The executive assistant: a special cog in the company wheel

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It takes a special person to be the executive assistant of a senior manager or director at a large or small company. It is a complex job that leaves no room for mistakes.

An executive assistant is the highest level of secretary and will also be honoured this month as we celebrate Secretaries’ Day. The name secretary comes from the Latin word, secretum, that was used to describe someone who worked at the royal court and was a trusted confidante who could be relied on to keep a secret. The role of an executive assistant is exactly the same today: someone who can be trusted and respects the confidentiality of the office.

Traditionally, this important position has been the domain of women, especially since the Second World War when women had to step up and take care of the administration since the men were away at war. Today the pendulum is swinging with more men entering the profession again.

However, whether the executive assistant is a woman or a man, they all need the same attributes to be successful. Certainly the two main attributes are emotional intelligence and attention to detail. Executive assistants deal with many people from all levels internally and externally daily. Therefore they must have emotional intelligence and the skills to read emotional queues and body language to handle interactions in a non-offensive manner.

Executive assistants have a rare perspective on the company that few others share. This is why trust is paramount and why they can act as a sounding board for executives to give them pointers or something to note for the next board meeting.

Attention to detail is part of the requirement for executive assistants to see the big picture and gather the foundational knowledge needed to provide valuable insights for executives. Executive assistants need to know what the challenges are in the workplace, what should be changed, who the biggest competitors are and who the team players are. An executive assistant can never not know something about the company and its people and at times are the chief information officer as well.

This attribute goes hand-in-hand with resourcefulness, to get the job done, no matter what it takes. Negotiation skills are important to get things done. Another attribute that matches resourcefulness is to keep calm under pressure. The executive assistant only gets pressure from the top and has to assimilate it and get results when it is passed on. The buck stops with the executive assistant.

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