Business

What Does an Executive Assistant Do? It Depends Who You Hire.

Jason Hreha
Apr 4, 2022
8
min read

What an executive assistant does is absolutely dependent on who the assistant is, what their capabilities are, and what you need them to do. This post discusses the 3 qualities to look for in executive assistants that determine the range of things they can do.

What Does an Executive Assistant Do? It Depends Who You Hire.

Over the last 4 years, we’ve spoken with hundreds of executives about their needs for an executive assistant (EA). And around 70% of them have been looking for an assistant for the first time. 

Typically, they’ve done some research into what executive assistants do (i.e. what you’ll find on most executive assistant job descriptions), and discovered that basic EA responsibilities are things like:

  • Managing email
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Arranging travel
  • Performing research
  • Doing data entry

But depending on who you hire, executive assistants can do a lot more than that. Our data suggests that assistants in our executive assistant service spend only about 30% of their time on things like email, calendar management, and other administrative tasks. The rest of their time is spent doing a wide range of other things from social media management, to building data sets, to doing outreach and project management. 

So when it comes to the question, “What does an executive assistant do?”—the answer is: it depends. It depends on what you need and want, and most importantly, who you hire. 

If you hire someone who’s a fast learner and a great problem solver, the range of things they’ll be able to do will be much wider, and the value they’ll deliver will be significantly higher. 

Alternatively, if you hire someone who needs more instruction or doesn’t have great problem solving ability, the value they’ll deliver will be less. You may need to spend more time micromanaging them, and you won’t be able to ask them to take on more complex tasks.

What an executive assistant does is absolutely dependent on who the assistant is, what their capabilities are, and what you need them to do. 

We’ve built our entire business around this idea. We wanted to find the world’s best EAs who could help our clients—startup founders, entrepreneurs, consultants, etc.—do more than the basics of what executive administrative assistants commonly do.

In this article, we cover:

  • The 3 key qualities that determine the range of what EAs can do.
  • Practical examples that demonstrate why hiring for talent matters.
  • The hiring methodology we’ve built to find and hire highly competent EAs that can handle a wide range of complex tasks.
  • A list of tasks that our clients have told us our EAs perform for them.

Note: If you’ve been wanting an executive assistant and you’d like to work with someone who can take on more than just administrative tasks, 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.

The Range of What Executive Assistants Can Do (And the Caliber of Their Output) Depends on 3 Key Qualities 

The 3 qualities that predict great “on-the-job” performance in an executive assistant role are:

  1. Problem Solving Ability: How smart are they? Can they figure things out in new and complex situations?
  2. Key Character Traits: Are they organized, reliable, detail-oriented, etc.?
  3. Communication Ability: How well do they write and communicate? Can they communicate on your behalf or alongside you with key people (team, board members, investors, business partners, etc.)?

On the surface, these may seem obvious. Any smart executive intuitively knows and understands this.

The problem is that actually measuring these qualities during the EA hiring process isn’t easy—nor is it common practice.

Regardless of who is hiring an assistant (i.e. you, in-house HR, or an external recruiter), the traditional hiring process does not effectively measure these qualities in concrete ways. We’ve written about this at length in our founding story.

Here’s a quick summary of our argument in that article:

Traditional Hiring Processes Don’t Concretely Measure These Qualities

The traditional process of resume review and interviews relies heavily on making assumptions about the extent to which applicants possess the qualities we mentioned above. 

Take problem solving ability, for example. Traditional hiring processes don’t have applicants solve actual problems before an assistant is on the job. At best, they might ask them a problem solving-related question in the interview process—but how well a candidate answers that specific question and how well they solve problems in general may only be loosely related.

The same goes with character traits like reliability and professionalism. These are really difficult things to measure through resumes and interviews. You can make assumptions based on how neatly their resume is put together, or how they answer certain questions, but these are weak indicators of how much candidates actually possess these traits.

In addition, traditional hiring tends to put too much emphasis on things that aren’t actually predictive of a candidate having success in the role. For example, it’s common to look for past years of experience in an EA or executive secretary role. But there are plenty of smart, talented candidates out there who possess the qualities that would make a great EA, but don’t have past experience in that type of position. When you rule out that pool of candidates, you significantly reduce your chances of finding a great assistant.

It’s fine to use certain criteria—for example, educational requirements like having an associate degree or bachelor’s degree—in the initial applicant filtering process. But traditional hiring makes too many assumptions based on these kinds of superficial variables. 

This is the crux of the problem we set out to solve when we started Persona. We wanted to develop a way to measure these qualities concretely during the hiring process as opposed to when an assistant is already on the job. We’ll discuss this more below.

First, let’s look at some practical examples that demonstrate the importance of hiring assistants based on these qualities.

Top Executive Assistants vs. Average Ones: Practical Examples to Demonstrate Why Hiring for Talent Matters

It’s tempting to question the importance of hiring for talent when bringing on an executive assistant. You might think, “I just want someone to do my email and manage my calendar. This is basic stuff. Do I really need some super smart EA?”

On one hand, this is a fair and reasonable question. Everyone manages their own schedule and email, so how hard could it be to do this for someone else?

On the other hand, this thinking underestimates the nuance involved in becoming the right-hand to someone in a senior management position. Here are a couple examples to demonstrate what we mean:

Example #1: Email Management

Managing your own email, while time consuming, isn’t “difficult”. You know who the people are emailing you. It’s obvious which emails are important and which aren’t. You know which ones need speedy responses, which can be addressed later (and when), and which can be ignored or deleted. 

