Leaders are looking for Executive Assistants who are Leaders says Julia Schmidt

My two years as Senior Executive Assistant and National Chairman

How can a senior Executive Assistant working with the top executives of a company represented in five countries, combine this demanding role with being National Chairman of an international association for administrative professionals? The answer is simple. It is all about engagement, finding the “big picture”, connecting the dots and shaping your leadership muscles.

During my professional career, I have had the privilege of working with great leaders and mentors. They were – and are – continually offering me opportunities to learn leadership from seeing them in action and being their business partner. It has been a real leadership school.  Leading IMA (International Management Assistants) Norway, I was again being given a chance to keep developing and practicing my leadership skills – and extending my learning arena outside the corporate context.

In my journey as a leader, I want to connect with people at an emotional level. Hit people in the gut and make them think. Make them believe that they can do something big.

When I accepted the role as National Chairman, I had a clear objective:

“As a leader, I want to inspire my members, create a better future for our association, attract new members, enable innovation, make new opportunities for win-win situations, empower people, foster collaboration and strengthen relationships.”

Many colleagues, peers, and friends, during the past years, have asked me how I could combine my demanding role as Executive Assistant with the position as IMA Norway’s National Chairman, writer, public speaker, mentor and Wellbeing Ambassador. The secret is that everything I did was helping me grow and become a better version of myself by:

  • Practicing leadership
  • Understanding people’s talents
  • Discovering the purpose
  • Connecting people to the purpose
  • Stimulating individual learning
  • Working hard

Practicing leadership

The role of the Executive Assistant is changing drastically.  We are being asked to do more than before. Businesses are wanting to get more for less. CEOs are looking for high performing Executive Assistants. They are looking for more than a senior level Assistant. It is no longer about the number of years of experience you have. CEOs want to have an Executive Assistant Leader at their side. They are looking for strategic thinkers. People who have a voice. People who can stand for the business. Someone the CEO can partner with. Someone with the ability to ask high-quality questions.

Leadership is not about our ability to give orders; it is about how we act and behave; how we become role models, inspiring, challenging and enabling others to perform, and showing appreciation for individual excellence.

Being a senior Executive Assistant and being a member of the executive team allows me to undertake valuable leadership training, participate in strategic planning, and add value to the business. Being the leader of the IMA national group was a complementary opportunity for me to practice leadership, apply my learnings and exercise my leadership purpose. Once more, I was connecting the dots.

This knowledge would help me become a better Executive Assistant to my CEO and increase my growth mindset which drives my motivation and achievement:

  • I can get smarter through hard work and the right strategies
  • Learning is my goal
  • Effort makes me stronger
  • I can improve my performance with feedback
  • I can change and adapt skills, behaviors, and attitudes more quickly
  • My teammates’ achievements inspire me
  • I am willing to share knowledge and help others succeed

One of the things that motivated me to go the extra mile when leading IMA Norway was the positive impact of seeing my ideas and initiatives – and the achievements of my members -being spread throughout the association.

Connecting the dots for me during these two years was like finding a common thread that encompassed the issues, ideas and resources in my national group and my workplace.  My executives supported my voluntary work, enabling me to be an ambassador for my company when also representing the association at national and international events. My past work experience as a teacher, salesperson and marketeer helped me to drive positive results and see things with different perspectives.  I could improve our new members’ onboarding process, implement a strategic planning routine, improve the business relations with corporate members and make our members aware of their role as stakeholders.

Also, as part of my leadership development, I wanted to build a team of talented people, to help them develop their talents and excel. I wanted to give them room to perform to their potential and to push them to be the best they could be.  In shaping my leadership muscles, I had to have my team with me, partnering for mutual success.

Understanding people’s talents

One of my main drivers is engagement. I am always writing down the meaning and purpose of everything I do. It keeps me motivated.  When I embraced my work as National Chairman, I immediately visualized my first great task: have a purpose-driven organization with members who would take ownership of building a stronger association and be a source of inspiration to each other.  I visualized a motivated workforce and sought out the skills and talents of every member who wanted to work closely with me, to find the best they have in themselves that they were willing to share with the group.  I wanted to find in each person a positive example, a positive story that could inspire others.

One of my onboarding routines was to meet new members in one-on-one meetings to listen to their ideas, opinions and expectations. These conversations allowed me to identify strengths and visualize how a member could make a difference and become a great contributor to the association.

Discovering the purpose

As a new chair of the board, I wanted to clarify our organization’s purpose and values so that I could increase our members’ focus, commitment, and collaboration.

As I had defined my mission as a National Chairman, I also wanted my members to find purpose by looking for ways they could contribute to the group, deliver over and above our expectations, and give back to the IMA community.

To discover our purpose as an organization, we invited all members to a weekend seminar to discuss the future of our association, how to improve what we are doing and how to keep doing our best work.  More than a change process, we were looking for a way to define who we are, what we are doing and where we want to go.  We shared our concerns, hopes and positive stories from our experiences as members.  From the discussions in this seminar, we identified a purpose and a set of values. It gave authenticity to everything we built together during the two years I was leading the group. We knew the WHY of everything we did.

