Melba Duncan evaluates the role of the Executive Assistant

Who is the Executive Assistant?

The Executive Assistant is a strategic colleague.

The person who you call in the middle of the night when you have an idea or a task that you want executed first thing in the morning. The person who greets you the next morning (having arrived at the crack of dawn) reassuring you that the task has been handled; that the most effective course of action (that works with your calendar and relieves you of multiple conversations on the same topic) was to arrange a video-conference so that you can communicate your idea to your global marketing team. This is the person who enables you to meet the challenges of the global business landscape. This is the person whose strategic decisions save your and others’ time. This person’s unquestionable value is in the ability to perform as your daily, minute-by-minute problem-solver.

The purpose of the role: a profound sense of mission

Talented Executive Assistants represent a strong business function; they are among any company’s critical talent population. Why? They provide administrative stability, the discipline to do more things better, and the skills to manage the magnitude of systems with consistency, reliability and focus. Executive success is dependent upon these talented individuals, whose purpose is to focus on goal accomplishment, to meet the needs of the Executives and the companies they support.

Executive Assistants’ strategic skill is to provide the basis for Executives to make the best-informed decisions possible. They conduct due diligence in order to assure that all relevant information is available to aid in the decision process, and with exactly the right level of detail. Preparation of such materials, and their thoroughness and balance, is the responsibility of experienced Executive Assistants.

The Professional Executive Assistant is entrusted to make the Executive’s vision a reality. The most valued Executive Assistant is the person who aligns his/her strategy with the Executive’s and the organization’s mission. Those who do this work well know that the key is in the orientation of the role. There must be personal chemistry between the Executive and the Assistant. Executive Assistants’ intellectual and technical capabilities are influences; yet, it is the “personality fit factor” that is the key to sustainable performance, both personally and organizationally. Each must like, respect and trust the other, and have the friendship-based capacity to apply humor to challenging situations. Mutual respect, accountability, trust and adaptability must be absolute.

Why hire an Executive Assistant?

The demand on the time and energy of Senior Executives has been escalating rapidly in a period of globalization, economic disruption, financial distress and increasing competition from every source. Executives who know the value of, and can leverage, a great Executive Assistant can propel their company and their careers.

The people in the ranks of top management have always had a list of things they cannot get done without help from a real, live human being: someone who with tact, intelligence and diplomacy is a tenacious inquisitor to get the facts, and who knows virtually everything of consequence about the company for which he or she works.

Smart Executives realize that they need to replicate themselves, harness their worst tendencies and find someone to support them who has a fully committed sense of the business. This is the person who can take anxiety out of the Executive’s day, and support and manage the Executive’s business goals.

There are at least three critical dimensions for the Executive/Executive Assistant team to achieve an effective working relationship: First is the Executive’s willingness to invest the time and effort to consider what aspects of his/her workload can be assumed or restructured into segments that can be managed by his/her Assistant. Second, the Executive Assistant’s willingness to stretch beyond his/her comfort zone in order to assume new and more complex responsibilities and who can consistently produce results. Third, Executive Assistants as managers are persistent, tough-minded, hardworking, intelligent and analytical. Most relevant, is the ability to understand the personal and business context of the Executive, within which he/she must manage the day-to-day responsibilities of the role, and who, by extensive experience, knows the difference between not letting things go unnoticed or unchecked. These distinctions cannot be overstated; they distinguish the conditions for the team’s success.

Executives have the responsibility of keeping their Assistants informed by setting agreed-upon expectations, goals and timelines for implementation. Why? Because without this understanding, unnecessary conflicts, misunderstandings and problems are inevitable. Spending time to clarify your objectives, problems and pressures is the key to supporting your Assistant in making sound decisions and implementing flawless execution. Why? Because effective Executive Assistants do not allow an Executive’s vision to transcend their capabilities. This is the genius of the assisting role.

What should I look for when hiring a Professional Executive Assistant?

1 Performance skills:

Experience (how the person has expanded in the role). Competences (what are the areas in which this person excels?). Personal Attributes (does this person reflect confidence and a centered ego; someone who gets it done?) and Knowledge (does this person have the reliable skills?). Social/Interpersonal Skills (does this person have the charisma to manage global relationships?)



Professional courage (the intention to do the right thing).

Strategic Competence

Knowing how to do the right thing.


Intellectual Integration (the ability to deliver and execute the right thing).

The expert Professional Executive Assistant focuses on results and on maximizing efficiency. The Assistant understands the importance of clarifying the employer’s objectives by putting himself/herself in those situations and applying good judgment. The goal is to weed through ambiguity, manage inherent unpredictability, zero in on the most important points, reach a decision and execute on behalf of the Executive. The key is to have the ability to connect unrelated questions or ideas to an unexpected event.

The secret of a great Executive Assistant

The secret of a great Executive Assistant is the principle of attitude, the breadth of collaboration and relentless attention to detail. The Executive Assistant’s major contribution is in the ability to handle work that is fast-paced, requiring an extraordinary number of skills that are displayed in quick motion. Processing information, making evidenced-based decisions quickly, grouping tasks and making intuitive judgments on the fly are manifestations of intelligence and adaptability to change.

