Executive assistants crucial to bosses’ success

Essential assistance


By Meera Vijayan

Personal assistants from the 1960s may be easily forgiven if they struggle to recognise their modern-day counterparts.

Recruitment expert Julie Sattler believes the job has evolved past merely a more polished job title. Executive assistants today play an active role in organising almost every aspect of life for their manager.

“The role has come a long way from the shorthand, coffee-making, appointment maker of the 1960s and `70s. The reality is that many bosses would be lost without their executive assistant,” she says.

Sattler says executive assistants are now often expected to have both managerial skills and a much greater involvement in what their boss does. “The role is a balancing act: knowing how and when to deal with issues as well as when to give people access to the boss.”

She also notes that many leaders today prefer their executive assistants well qualified and that it is becoming increasingly common for them to hire graduates with experience for the role.

“They are smart, streetwise and often up-to-date with social networking and IT in general,” she says.

Sattler notes that many executive assistants are also now tasked with a wide range of duties, including extensive liaison at all levels; from organising meetings to detailed diary management, travel arrangement, business and personal event organisation.

Some of the more unusual requests have also included organising funerals, planning family weddings or even arranging big family reunions for their executive.

Sattler says the changes in technology also mean that executive assistants are no longer desk-bound, but are able to operate from anywhere with the latest gadgets keeping them constantly connected.

A supreme example is Pauline Lister, executive assistant to Cancer Council Victoria director David Hill.

Besides screening email and calls and requests for personal meetings, Lister’s key responsibilities include ensuring Hill is adequately briefed for every meeting he attends and has had the chance to read his material.

As her boss travels overseas extensively throughout the year, Lister is also often required to work odd hours, depending on the time zone her executive is operating in at any given time.

She also has to be constantly flexible and ready to reassess her priorities as changes appear in her employer’s schedule.

“He is expected to hit the ground running and my role is to see that he is able to do that,” she says.

This means she is often required to perform her tasks away from the office, operating with her phone and laptop.

“If he is travelling, I can work from home. Technology is brilliant that way,” she says.

She, however, adds that given her irregular hours, her organisation is also quick to support her when she needs to take time off to pursue her needs, including her educational pursuits.

Lister says it is essential for the executive and the assistant to have a harmonious rapport based on mutual trust and respect, given the close working relationship that comes with the job.

“He is so easy to get along with and that has made my job so much easier. I know I can count on that whenever I need it,” she says of Hill.

The joys of having an executive assistant is an experience Major General Elizabeth Cosson, the head of Defence Support Operations in the Department of Defence, was first introduced to five years ago when she was appointed to a brigadier post.

“Now I will never do without one,” she quips of the work performed by her executive assistant Michele Grimmond.

Cosson says that her own role is quite complex, managing a workforce of about 4000 people working across 88 sites in Australia, providing domestic services to military personnel who are at home, on training or preparing to deploy on overseas assignments.

“When we’ve got 90,000-odd customers that we’re trying to support, I’m often dealing with a lot of competing priorities.

“My executive assistant has been such a blessing to me as she understands the importance and nature of our business and she can assist me with those priorities without my guidance,” she says.

Cosson says that some of her executive assistant’s key responsibilities include helping her manage her time, juggling her professional and personal needs.

Calendar meetings are scheduled at least a month in advance to review upcoming events and ensure Cosson has adequate time to prepare for those events.

Grimmond also often functions as the first point of contact for people seeking appointments with Cosson and is able to establish where the priorities are, including arranging for alternative people to step in if her employer has a tight schedule.

Cosson also says that another key responsibility her executive assistant handles is providing support for her staff in her absence.

Her other staff are aware they can turn to Michele when she is unavailable or need a message passed urgently to her.

“I always know if it is Michele contacting me, then it is priority,” she says.

She is also quick to admit that her executive assistant’s responsibilities have become more complex over the years, in tandem with the obvious increase in what Cosson refers to as “operational tempo” — the measure of how busy the defence organisation is at any given time.

“With our forces deployed out in Afghanistan, you want to make sure you’re getting things right. “I also believe all leaders need somebody that can help and be there to listen. Sometimes it can be lonely when you are leading,” she says.

As much as she relies on her executive assistant, Cosson believes that as an employer, she also has the responsibility to ensure that her executive assistant has the work-life balance she needs. There is also mutual trust and respect between them, especially when one of them may be having a particularly bad day.

“We are all human and it is about working with each other to make sure we’re still delivering a good quality outcome that is expected of us,” she says.

Must-have attributes

  • Executive assistants are usually assigned to an upper-level manager.
  • Formal qualifications are not always required for this role but managers at times insist on some knowledge of the industry in which they work.
  • Employers look for experience with computers, customer service and time management.
  • Duties usually include typing letters, arranging meetings and conference calls, screening and attending to visitors, scheduling appointments and a moderate level of research and report writing.
  • At times an executive assistant’s function includes representing the manager at meetings.
  • The job invariably involves a high level of tact, independence, people skills and ability to maintain confidence.
  • Since an executive assistant often acts on behalf of a high-level senior manager or a director in a company, critical thinking, quick decision-making and some degree of leadership qualities are considered highly desirable.
  • Among the business-related functions, an ability to work with spreadsheets and word processing software are normally required.
  • Those trained in aspects of business administration will find a natural fit.

Article from The Australian, February 2011.


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