Executive Assistants don’t sit behind a desk with a stapler anymore. Here’s what this career looks like in the new digital world.
When you think of executive assistants, what comes to mind? Someone like Joan Holloway from Mad Men? A secretary behind a desk with a stapler?
The truth is that executive assistants have long expanded beyond administrative roles. Today’s executive assistants take on project management, are involved in strategic planning, and often work directly alongside the executives they support.
I should know—I worked as an executive assistant for four years, assisting first the vice president and then the president of a non-profit organization. During that time, I also took on the roles of project manager, event planner, photo editor, wiki editor, document drafter, and countless other jobs far above and beyond answering phones and making photocopies.
Today’s executive assistants work hard, take on complex tasks, and are well compensated. U.S. News and World Report lists executive assistants as one of their “best business jobs,” and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average salary at $51,870. Here’s a sample job listing for an Executive Assistant for Treehouse, an educational technology company.
How will the executive assistant role continue to change in the future?
I talked to Emily Allen, Director of Programs and Services at the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), to learn more.
Brazen: How has the executive assistant role changed in the past 20 years, especially pre-Internet and post-Internet?
Emily Allen: The role has changed significantly.
First, candidates for these positions receive more education. Many executive assistants now have either two-year degrees or four-year degrees.
Second, the role itself has expanded from what it was 20 years ago—and even from what it was 10 years ago.
The executive assistant role used to be pretty singular. It was a support role, and the EA’s primary job was following orders. Now, the executive assistant is being brought in on decision-making processes. Executive assistants are being put in charge of whole projects.
Because of this, today’s executive assistants need overall project management skills and critical thinking skills.
As the job has changed, the perception of the EA role has shifted. People are seeing the necessity of having executive assistants because of the variety of their skills.
How do you see the executive assistant role changing in the future?
To answer this question, let’s go back to the 2008 recession, when we started to see a shift in positions. Middle managers were being laid off, and executive assistants were handed the extra workload. They weren’t managers, but they had projects to lead and watch over.
I’m not clairvoyant, but I do see that trend continuing. Managers and executives will continue to realize that they can hand over their projects to their assistants.
You’re not going to see executive assistants doing overall strategizing, but they’ll be in the room where people are strategizing and they’ll help carry the strategies out.
What skills should today’s college grads build if they want to become executive assistants?
First, they need to understand Microsoft Office. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Sharepoint, along with basic office skills.
To set themselves apart, they can get certifications. The Microsoft Office certification is good, and we also offer an IAAP certification. Getting certifications tells an employer that you’re taking this career seriously.
So the first way people can set themselves apart is by having the certifications that show that they’re serious about the business. Another way to stand out is by having a clear understanding of project management and how project management fits into the role of an executive assistant.
Critical thinking is essential. Don’t wait for your boss to give you instructions. Have an ear to the ground and come to your boss with ideas.
Don’t be a follower; be a leader, even though you’re in a support role. (Click here to tweet this quote.)
Demonstrate to your employer that you’re actively seeking continuing education. Like my mother told me: “We teach people how to treat us.” So prove to people that you’re serious about your work. Let them know that this isn’t a career that you’re marking time in.
Have you ever considered a career as an executive assistant? If you work as an EA, what advice can you offer to other Brazen Life readers?
Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.