Additionally, smart Assistants pay attention to clues in the Executive’s behavior and shifts in temperament, because timing and judgment are the foundation of a smooth working relationship. This helps Assistants not to take information passed on at face value, or to make assumptions in their decision making. Why? Because they know that priorities and concerns change, and that they have to be on top of these shifts all the time.

Professional Executive Assistants do not operate in a world of excuses. They have the emotional maturity to manage distracted behaviors, the endurance capacity to sustain themselves in environments where they will encounter: uneven temperaments; rapid pace; limited signs of appreciation; conflicting instructions; behavior that deters productivity; and, the demand for high levels of intelligence and superb response skills.

Defining the Business Partnership

Most Senior Executives now rely more than ever on their professional Executive Assistant, who fills the roles of “advance person”, and “right- and left-hand person”. This is the business partner whose job it is to provide strategic support, as the need arises, as technology resource, trouble-shooter, translator, help desk attendant, diplomat, human database, weather advisor, travel consultant, sales executive, amateur psychologist, spousal interface and ambassador to the inside and outside world. Often the Executive Assistant most resembles Executives themselves: by mastering the art of delegation and exercising fluid, decisive action.

While the Executive Assistant’s role will continue to be defined in relation to the Executive’s responsibilities and the structure and culture of the organization, in this new world economy, the work of the Executive Assistant is placed squarely in the middle of the work of the Executive. This is an opportunity for the Executive/Executive Assistant Partnership to exceed past accomplishments and enter new territory by incorporating different constructs of the role of assisting. This level of skills development and expertise can be achieved by hard work, study and an active self-development strategy on the part of the Executive Assistant in order to yield talent that must be apparent.

If you have hired the Assistant who (1) is engaged in your work (2) knows your company’s business criteria (3) knows what drives your decisions (4) knows your triggers and sources of stress (5) knows your areas of responsibilities and for what you will be held accountable (6) knows how to incorporate his/her work into your and your company’s mosaic (7) is “able to see around corners” and prepare for the worst, then pay that person well, provide expanding challenges in the role and support educational opportunities to enable this Assistant to evolve.

For those Executives who are skeptical about this level of collaboration and partnership reliance, pretend you are on an Executive Outward Bound course, and that this is the only person on whom you must rely to get you through the most difficult challenges.

Executives speak out

In a one-day seminar for executives on how to hire the best Executive Assistant, an Executive proceeded to define a top-level Assistant: “An exemplary Executive Assistant is technology proficient, has common sense and does not make mistakes in judgment. By that I mean that he/she has the ability to diagnose a situation, does not reveal information that should remain in confidence, has an understanding of boundaries, does not act outside of established procedures and policies, and does not argue a point of view. A terrific Assistant,” he continued, “will remember that he/she gets paid to treat everyone well, and to make the day go as smoothly as possible, with a willingness to develop work habits that challenge ordinary thinking and the status quo. Selective flexibility is unacceptable.”

Executive Assistants speak out

“My employer asks me the same thing 500 times and, each time, I act as if it’s the first time he has asked the question. I work for someone who will be unhappy even in Heaven.”

“Hello. Did you arrive on time?” the Assistant asks of her employer.

“Yes, and thank you for arranging for the family to be in the car to save us time… and for the sandwiches. I see that you also arranged to have the prep material for Monday morning’s meeting.”

“I thought that lunch in the car would be fun, and would keep the kids calm, while you reviewed the contents of the file, allowing you a bit more free time over the weekend,” she responded.

“Yes; one thing, though, next time, no mayonnaise.”

“Ok”, she responded. “By the way,” she asks, “do you know La Bruyere’s famous quote?”


“There is no excess in the world as commendable as excessive gratitude. See you on Monday morning.”


“I just called back to say ‘thank you’,” says the Executive.

“You’re welcome…” responds the Assistant.

A Vision for this role

As Executives face the growing pressures of competitiveness, they will of necessity drive creativity and innovation at the Executive Assistant level, as they begin to grant decision-making power and authority to those Assistants who (1) view change as an opportunity (2) provide a source of new ideas (3) function interdependently (4) who manage communication that is face-to-face, by phone or email (5) demonstrate that they know most about a task by creating well-designed systems (6) take on the elements of general management, and (7) are truly committed to their employer’s success.

As with every profession, those who perform in this role will face an unprecedented level of difficulty in trying to keep up. Functional knowledge in global business, critical thinking, leadership and management are becoming basic requirements for the Executive Assistant position. Ongoing education becomes essential and necessary for Assistants to be able to continue to evolve strategically, and to provide expertise in solving problems by placing facts in context and delivering them with impact, which requires fast response time and flexibility.

If the goal is to become more skillful in reducing superficial complexity to simplicity, to recognize how to get it right, and how to think the right way, how do you get there? You need a career-development strategy.

Employers must invest in Executive Assistants by offering specialized, functional training and development the same way that they invest in all of the top-level talent in our high-performing organizations. It will not happen by chance. Any well-seasoned Executive will agree that inspiration and talent alone will only take you so far.

Melba J. Duncan is the Founder and President of The Duncan Group Inc. Since 1985, the firm has been advising CEOs and other corporate leaders regarding specialized senior management support resources. The firm offers expertise in four practice areas: ... (Read More)

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