Is it time for an executive assistant?
The world has changed considerably since the early 60s – for starters, both males and females are in these positions – but the executive assistant has become even more important because executives are now under more pressure.
Technology like email and smartphones allow managers to operate more self-sufficiently, and companies are being forced to cut costs so many executive assistants lost their jobs during the downturn. That is unfortunate because a good EA knows how to lift productivity in an organisation.
The EA is no longer just a secretary. The EA needs skills that are more than just a simple "admin" nature. The EA has to manage the schedule and needs of managers and make them look good. The EA needs to know all the workings of the business in ways that few there would understand. The EA also needs to be there when needed, either when the manager is struggling with a technology meltdown or trying to process all the minutes from the last few board meetings before a 3pm meeting. Furthermore, the EA has to do all this without going off and talking about it to the rest of staff. An EA is the manager's eyes and ears and has to be trusted.
Indeed, there are moments when the EA might be even more important than the chief executive officer. Susan Heron, chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management, puts it bluntly.
"In a disaster recovery situation, it's always amused me they have a sheet of people to call into the office. The CEO will be on the top.'' Heron says.
"Most of the time, the CEO wouldn't have a clue how to turn the lights on nor turn the photocopier. Who should they be on the top? I would say the EA should be on the top because they understand the functioning of the business and how it works."
Heron has two EAs, one works three days a week and the other does two. It works perfectly for her.
"They keep me out of trouble, they keep me on the straight and narrow,'' Heron says.
Her EAs are her liaison point with the board and have the job of putting all the board papers together. They organise her schedules and write presentations and speeches for her. That means they need to know exactly where she is coming from and get her voice right. They also need to provide background details she requires for meetings. They are the gatekeepers for anyone wanting to contact her. And they work closely with the executive management team. If any other manager needs help, they will step in. If the receptionist is sick, they will take over that role.
"I have people who have a good grasp of the business. They understand how the business works and they understand who's who in the business,'' she says. "What's important is that they understand how I work and they are smart enough to manage me and be flexible enough to ensure that I get optimum delivery given the way I work."
Heron wouldn't even bother asking an EA candidate whether they have short hand. It simply isn't relevant.
What's the financial return on a good EA?
Recruiters say a top executive assistant in this market will earn $100,000. Are they worth it?
Paul Lyons, managing director of recruitment firm Ambition says the return on investment from a good executive assistant can be substantial.
"I probably get somewhere between 120 to 150 emails a day, internal and external,'' Lyons says. "I try and cover those off within 24 hours. A lot of the time, it's before work and after work. I also have four or five meetings, external and internal a day, and at the moment, I arrange those myself."
"If you try to get hold of somebody, you can't do it the first time so you have to try and get them the second, third or fourth time. So you have emails back and forth. That in itself probably takes up one to two hours a day, probably more."
"I am thinking if I can be two hours more productive every day, then that is going to more than pay for an EA."
So a CEO on close to $1 million a year might have an EA earning about one-tenth of that. But in a 60 working week, the EA will save the executive 10 hours a week (based on two hours a day), a near 17% increase in productivity. That makes a $100,000 position a good investment.
"Those are the sorts of calculations you have to go through. Is it one plus one equals three or is it one plus one equals 1.8? '' Lyons says. "Is it a must have or nice to have?"
He says the person who needs the EA will be the one who is most visible in the organisation. That is usually the CEO but it can be other C-level managers with a high number of direct reports who have to be managed either face-to-face or via email.
"You are going to get bogged down in a lot of communication and an EA can help you cut through all of that and focus on the things you need to do,'' Lyons says.
One of the big trends now, with the focus on costs, is for companies to share executive assistants across several managers. Lyons says they need to put some thought into this.
"You would need two managers who see eye to eye and are relatively close in terms of either proximity or certainly in terms of their style,'' he says. "I suppose you could have someone who is an EA for somebody in Sydney and in Melbourne but it is helpful if the two executives are in close proximity and style."
Barbara Sattler, a recruitment consultant with Staffing.com, a company that recruits and places secretaries, says most businesses could not function without a good EA. She should know, she was one herself working for an insolvency firm.
She says that that during the downturn, many smaller businesses made the mistake of getting rid of their executive assistants to reduce headcount and costs. That got them into trouble.
"You'll find little tiny ones would take all the responsibility from the EA and give it to the receptionist and then find that the receptionist quit under the load so they weren't better off,'' Sattler says.
"Without an EA, you wouldn't have a company. A lot of the time, they are as important as your front receptionist is. They are the backbone of your business. You will find that the directors, CEOs and finance managers are all off doing their thing knowing that the receptionist is looking after the people that hit the front of the house and the EA is looking after everything else that's going on inside the business."
When do you know you need an EA? How do you know you need one?
"When you are so busy that those little things that get taken for granted by some partners who have EAs are not happening,'' Sattler says. "So it's where he rocks up late, where he goes to get a business card out of his pocket and there isn't one there, when he walks out the door and his tie is skew-whiff because he has just been busy and somebody didn't say your collar is turned up."
"When everything that needs to happen actually happens, you'll find that the EA did it. Whether it's making his travel bookings, whether it's making his conference bookings, whether it's confirming he will show up at XYZ, whether he will have enough business cards in his jacket pocket when he leaves, all of those things that make a partner look great."
A good executive assistant needs certain skills, she says.
"You definitely become their go to person and you have to think one step ahead,'' she says.
"They have to be somebody that actually enjoys the job they're doing, has the skills set to do it and has the actual passion for that particular task. They are going to have to bring a lot of knowledge for organising travel, they will have a good ability to sit down and produce minutes. They will also have a good knowledge for actually producing documents that can be presented. And they have to have the ability to know that when everybody else has gone home, they may still be around to get something done that may make the company and the partner they are working for look brilliant."
The good EA also has to be a whiz with technology. When there is a computer meltdown, they will be the first person the boss will call in. If they can't fix it, they will know someone who can.
"You have to be able to use binding machines, you have to be able unblock photo copiers, you have to be able to reinstall printer cartridges, you have to be able to contact telephone companies when the telephone goes down,'' she says.
"I was a trouble shooter for Word and Excel for many years. You need to always be one step ahead."
One of the challenges for executive assistants is that there are many managers who feel they don't need one, or who feel they can do a better job than the EA.
Heron says that is a management issue that needs to be sorted out.
"In that situation, the manager of that manager needs to have a good conversation about roles and responsibilities and efficiencies and the EA needs to be in a position to have that conversation. That comes down to people's management skills," she says.
She says cutting back on executive assistants is false economy. "You think you are doing a good job because you got rid of the head count. But have you done the hard work to think what the real cost to the organisation is? I suggest most people don't."