However, when an assistant steps in to help manage your email, these things aren’t straightforward. They take time to learn, and the stakes aren’t low. If important emails are missed or go unanswered—an email from a key investor or board member, for example—this can have big consequences for your business.

When it comes to an executive’s experience of delegating their email to an EA, how sharp and detail oriented their EA is makes a huge difference. For example, a run of the mill assistant might be able to do some basic organization of your inbox, send occasional canned responses, delete spam, etc. But you might not get to a point where you fully trust them to a) not make potentially crucial mistakes and b) become your gatekeeper, able to respond to key stakeholders on your behalf with appropriate style, tone, and etiquette. 

In contrast, if you focus on hiring an EA based on the qualities we described above, and bring on someone with sharp communication skills, detail-orientedness, and problem solving ability—you can actually get to a place of trust with them where they can take email almost entirely off your plate.

Example #2: Calendar Management and Other Common Tasks

A super sharp EA will more quickly learn how to manage your schedule in a way that’s preferable to you, and that takes into consideration which meetings and events on your schedule take precedence over others. They’ll be able to learn how to make scheduling decisions like you would—politely rescheduling less important meetings on your behalf, and ensuring the right meetings are prioritized and placed at the right times.

Contrast that with an EA who possesses fewer of the 3 essential qualities: perhaps they take longer or don’t ever fully catch on to how you’d prioritize certain people, events, and meetings over others. 

This same level of nuance exists in many other common executive assistant skills and tasks. For example:

  • Travel planning: Will your itinerary be absolutely spot on? Or will there be hiccups throughout your trip?
  • Research: Will they hand you a bunch of links? Or will they pass you a neatly designed document that synthesizes their findings and saves you time?
  • Data entry and analysis: Will they just be entering data into spreadsheets? Or will they be able to analyze and glean valuable insights from that data?
  • Software competency: Will the assistant quickly master your company’s business software, finding new ways to organize and leverage it (e.g. Notion, Asana, Google Workspace, Microsoft Office, etc.)? Or will they slowly get the hang of it over the course of weeks or months, without ever improving on the systems within those tools?

When you hire an assistant for administrative support, the value of hiring someone who is really sharp isn’t always obvious. However, the practical experience of working with a super talented EA that’s been vetted based on the 3 key qualities is levels above the experience of working with an EA who hasn’t. And ultimately the investment you make in a good EA returns far more than you put in.

This is what we set out to deliver to clients when we built our hiring methodology and executive assistant service

Our Methodology for Hiring World-Class EAs

We’ve used our backgrounds in assessment design and behavioral science to build a hiring methodology that assesses EA applicants on the 3 essential qualities:

  1. Problem Solving Ability: How smart are they? Can they figure things out in new and complex situations?
  2. Key Character Traits: Are they organized, reliable, detail-oriented, etc.?
  3. Communication Ability: How well do they write and communicate? Can they communicate on your behalf or alongside you with key people (team, board members, investors, business partners, etc.)?

We use individually tailored combinations of the following to vet our assistants:

  • Quantitative assessments
  • Pre-structured interviews
  • Work sample projects
  • Communications exercises
  • Reference and background checks

In contrast to the traditional method of relying primarily on resumes and interviews, we leverage these other forms of evaluation such as assessments, projects, and exercises to more thoroughly vet candidates. This allows us to assess their abilities before they’re on the job, and ensure we provide our clients with assistants who’ve proven they’re highly competent generalists.

Every step of our hiring process is customized on a candidate by candidate basis—based on how candidates perform at each step. 

At present, we hire roughly 1 assistant out of every 1,000 applicants. The result is that those who get selected are able to perform at a much higher level than the administrative professionals founders and executives typically find.

And that higher level of performance extends beyond traditional administrative tasks to include a wide range of other areas in which they help our clients.

The Range of Tasks Our EAs Execute for Our Clients

The last time we checked in with our clients about the tasks our executive assistants manage for them, we were surprised by just how wide ranging they were. Here’s the list of some of the unique tasks our assistants were executing:

  • Social media management on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Research
  • Email scraping
  • Building databases
  • Data entry, analysis, and management
  • Creating filing systems (e.g. For organizing expense reports or other recurring documents that need tracking)
  • Cold outreach and answering phones
  • Inbox management
  • Calendar management
  • Business writing (e.g. Drafting memos or other business documents)
  • Marketing support
  • Design
  • Content writing
  • Transcription of Zoom meetings, phone calls, etc.
  • Online purchases
  • Video editing
  • Invoicing and billing
  • Bookkeeping
  • Human resource management
  • Employee onboarding
  • Workflow and project management
  • Travel arrangements
  • Excel spreadsheet management and data processing
  • Personal assistant tasks like sending birthday cards, booking flights and hotels, and preparing itineraries

How Our Executive Assistant Service Works

If you’re interested in trying out one of our executive assistants, you can try one for a month or 2 and see how you like it. We have no long-term commitments. 

Here’s how to get started with us: 

  • 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 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 world-class assistant that equates to a full-time employee (40 hours of remote work per week, with no long-term commitment needed).

If you’re ready to try an executive assistant that can be truly transformative for your business, click here to get started. For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.

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