How to Increase the Visibility of the Executive Assistant

The Wall Street Journal recently published a controversial article, entitled “The Vanishing Executive Assistant” by Rachel Feintzeig, which has been a conversation starter in the Executive Assistant community, to say the least. Why? Because much of the data used to illustrate the point was about secretarial and administrative assistant positions, not that of an Executive Assistant. There is a difference. While secretarial and administrative assistant positions are important in their own right, I want to specifically discuss the Executive Assistant’s role since that’s a position I held for a number of years.

Now, I won’t deny that the role of assistants is changing. With the continued optimization and implementation of technology at all levels of an organization, some more basic administrative functions will be replaced by technology and AI. But an Executive Assistant, a true strategic partner, a Force Multiplier? That role is not going anywhere and, in fact, I think is more necessary than ever for two main reasons.

  • First, the global business landscape and the increasingly complex business world coupled with multi-passionate entrepreneurs and Executives necessitates a strong right hand who can help them streamline their work and handle the details so they can do what they do best – lead and grow an organization.
  • Second, our ever-connected world where an Executive’s work life and home life are integrated adds complexities to his or her day. This, too, is where a dynamic EA steps in.

The New Executive Assistant is Rewriting the History Books

Yes, the world is shifting and the demands will be different. As Rachel Feintzeig wrote, “The trappings of executive life – separate dining rooms, reserved parking spots, private offices, and assistants that help run their lives – have faded away.” Perhaps I can agree on the first three points in this list, but I think it’s important to dig deeper into the last point. True, in more traditional, hierarchical corporate companies, Executive perks may be disappearing, but they are being replaced by global travel management, personal branding, technology integration and more – all of which are handled by the Executive Assistant who runs the Exec’s life. In fact, there are 582 million entrepreneurs in the world and one thing I know for sure is that entrepreneurs and Executive Assistants achieve more together.

The Executive Assistant role is not vanishing, but rather evolving and expanding. Instead of lamenting the loss, I believe as a professional community we should be leveling up! I chose to be an Executive Assistant, which I chose to grow into a Chief of Staff role (and subsequently hired an Executive Assistant to replace myself in that role). Take control of your career. Reinvent yourself. Learn the skills necessary to be competitive in this new market. If you don’t change and evolve, you will be left behind.

The new EA position is not going to be for everyone and that’s okay. And not every leader is going to require an assistant. But the great leaders are going to require an exceptional one. There may be fewer Executive Assistants overall, but they are going to be powerful partners to the major players in politics, business, philanthropy, education, start-ups, and more.

Feintzeig, though I’m sure well-intentioned, missed an opportunity to discuss how administrative positions are evolving and changing, and in many cases, are more important than ever. I see this article, not as a slight to the EA profession, but rather an opportunity for all Executive Assistants to step up, be more visible, add more value, and become true strategic partners and confident business leaders. We simply have to rewrite the rules and then shout them from the rooftops. The new Executive Assistant is rewriting the history books.

Now, I’m not about to go burn my blazer over this article because I think Feintzeig was trying to a shine a light on something worth talking about, but it does give me pause and make me ask these questions, “Why does the world think that the Executive Assistant role is vanishing? What could we be doing as professionals to create more visibility for this career and elevate its standing in the business world?” The answer will come from me, and you, and all of our fellow Force Multipliers. But first, we have to be the change.

Increasing the Visibility of the Executive Assistant

Earlier this week, I was listening to Work It Out by Mel Robbins and as she coached a woman through a career change, the issue of visibility came up again and again. It occurred to me as she was talking, that the role of the Executive Assistant (really any Force Multiplier) is one of the most invisible roles in an organization. It’s done that way by design, though, isn’t it?

Force Multipliers prefer to be behind the scenes, handling the details, making things happen, supporting various leadership team members with whatever is necessary to make them look great. It’s what we do. Now, there isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with being someone who works behind the scenes. I know, and you know, that we are the “men and women behind the curtain,“ but can’t we also be “the men and women in the arena”? We must enter the arena if we want to change the perception of the importance of our careers.

So how do Executive Assistants become more visible without totally disrupting an essential part of their role? By being visible to the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Here’s how to increase your visibility:

  • Stop taking notes in meetings. Shocking, I know. But listen to me for a second. If you’re in a meeting transcribing everything that is being said, then you’re not really “in” the meeting. As you’re trying to capture what is being said, you miss the subtleties of the conversation, you miss the spaces where things aren’t being said, you miss the opportunity to share an idea or bring an issue to light that no one is bringing up. Sure, jot down a few action items, but stop transcribing. Use your technology for that. You can record the entire meeting on Zoom, Apple Dictation, or any other voice dictation or meeting recording software. If you need to go back and listen, you can. Instead, sit at the table (my preferred spot is either to the right of my Principal, who always sits at the head of the table, or right in the middle of the group so I can communicate with and help facilitate conversations with team members on all sides). Then listen. Contribute. Make notes of any action items. And then follow-up. Visibility raised in 30 minutes or less.
  • Communicate your work to your boss. How often are you sharing what you are working on? Sharing your work with your Principal is critical. They are moving fast and if they are anything like Adam, they like to download what’s in their head to you because they know you will pick up the pieces, organize them, discard the ones that don’t matter, and file away others for another time. Nonetheless, that is a lot of information and projects and requests coming your way each day. When your Exec adds more to your plate, are you letting him/her know that it’s already full? Are you having a conversation about what to take off, what can wait, and what is still a strategic priority? They aren’t doing it on purpose! They need to clear their mind in order to tackle other company challenges. But it doesn’t hurt to remind them each time of what else you’ve got going on.
  • Do the same with colleagues. After meetings (where you didn’t take notes!), send a follow-up of the action items. And then take it a step further. Instead of just dictating what needs to be done and by who and when, put your own information in there. Add suggestions of who people can talk to solve their challenge, add research that you may have already done, and then note the 3 things you’re working on behind the scenes to help the Principal and the organization succeed. Better yet, put what you have done, not what you are going to do. Results set the tone about your standards of excellence and effectiveness and will encourage your colleagues to step up and do the same. That’s influential leadership at it’s finest and your visibility will be instantly raised again and regularly as requests are made.
  • Implement the 5 Daily Accountability Questions. This daily email check-in is a direct link to your Exec to showcase what you’re working on, any challenges you might be experiencing, your thought process and resourcefulness in solving those problems, as well as highlighting where you want to grow next in your career. Click here for a full explanation on how and why to use the daily accountability questions for you and your Executive, as well as other team members. This daily check-in is a great way to increase your visibility with your Principal.

There are multiple ways to raise your visibility at the office, the important point here is that you do it. You must showcase your contributions, results and value. No one else is going to do it for you. No vanishing EAs here, only visibility and value!

Ready to get started? How will you raise your visibility at work?

Note: If you don’t have a subscription to WSJ, check out this article by Joan Burge, Founder of Office Dynamics for a thorough recap and rebuttal to Feintzeig’s “The Vanishing Executive Assistant.”

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