Managing

The power behind the throne: Why Australia’s executive assistants are getting more valuable, and harder to keep

Myriam Robin /

Executive assistants are the best-kept secret of effective business leaders.

They act as gatekeepers and problem-solvers. They greet the guests and field the complaints. Usually, they work the same long hours as the CEO.

And increasingly, if they’re unappreciated or overworked, they’re jumping ship.

Sarah Riley is the director of Page Personnel, a subsidiary of recruitment firm PageGroup that deals entirely with office support staff.

She says she’s been getting more and more business from SMEs, who land in big trouble when they lose an office manager, executive or personal assistant.

“If a corporate loses an executive assistant, others can often absorb that workload,” she tells SmartCompany. “But if a small business loses someone they rely on like that, they’re in much bigger trouble.

“It’s been an exceptionally busy year for us in the SME market.”

Page Personnel has released a survey of employers, which found 56% expect to see some turnover in their office support function over the next 12 months. The top reasons businesses expected their EAs to jump ship was for a better work-life balance, and to broaden their professional experience.

If it pans out, such a high rate of turnover would be disastrous for many small businesses. As functions like typing and diary management have become simpler thanks to advances in technology, the role of executive and personal assistants has changed dramatically, becoming more strategic than it ever was before.

Louise Zambello, an executive assistant at corporate governance consultancy Thoughtpost Governance, says the role requires good people skills as well as the ability to think ‘outside the box’.

“Say your manager comes to you and says, ‘I need you to do this’. It’s no use asking ‘how’. You need to come up with solutions,” she tells SmartCompany. “When problems arise, you need to work them out.

“A pure EA role can lead to managing people and running an office. With me, in my current role, I manage staff, but I also do a lot of project management.

“We’re becoming the right-hand person – the one to go to.”

It wasn’t always like this, Zambello says. She’s worked in office support and executive assistant roles almost continually since the 1970s, and says the role is unrecognisable from when she started.

“When I started, you were a kind of servant, or a maid,” she says. “I took a break from the workforce to have my children, and when I returned, I noticed a huge shift. We were being given so many more responsibilities, and we were so valuable.

“A good PA can help with an executive’s personal branding and with that manager’s career. They’re the power behind the throne in many ways, and if you have the wrong person, they can really destabilise you.”

This article continues on page 2.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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