the traditional process of hiring for generalist positions like an executive assistant:
- Post your job opportunity on LinkedIn, Indeed, or another relevant job board (and maybe tweet it out or put it up on your website).
- Review the resumes of applicants, paying attention to where they went to school, where they worked previously, their years of experience, etc.
- Select applicants to interview based on these relatively superficial variables.
- Interview several of the candidates.
- Make a decision (probably based on who performed best in their interview).
When we looked at this process, we realized that it does very little to measure the 3 key qualities that we’d learned candidates really need to excel in an executive assistant role.
For example, employers can get a sense for a candidate’s verbal communication skills in a virtual or in-person interview, but they don’t learn much about their written communication skills (which are perhaps even more important in the context of the actual job they’ll be doing).
When it comes to the key character traits that the best executive assistants possess (and any competent one needs), there’s also very little for employers to go off of. Even the most thoughtful interview questions are unlikely to reveal how organized, reliable, or detail-oriented someone is.
And the same goes for problem solving. You can make assumptions about their problem solving ability based on where they went to school, what they studied, and how they answer certain interview questions. However, you’re still left without concrete evidence of their true ability to figure things out in new and complex situations.
So, when we started Persona, we set out to design a hiring process that would measure these things.
We used our deep expertise in assessment design and cognitive science to build a hiring process that measures the qualities we’ve discussed throughout this post that make top executive assistants: problem solving ability, communication ability, and key character and behavioral traits.
Our in-depth vetting process includes a mix of the following:
- Quantitative assessments
- Structured interviews
- Work sample projects
- Communication exercises
- Reference and background checks
We customize each step on a candidate-by-candidate basis, depending on their background and how they progress through each step. This tailored approach allows us to understand our applicants on a deeper level, and find the ideal candidate for each of our clients based on their specific needs.
As a result of our comprehensive process, we hire roughly 1 assistant for every 1,000 applicants. This allows us to find top talent that’s several notches above what you can find by using a traditional recruiter. And that means that our assistants’ capabilities range far beyond basic administrative tasks.
Our data suggests that our assistants spend about 30% of their time on typical administrative support (e.g. email management, scheduling meetings, processing expense reports, etc.). The rest of their time is spent helping our clients in a wide range of other areas, such as:
- Social media management
- Workflow and project management
- Building databases
- Business or content writing
- Customer support
- Employee onboarding
- Designing presentations
- eCommerce management
- Personal assistant tasks (e.g. travel planning, meal planning, reservations, etc.)
If you’re interested in trying out a Persona executive assistant, you can get starred for a month or two with no long-term commitment.
Here’s how it works to get started:
- Step 1: Complete our form to let us know your needs.
- Step 2: If you’re a good fit, we’ll set up a call to discuss our service with you.
- Step 3: Our team will hand pick an executive assistant who we think will be a great fit for you based on your needs.
- Step 4: Our talent team will guide you through the onboarding process over 2-3 weeks.
- Step 5: For a flat monthly rate, you get a fully dedicated virtual assistant working for you 40 hours per week (the equivalent of a full-time assistant with no long-term commitment).
For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.