Daisy Spragg reflects on her first year in the workforce as an Executive Assistant

As I approach a year in my role as an Executive Assistant, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on my journey to this point. When my two executives (the fantastic Marianne Whitlock and Sarah Howson) and I discussed my writing an article to mark this occasion, the feelings of imposter syndrome instantly flooded in and are very much still here as I begin to write, but here goes! Like many other people that I have spoken to since becoming an Executive Assistant, I fell into this role. Before I started as an Executive Assistant, if I am honest, I had no idea what one even was.

Thanks to Melba Duncan’s Harvard Business Review article ‘The Case for Executive Assistants’, I quickly became enlightened and intrigued by the role. The work of an Executive Assistant was something I had never considered before but suddenly made so much sense to me. Of course there is someone in the background, orchestrating the smooth day-to-day of high-powered executives all over the world, ensuring they are where they need to be, prepared and ready to do what they do best. I noted Duncan’s reference to the stereotypical secretarial function of the 1960s and, upon finishing the article, appreciated how the Executive Assistant role has evolved to become a true strategic partner to an executive/leader. The article left me pondering the vast potential and scope the role could offer.

Upon graduating university, I was lost and unsure of where I should take my career. It was about halfway through my law degree that I decided, whilst I enjoyed the subject and its academic nature, I did not think legal practice was for me. I knew I wanted to find a career that was as challenging and stimulating as my law degree had been, but I had skills such as emotional intelligence that would be likely underutilised in the legal sphere; I wanted to pursue options that would allow me to develop these attributes further.

Transferable Skills

I was lucky enough and could not be more grateful that my now executives took a chance on me and saw my potential, employing me as their Executive Assistant. Whilst I did not have a classical Business Support background, the transferable skills I have from reading law turned out to be surprisingly relevant to being an Executive Assistant. Never did I think when I began my degree that it would aid me so greatly in a career that, on the face of it, had nothing to do with the law.

Critical thinking

The question “Is this the best decision?” is a phrase that pops into my head multiple times a day, every day, in my role as an EA. Is this the best use of my executives’ time? Could their time be used in a better, more efficient way? As well as the even bigger question, “Does this decision positively impact the progression and growth of the organisation?” Weighing up all the options and making an informed decision as to the best course of action was so important in my degree to argue my point most effectively and is equally important in my role now. Appreciating that the best course of action in my role is not always (and almost never is) the easiest or most obvious option is something that I must continuously consider. Sometimes it does mean rearranging the diary for the entire day to realign with changing priorities or rethinking a new project to best reflect an intended outcome. Being able to do so efficiently and effectively, using as little time as possible, is important for both my executives’ day-to-day and for the good of the organisation.

Attention to detail

Check, check, and check again. A mantra that permeated the three years I spent at university and continues in my role as an Executive Assistant. As a discipline, the law is extremely precise; one word in the wrong place can change the entire meaning of a clause or an argument, and, as an Executive Assistant, I must be just as on the ball. Proofreading, drafting, and corresponding with clients make up a large part of my day-to-day role. Mistakes and inconsistencies reflect badly not only on me but also on my executives and the organisation as a whole.

Independence and autonomy

Notwithstanding the fact my entire university experience was impacted by COVID-19, academic study is an extremely independent pursuit. Lectures and seminars made up only 20% of my overall learning, with 80% being considered ‘independent study’. I always found it interesting that you could go from this level of autonomy in your degree to then entering a graduate scheme where you are not expected to be anywhere near as independent or proactive as you once had to be during your time at university. Unlike typical graduate roles, the Executive Assistant role is worlds away. As an Executive Assistant you are thrown in the deep end, expected to pick things up quickly and ‘hit the ground running’ in order to be as effective as possible. In turn, the skills of proactivity, self-sufficiency, and autonomy that I honed at university can actually be put to good use. I am expected to proactively make decisions, work on tasks, and look to the future without being asked: support my executives without explicitly being told what to do and how to do it. Learning by doing, rather than being told.

Processing information in a pressurised environment

One key aspect of a law degree that I am sure a lot of people are aware of is the volume of work. The amount of reading, processing, and synthesising of information involved is vast, and deadlines were always looming slightly too close. The exact same can be said for my role now. I deal with requests and queries all day, ‘put out fires’ so to speak – utilising the information that I have been given effectively. The ability to process large amounts of information quickly and efficiently has stood me in very good stead as an Executive Assistant, where things can turn on a dime and being able to work at pace is extremely important.


I would, however, like to caveat my experience and story by saying that I absolutely do not think you need to have a degree to be successful as an Executive Assistant. All the skills and attributes I have listed can absolutely be learnt and honed by just doing the role, and I too continue to improve and develop all aspects of my work toolkit every day through experience. Working within a recruitment company that searches specifically for Executive Assistants, we see so many outstanding Assistants who never went to university but have enjoyed incredible careers. They have spent time perfecting their skills and developing their commercial acumen and business knowledge to be outstanding at what they do.

Additionally, there is one huge aspect of my role that is not taught at university, and I am not sure can be taught at all. This is the human/emotional side of the role. As I know many of you reading this will know, the role of an Executive Assistant is like no other in that the partnership you foster with your leader is much closer than many other working relationships people in other roles will ever experience. The ability to read and understand your executive whilst also striving to be one step ahead of them is something that only comes with experience. No academic discipline, education, or schooling will ever teach you true emotional intelligence, or how to make sure your leader knows that they can trust you wholeheartedly.

This is why I think the role is so special; unless you have done it, you will never truly understand it. Because yes, to be a successful Executive Assistant you must be good at the obvious aspects that make up the role (diary and inbox management, working under pressure and at pace, proofreading and drafting, etc.), but it is the skills you cannot learn (emotional intelligence, the ability to read a room, trustworthiness, etc.) that will be your superpower and allow you to excel as an Executive Assistant.

Daisy Spragg holds a First Class Honours LLB Law Degree from the University of Birmingham. She is now the Executive Assistant to the Founders of Strategic PA Recruitment, supporting them in placing outstanding business support professionals in roles ... (Read More)

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