What to Look For in an Executive Assistant: 4 Key Qualities
What to look for in an executive assistant is only half the battle. Equally important is having ways to actually evaluate candidates based on those qualities. This article covers both.
There are many different skills that people recommend executives look for when hiring an executive assistant (EA). For example:
- Organizational skills
- Prioritization skills
- Communication skills
- Tech skills
- Multitasking ability
But understanding which qualities to look for is only useful to the extent that you have ways to actually assess applicants on those abilities.
And what we’ve found over the last 4 years building our executive assistant service is that most companies, recruiters, and staffing agencies don’t have concrete methods to actually evaluate these types of qualities in job candidates.
Employers tend to rely solely on resumes and interviews that have limited utility for evaluating desired traits like organizational ability or time management skills. Instead of evaluating candidates on these traits in concrete ways during the hiring process, they make assumptions about how well candidates possess these qualities based on relatively superficial variables. For example, where they went to school or past years of experience in an administrative assistant role.
As a result, they only find out whether applicants have these qualities once they’re on the job. By that time, if their EA doesn’t actually possess the necessary qualities, they’ve wasted a lot of time and effort on hiring the wrong person—and they’re forced to start the hiring process all over again.
This was the problem we set out to solve when we started Persona. We asked: How can we evaluate applicants on these qualities during the hiring process, so we can ensure candidates will make great executive assistants before we hire them?
We then applied our backgrounds in behavioral science and assessment design to create a methodology that allows us to do this. Below we’re going to walk through what that consists of and examples to demonstrate how it works. But first, let’s look at the qualities that matter most when you hire an EA.
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The Qualities That We’ve Found Make the Best Executive Assistants
When you look around online, much of the advice on hiring EAs consists of long lists of skills to look for in candidates. However, these lists can make it difficult to understand which skills or traits you should actually focus on evaluating.
Through our experience assessing tens of thousands of EA job applicants—and evaluating their performance on the job—we’ve narrowed down the qualities we look for into 4 key areas that have been shown to predict success in an executive assistant role:
- Problem solving ability
- Communication ability
- Key character traits
- Tech savvy-ness
Let’s look at each.
1. Problem Solving Ability
A person’s ability to encounter and solve new problems with varying levels of complexity is what separates top-notch executive assistants from other administrative professionals.
Assistants who are great problem solvers need far less micromanagement and instruction than ones who don’t. When an executive needs something done—even if it’s something they haven’t asked their assistant to do before—an EA with great problem solving ability can figure out how to accomplish it without much guidance.
This is invaluable for founders and senior level executives who often don’t have time to spell out how to do things step-by-step. And we’ve found that a focus on hiring for problem solving ability leads to successful executive assistants.
2. Communication Ability
A huge part of what executives are looking for when they hire an EA is someone to manage email and other communications on their behalf.
Often they’re fielding 100+ emails per day, responding to Slack messages from different co-workers, sitting in on phone calls, scheduling meetings, and sending out various memos and company communications—all of which take time away from focusing on their core competencies.
So a key thing we look for in EA applicants is a high degree of verbal and written communication skills. Specifically, we look for:
- Professionalism: Does their communication possess the qualities of a serious professional on a career path? Is their level of professionalism suitable for playing the role of gatekeeper for the head of the company?
- Personality: Is their communication style personable and relatable? Or is it overly formal, stuffy, etc.? (i.e. Will other team members like communicating with them?)
- Accuracy: Does their written communication have proper grammar and usage? Or is it peppered with errors?
In our experience, if a candidate has these 3 qualities, they can make a good executive assistant from a communication standpoint.
3. Key Character Traits
There’s a series of traits that are necessary for performing well in an EA role and that executives implicitly or explicitly want to have in their assistants. These include (but are not limited to):
- Are they organized?
- Are they reliable?
- Are they proactive?
- Are they resourceful?
- Are they decisive?
The problem with looking for these traits in EA candidates is they’re not easy to measure through the traditional process of resume review and interviews. This is, in part, what we designed our methodology to evaluate, which we’ll discuss more below.
4. Tech Savvy-ness
In today’s work environment, basic familiarity with Microsoft Office and Excel spreadsheets is helpful but not sufficient. Companies (especially the tech focused startups that make up the majority of our client base) are operating with a wide variety of software platforms, so executives need EAs who can quickly master the tools they use to run their business.
To account for this, general tech savvy-ness is another core skill set we assess when evaluating applicants. We don’t require them to have past experience using the specific tools our clients use, but rather we work to ensure we feel confident they can pick them up and learn them quickly.
Now, as we mentioned earlier, knowing what to look for in your EA is only half the battle. You need a method to actually thoroughly assess candidates based on these qualities. So let’s walk through the hiring methodology we’ve developed to do this.
The Methodology We Use to Evaluate Executive Assistant Job Applicants on These Qualities
To better evaluate EA job candidates, we use a tailored combination of the following:
- Quantitative assessments: Tests that allow us to thoroughly evaluate candidates on key character traits and problem solving ability.
- Structured interviews: A strategic interview process to cross-compare candidates on the qualities and abilities that matter.
- Work sample projects: Mock projects to see the quality of their work based on the types of tasks they’re likely to do in a EA role.
- Communication exercises: Exercises to evaluate candidates on key communication skills such as email etiquette.
- Reference and background checks: A structured approach to interviewing candidates’ references.
So how does our methodology evaluate the qualities we laid out above? Let’s look at some examples to demonstrate.
Note: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for assessing and finding world-class EAs. The hiring methodology we use is customized on a candidate by candidate basis, based on how candidates perform and progress through each step. We have a wide range of tools and exercises that we deploy in different ways. The following examples are used in some cases for some applicants, while others get entirely different combinations of tests and exercises.
Example #1: Assessing Problem Solving Ability
Some of our quantitative assessments are designed to test applicants on their ability to solve diverse and novel problems. And depending on how well they perform compared to other candidates taking the same assessment, we’re able to find the outliers who are the absolute best problem solvers out of the pack.
Example #2: Assessing Email Communication
One of our communication exercises involves responding to various email scenarios indicative of the types of emails candidates would be expected to handle in the role. This allows us to assess their responses on all 3 traits we described above (professionalism, personality, and accuracy). And depending on the scenarios, it can also provide insight into their problem solving ability.
Example #3: Assessing the Trait of “Team Orientedness”
We have quantitative tests for assessing dozens of key character traits for EAs, one of which is called “team orientedness.”
In other words, how well does this person collaborate with others and work to create team harmony?
Someone might have many of the traits that make a great EA. They might be organized, reliable, proactive, etc. But if they have an aversion to collaboration, they’re probably not going to be a good fit for an EA role.
This is the type of nuanced trait that most people and hiring processes fail to evaluate or consider in their decision making, and yet it’s highly relevant in the context of hiring an EA.
These examples represent the ways in which we’re more equipped than most to assess applicants on the executive assistant skills and qualities that truly matter. And as result, we’re able to hire EAs that perform at a higher level in both administrative support roles and with wider project management responsibilities.
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 two and see how you like it—with no long term commitments required.
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).