Richard Arnott asks whether recognition and salaries in the Executive Assistant profession are where they should be

Recognition and Compensation must rank as the Number 1 most raised issue at the various Executive Assistant conferences and training events that I attend globally.

Everyone knows that the role of the Executive Assistant has, and is, changing and that Executive Assistants are being asked to take on tasks that even 5 to 10 years ago would have been unheard of. As the middle management layer gets stripped out across most organisations Executive Assistants are having to step up perform duties that were previously done by more “senior” roles. Sadly, however, the pay scales have not changed in line with the duties being performed and the role is still seen as being “Just a PA”.

So why is this? What can be done?

To me the solution is a lot more complex than telling people simply to be more assertive. We need to get to the true root cause of the problem. However, tackling this issue has to be at the forefront of the profession as it is clearly eating away at the majority of Executive Assistants out there and will become an irritating distraction if not tackled correctly. Finding a solution that fits all is not going to be easy.

From my own experience, and from talking to many Executives and EAs, I have summarized what I believe are the basic problems that both the profession and individuals face. Some of what I say may not be palatable but it is said forthrightly and directly to inform the debate.

Reason 1: You are easily replaceable.

REALLY? Did you really just say that Richard?

Please do not take this statement the wrong way.

It’s a simple case of Supply and Demand. There are too many of you with little differentiation. Ergo employers can pick and choose. It drives wages and salaries down. It is basic economics – unfortunately.

The modern Executive Assistant therefore needs to demonstrate a wider range of skills that previously would not have been considered necessary. In addition to this, they need to be able to demonstrate and prove to their boss or prospective employers that they have these skills. You also need to have that something different, that “niche” element, be it language skills, accountancy qualification, leadership skills, PA certification or Project Management skills to name but a few.

My tip is to identify a specialized area or task that you could do instead of your executive, get some training and then convince your executive to delegate the task to you. A good example would be attending project update meetings. These meetings can really eat into an executive’s diary and 90% are just irrelevant noise. Get yourself trained in the basics of project management and project governance and be brave enough to suggest that your executive does not need to go to the next meeting. I guarantee your executive will be delighted. I was.

Reason 2: Misogyny

Unfortunately, even in the 21st century, this still exists. Possibly, not as overtly practiced as before, but still very prevalent even in the more “liberal” societies and economies. The glass ceiling still exists for female Executives. I say that there is a “Glass Cage” around this EA profession, which despite what we would all want is still seen primarily as a female role.

We need to keep fighting this age old problem and never accept that gender has any part in assessing people’s ability. Does your organization have a set of values in this regard, do they live and breathe them or are they just words on paper? Are you able to get involved in promoting values across the organization? If so then you must.

Reason 3: Lack of Boundaries

I am never one for falling back on job descriptions; however I hear time and time again how Executive Assistants are basically expected to be general dogs’ bodies or “Jack of all trades, Masters of none”.

Clear lines need to be drawn but falling back on the job description is probably the worst thing you can do. What you need to have is good and clear communication with your executive so that they understand not only what it is that you are spending your time on but also what you could be spending your time on and, very importantly, what routine lower level jobs you are currently doing that could either be stopped or delegated.

Unless you actually make your executive aware of what it is you actually do they will make assumptions and those assumptions will bear no resemblance to reality. Therefore, do not be surprised if your executive then does not think that you deserve more recognition or indeed more pay

Reason 4: Inability to Say “No”

The reason we need to say no is that otherwise everything becomes “expected” not only from your executive, but also from those others who for some reason or another have crept into your working day with their incessant demands and requests. You know the story “It’s OK, Jenny will do it”

Most of us are afraid of saying no. We fear that it will hurt relationships or that we will be in trouble. Nothing could be further from the truth. “No” is a sentence.

There are subtle differences when dealing with your manager and when dealing with these “Other People”. With your manager it’s all about communication; make them aware of what you have to do and agree priorities, also make them aware of all the demands and requests you have from others – I guarantee that your manager will be shocked.

To these “Other People” just say, for example, “No, Sorry I cannot help you, can you come back next week?” and then keep totally quiet. You do not need to embellish it. You do not need to offer explanations. Nine times out of ten the request will disappear.

What has this to do with salaries / recognition you may ask? I believe it’s a lot. If you are the type of person that allows others to walk all over you, they will do the same when it comes to pay and grades.

Reason 5: A Fractured Profession – Divide and Rule

Since I started working more closely with this profession I have observed that it is seriously fractured.

There are over 146 (at the last count) job titles and probably many more. There are different uses of terminology across the world in regard to position and level – for example Personal Assistant in the USA has a totally different meaning to Personal Assistant in the UK. This does nothing to help the global profession set acceptable salary scales at a local, national or international level.

There is no national or globally recognised qualification framework in existence which has resulted in a plethora of mostly unregulated “Awards” that are nothing more than mechanisms to tie people into membership fees.  This has left a gap that is unfortunately being exploited by unscrupulous trainers and event management companies who promote their own qualifications.

The good news is that I am aware of various initiatives going on at a global and at various national levels to tackle these issues and I fully support them. My suggestion to you is to find those associations that are outward looking, are willing to seriously represent the profession at industry and government level, are willing to collaborate and are willing to stand as one profession. They are out there. I will not name them in case I am accused of favouritism, but some of the newer associations, particularly in the UK, have absolutely got the right idea.

My tips are to identify the right skills set that you require, look for training that gives you independently accredited certification and certainly avoid those organisations that will only allow you to gain and retain their awards by maintaining membership.

Reason 6: Misaligned Bonuses

Having our own set of objectives or balanced scorecard targets is great. We can focus on these and deliver against them. In the perfect world if everyone achieves their objectives the theory is that the organisation will have achieved its vision, everyone is happy, bonuses are paid and champagne corks explode.

The reality is of course very different. We end up with a set of objectives mostly given to us rather than agreed; they are out of kilter with the organisation direction and especially your manager. They take no account of the real tasks you do daily and take no account of the constant interruptions and time wasting activities caused by others.

If we go back to the basic principle that your executive cannot operate effectively or efficiently without an Executive Assistant, then why should your bonus not be linked to your executive’s bonus? This seems pretty sensible to me. Yes of course you need to meet the objectives set by your executive but ensure these are aligned to your executive’s own objectives – Do you ever have this conversation? If not you should. Ergo when your executive gets a big bonus for delivering – why should you not share in this?

In summary, I believe that the profession is at a crossroads. We must all work together to present one profession, but as individuals you need to develop your own skills, get yourself differentiated, learn new ways of doing things, and really step up to the challenges of the modern Executive Assistant.

Richard Arnott, BA, FInatAM, FIToL, is the Director of BMTG (UK) Ltd, and the author and lead presenter of the groundbreaking, globally recognised Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant: ACEA® program. Richard also sits on the editorial board of ... (Read More)

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