We are

  • Building an inclusive community
  • Sharing and learning together
  • Building close relationships
  • Helping each other grow

Connecting people to the purpose

IMA is all of us together!  This was one of my “calls to action” to all my members. It was a hashtag I frequently used in my posts on social media and in newsletters. This was an effective way to engage people and mobilize them to act.  In any kind of voluntary work, it is imperative to have members who are willing to actively contribute to the association. We need people who want to make a difference, give back to the community, learn new skills, take on challenges, discover hidden talents and, obviously, have a great time together as part of a community.

Therefore, I used to spend a lot of my time finding a pool of positive energizers and change agents, who were willing to share their talents and inspire others. They are purpose-driven people with an optimistic orientation. I knew it would be worth it.  They were showing up to organize events, to become web coordinators or board members, contributing to editing the newsletters, promoting events and being true ambassadors for the association.  The reality is that people who find meaning in their work don’t hoard their energy and dedication. They give freely.

Connecting my members to the purpose of our association was a way of empowering our national group.  People are made for collaboration, and a common purpose and value bands people together for mutual achievement.

Stimulating individual learning

My desire to have people around me who were willing to share their talents came from my own leadership purpose: “I will continuously and consistently develop and facilitate the growth and development of myself and others leading to great performance and positive results.”

I wanted people in our national group to aspire to professional growth and perform at their best. For me, voluntary work is also about delivering high-quality performance and creating positive results. That is what made us attain one of our primary goals, which was to increase the number of members.  I pushed the members of my board to embrace new tasks and develop new skills. Together we were learning how to delegate, to become valuable team players, being open to accepting, being analytical, developing critical and strategic thinking, and enhancing our emotional intelligence skills.

I embraced each moment of this experience to stimulate my individual learning and contribution to give people the opportunity to grow through a collective learning process.

  • We complemented each other’s strengths
  • We needed each other to get the job done and attain the goals in our strategic plan
  • Some of us could do things better than others amongst us
  • Our learning would lead us to mutual success

Working hard

Having a leadership role in an international association shows my company that I think beyond my current role as an Executive Assistant.  This is something that my executives are willing to support. They also know that I act as our company’s ambassador and promote our business.

Writing is one of my passions, therefore through my articles, I was sharing my learning and achievements, and encouraging my peers to take and practice leadership. Public speaking engagements give me the opportunity to promote IMA, my company and the project Organizational Health and Wellbeing for Assistants.  I was working harder and smarter, connecting the dots and seeing the big picture.

Mentoring other Assistants also became more natural to me and I integrated that into my role as National Chairman.  As a leader, I want to guide people through their first weeks at a new job, help them find new job positions, build self-confidence, solve issues and grow professionally. It is all about giving back to the community and sharing and learning together.

Hard work without delegation is not a smart thing. Improving my delegation skills was one of the biggest successes during these past years. Getting comfortable with delegation and letting go of embracing too many operational tasks was not easy. I learned that for us to accomplish the association’s goals, we all had to be active players. I could not do everything myself and as a leader, I needed to have time for strategic thinking.  I found out that delegation is not only about trust but also about enabling people to be the best they can be.

Shaping My Leadership Muscles

I had to trust my team and show that by:

  • Assigning tasks that matched people’s strengths
  • Setting clear expectations
  • Knowing that I did not know everything
  • Believing in people’s talents
  • Giving all members the chance to contribute
  • Being patient
  • Listening to people more
  • Having a less authoritative leadership style
  • Communicating our vision extensively
  • Practicing transparency in everything we were doing

An important skill that I improved significantly was prioritization.  Finding the right strategic actions that had to be prioritized, according to available resources, level of impact, time frame, and urgency, was an excellent exercise.  Prioritization, delegation and the assignment of tasks are three elements that complement each other.

  • Is it clear how each project or initiative we work on contributes to or supports the association’s strategic plan?
  • How necessary is a strategic action that was decided when the association had different needs?
  • How often shall we revise the strategic plan and its activities?
  • Which new activities should be included according to the overall IMA strategic plan?


Even with many years of experience under my belt as an Executive Assistant, and as a leader in many areas, it is still a challenge to approach each day as a “leader”.  I learn something new every day.

By connecting the dots, all learnings, failures, achievements and experiences in both my professional and private life, I am able to embrace new leadership roles and upskill myself for the future of work.

I will keep learning, spreading engagement, taking risks, making mistakes, sharing knowledge, building relationships and shaping my leadership muscles.  Above all, I have learned that it is an ongoing process with new lessons each week; exercises and homework to be done; and a fantastic feeling of shaping the future of my role as an Executive Assistant.

I am thankful for the opportunity I had and the valuable collaboration of all my IMA team and members. I really recommend all Assistants keep shaping their leadership muscles every day and improve their leadership presence. The reality is that Leaders are looking for Executive Assistants who are Leaders!

We can all be leaders because we all have leadership muscles – we just need encouragement to flex them and practice to build them

Steve Radcliffe
Julia Schmidt is an award-winning Executive Assistant with over 20 years of experience working in different industries. She is known for being a passionate advocate for people development and in helping others succeed and embrace their leadership skills. ... (Read More)

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