To track the development of the EA role through time, you only have to look as far as pop culture.
From the likes of Peggy Olsen and Joan Holloway, the type-writing secretaries of Mad Men, and Miss Moneypenny, the loyal right-hand-lady of James Bond, to Andy Sachs, assistant to Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada, the ever-evolving responsibilities of an EA could almost be representative of how the modern world of work has changed over the last 50 years.
Despite advances in technology and an ever-changing workplace, the EA continues to be an essential part of any support function. It also happens to be the support role that has arguably gone through the most change, transitioning from a purely administrative position to including responsibilities such as business strategy, marketing and budgeting. As such, the EA is a fantastic career option for those looking to progress towards high-level advisory positions, using their business acumen to represent their principal in a variety of areas. These might include general decision-making, contributing to strategic policy, managing projects and acting as a gatekeeper.
What is an EA in 2018?
Back in 2011, the Harvard Business Review said the following of the EA:
“Executive assistants give companies and managers a human face. They’re troubleshooters, translators, help desk attendants, diplomats, human databases, travel consultants, amateur psychologists, and ambassadors to the inside and outside world.”1
Seven years later, this definition rings true, albeit with a little more technology involved. These days, an EA’s day-to-day responsibilities still include answering phones, managing diaries and coordinating travel. The difference is that they will do these from a taxi or Uber as they and their principal dash from one meeting to the next, or through programs like Outlook and Google.
Travel booking no longer represents the booking of flights alone – it takes into consideration ground transportation, visas, time differences, weather, accommodation, meeting locations and in some cases, coordinating with a lifestyle manager to accommodate them on the ground. More often than not, the EA will travel alongside their principal, ensuring a smooth journey from office and back again.
Where technology has made processes easier, there has been scope for EAs to pick up a wider range of tasks. Most EAs will manage projects, oversee a team, manage budgets, liaise with clients and collate and prepare presentations, proposals and contracts.
What skills do I need?
With these changes come a shift in required skills and knowledge. For starters, a much higher percentage of EAs are graduates, although this is not a barrier of entry for those who opt to enter straight into the workforce. Secondly, they need to be tech-savvy, comfortable working on the go and fluent in programs like Microsoft Office and Google Suite. They should also be comfortable with using mobile technology and common apps, as this is an increasingly common requirement for a flexible working approach. Arguably the most important attributes a modern-day EA should have, though, are soft skills – these are traits like strong communication, proactivity, professionalism and resilience.
In the face of rising technological involvement, it’s the human element of EAs that has endured and will continue to make the biggest impact. A high degree of emotional intelligence and strong communication skills are incredibly valuable, as is an ability to be three steps ahead, applying critical thinking processes to find solutions. A great EA will also work well under tight deadlines and maintain an exceptional attention to detail. They should also be great at prioritising; making executive decisions on behalf of their principal or team and overseeing numerous moving parts, whether this be multiple projects or other business cases.
How do I become an EA?
Those looking to become as an EA should look first to team PA and/or personal assistant roles, which allow for the development of administrative skills and provide experience in dealing with high-level executives and private individuals. From there, it is a case of moving into an executive PA role and then onto an EA role. There is also potential to move into a business assistant capacity. As with any role, the more experience you gain, the more your career will progress.
With plenty of opportunity for growth and long-lasting impact in a business, the executive assistant role should be a viable option for administrative professionals. Just like Peggy, Miss Moneypenny and Andy, you never know where the role could take you.
About the author
Rebecca Siciliano is the Managing Director of Tiger Recruitment, a recruitment consultancy that matches exceptional support staff with top businesses and private individuals. Rebecca has over 15 years’ experience recruiting PAs, and shares her thoughts around how these roles can offer meaningful career paths.