There is no other position within an executive office that has one person who is the go-to for a broad variety of detailed assignments, says Kristine Valenzuela

As you may recall, in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, the storyline revolves around an Assistant who is forced to work around the clock to appease an authoritarian boss. I recently re-watched this movie after not seeing it for years and it dawned on me how much of Miranda Priestly’s ability to function hinged on her highly capable Assistants. If they didn’t expertly plan her calendar, how would she meet with her top advisors and designers in a timely fashion? Who would debrief her on the professional and personal bios of gala attendees at a moment’s notice? Who would make sure her office functioned like a well-oiled machine?

Those of us who have worked in busy offices can visualize Miranda’s life if the Assistants were taken out of the equation. Her life would cease to function efficiently, her office operations would become a major bottleneck and the effect of that congestion would have a major impact. The simultaneous combination of tactical skill, mental acuity and fearlessness it takes to do our job is often underestimated even by our executives. On a daily basis, we get anything done in any circumstance regardless of knowing how to do what we’re being asked – and it’s almost always done on time. Mind you, these projects are done by many of us within the context of a C-suite. With this level of proficiency happening daily, that leads me to this question: should senior level EAs be considered executives?

Our Positions Are Underestimated

History and social programming have done us no favors because of how we’ve been depicted in the media in the past. It’s no wonder the average person thinks all we’re capable of is creating correspondence and managing a calendar. The most challenging issue is that because our jobs frequently function in the background, almost no one sees the full view of what we accomplish across the course of a day, week or month. Remote work has intensified that issue. Those of you who work in an office know that your executive’s desk may be located near yours, but that doesn’t mean they truly understand the scope of your work.

Because we tend to fulfill singular needs for a wide variety of people, no one pays attention to what we do in aggregate. We might serve as a project manager who gives updates on big projects for one person, act as the C-suite Chief of Staff for another and be the software expert for yet another. Are there any other positions within an executive office where one person is the go-to for a broad variety of detailed assignments? The answer is no. Each executive function focuses on their specific craft, whether that’s finance, marketing or operations. But we do all things in all areas, and no one has ever thought twice about it (except for us, of course). A position that can do so many things is incredibly valuable.

To give you a visual of how our expertise stacks up to executives, I like to use the analogy of an iceberg. Our executives are the icebergs that form a peak above and below the waterline. Their expertise in their craft runs deep – the portion below the waterline. They operate within the leadership ranks to get updates, have discussions and make decisions, and those activities have a direct impact at the top of the company – the peak you visualize above the water.

Then there’s the Executive Assistant. We’re an ice sheet, which is not as tall as an iceberg but is strong in other ways. Our expertise may not be as established, but as a function of our jobs, we connect with more areas, more regularly, compared to our executives. When called upon, we know how to utilize resources within HR, IT, marketing, sales and engineering. Our craft knowledge stretches horizontally, just like the expansiveness of an ice sheet. But measure the volume of the ice sheet and compare that to the iceberg. I’ll bet they’re quite close, even if one appears more dominant. Now do you see the analogy in the context of our jobs? Even if our expertise, titles and salary appear different, we’re probably far closer to being equal than many people know.

The Effectiveness of Mentorship

I love to think of an EA/executive working dynamic as a paid mentorship program. Our jobs fit the very definition of mentorship: we have a trusted executive who serves as a ‘counselor’ that also sponsors our work. Mentorship programs are highly coveted because employees are anxious to learn from those at the top and everyone knows having the right mentor can positively affect their career prospects. However, no one stops to realize that most EAs already have that connection with their executive.

It took me a long time to realize all the valuable insights I’ve picked up from C-level leaders over the years, and the mentorship model is the vehicle that made it happen. The dialogue that occurs might not be the same, but if you’re someone who likes to ask a lot of questions like I do, the end result is the same. I’ve paid close attention to what they do, how they conduct themselves and how they cultivate their perspectives. It’s the type of education that every mentee desires, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a front-row seat.

The real test of this ‘education’ is apparent by the fact that I have a 100% success rate of figuring things out in a stressful C-suite environment. Even if in the moment things seem scary and incredibly uncertain, looking back on a job well done is a true testament to what has been learned, and anyone who does this job should be proud of that. This is also why an executive can be gone for weeks and return to business as usual. We’ve applied these lessons in their absence and keep things together, even if it’s far from easy. We are gaining daily on-the-job expertise from the highest levels within our respective companies, which puts us in an exclusive and exciting position.

An Outside Perspective Can Be Valuable

It’s no secret that our executives have well-rooted knowledge when it comes to their area of expertise. Because of that depth, leaders can easily get wrapped up in the minutiae of an issue, particularly when problem-solving. This leads to them losing their usually sharp business compass.

I’ve been a part of many business sprints over the years that have required everyone’s participation, including senior leaders. When you’re pulled deep into problem-solving mode, it’s difficult to see the things that might be obvious under different circumstances. That’s where an outside perspective can be helpful and, oftentimes, necessary. I remember the first time I chose to speak up to ask a question in a leadership meeting involving a critical issue. I had a question I was hoping to answer for my own knowledge, but as it turned out, my lack of knowledge about the situation helped to shift their focus. The entire team was so caught up in finding a specific resolution, they completely lost sight of the fact they were asked by their customer to find a solution and not necessarily a mechanical solution, which was all they were focusing on. From that point forward, they opened themselves up to all paths that could potentially lead to a solution. As EAs, we may not know the intricacies of a specific craft, but we can balance that out by bringing a fresh, simple perspective which can be just as powerful.

Yes, We Level Up

All of what I’ve mentioned is simply to draw attention to the fact that an experienced Executive Assistant can have just as much impact on the C-suite as an executive. Our contributions should not be underestimated. Our executives are smart, strategic leaders – but so are we, so let’s not lose sight of that. We are true executive partners and should be viewed as a major player within the executive team, not just a support function. We’ve become comfortable operating in a space that intimidates the average employee (and even some of the executives). We’ve witnessed firsthand what to do and what not to do and have seen all the realities of a C-suite office. All these experiences have shaped us to see things from an executive perspective, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we see ourselves as a true member of the executive team. I know I see it that way. Do you?

Kristine Valenzuela’s career has spanned over 25 years, where she has established herself as a C-level Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff at organizations ranging from startups to big tech companies. She worked her way up from the lowest ranks of the ... (Read More)

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