The most important person in the office is often not the CEO at the top of the organizational chart — it’s their executive assistant.
An executive assistant is not just answering emails and taking phone calls. EAs can also be strategic sounding boards for their boss’s ideas, and they use their administrative know-how to execute their boss’s vision.
“You wield a lot of power, knowingly or unknowingly. I will seldom use my executive’s name in communication,” said Maggie Jacobs, director of administration at 6sense and author of “The Elevated EA: Find Your Voice and Own Your Future as an Executive Assistant.” “If I use their name, people feel like they have to jump immediately.”
But too often, they are also the unsung heroes of the office.
“Even though we’re in 2022, it’s very common to hear old-school executives or VPs saying, ‘Oh, their job is just to get coffee and make copies,’” said Jeremy Burrows, executive assistant to the CEO of Capacity and author of “The Leader Assistant: Four Pillars of a Confident, Game-Changing Assistant.”
But as Burrows puts it, “an assistant is actually a chaos tamer, a culture creator, a pulse taker. Assistants are inefficiency disruptors, strategic partners, fearless negotiators, game changers, relationship builders, time benders, operations experts.”
That’s why HuffPost asked several executive assistants to clear up misunderstandings about what they do, what it’s like to be one and how they should be considered. Here’s what executive assistants want you to know:
1. It’s not a stepping stone. It can be a fulfilling, well-paid career on its own.
Although some people may see being an executive assistant as a step toward being a future chief of staff or other role, it can be a rewarding career all its own if someone wants it to be.
Jacobs said she initially saw her EA job as a stepping stone, but once she started in the role, she realized that with training and investment in herself — either her own investment or the company’s — it was a future she “could absolutely choose to create.”
That’s why Jacobs sees her profession as one with infinite possibilities. “You can actually choose to do anything that you want in the role. It may not be at your current company… but there are other companies and executives who buy into that vision.”
“I make $150,000 a year, and that’s my base. That’s not including my bonus. We are well-compensated when you are a career EA.”
– D.D., an executive assistant in financial services
And executive assistants can be well-compensated, depending on which industry they are in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top-paying industries for EAs are in computer manufacturing, water transportation, data processing and banking, where EAs can earn an average annual salary of $84,230 to $95,350.
“There’s a misconception that we don’t make money. That’s completely wrong. I don’t know anybody in my circle that does not make six figures. The ceiling keeps getting higher,” said D.D., a Latina executive assistant working in financial services who asked to be identified by her initials because she wasn’t allowed to speak on the record. “I make $150,000 a year, and that’s my base. That’s not including my bonus. We are well-compensated when you are a career EA.”
2. There are limits to what people should ask an EA to do. Wild, ridiculous requests are proof that not all people understand this.
Executive assistants see it all, and they all have wild stories about the requests they’ve gotten from their executives. Often there’s a confusing belief that an executive assistant is automatically a personal assistant.
“Even though it requires a service heart, you are not a servant,” D.D. said. “That, in a nutshell, is the biggest misconception.”
Jacobs said that in a previous EA job, she was asked to boil chicken and rice for her sick executive’s dog. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is actually happening.’”
Sometimes even business-related requests can be outrageous. D.D. has been asked to fly with a laptop containing sensitive knowledge in order to deliver it in person. “I’d get on a plane to go drop it off to him, and then get back on a plane the next morning, on the first plane back, to make it back to the office,” she said. “I don’t think that’s completely uncommon for other assistants. We just don’t talk about it.“
Burrows realized he was going above and beyond when he was asked to clean out the roof gutters at his boss’s lake house during a previous job. “I’m on the roof. Pretty high roof, too, by the way, not a flat, low roof, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Something’s not right here.’”
It can be a struggle to deal with the conflict that arises when the desire to make an executive’s life easier meets a request that’s outside of the job duties.
“I really thought that, ‘Of course it’s a waste of my executive’s time to clean the gutters,’” he said. “But I was also like, just because it was alright for him to not have to deal with that, as far as prioritizing his time, it didn’t make it right for me to be doing it personally.”
3. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get on the calendar.
Sometimes people see their failure to secure a meeting with an executive as proof that the executive assistant is personally out to get them, said Lindsay Robinson, an executive assistant at LinkedIn.
But behind the scenes, Robinson said, “I agonize over how to find time when there isn’t any. If they knew how many meetings I looked at to possibly, potentially move, and it just didn’t work out.”
“Act with a little grace when you’re asking for something, because it’s not just you,” she advised. “You’re thinking about what you have to do. I’m thinking about you and the other 30 people that have emailed me before eight o’ clock.”
4. It’s not cool if you only talk to an EA to get intel about leadership. It’s rude, and they can tell you’re doing it.
Since executive assistants often have access to a leader behind closed doors, some colleagues try to exploit that relationship for their own ends.
Burrows said that in a prior job as an EA at a different company, these kind of conversations happened all the time. He shared a typical scenario of how chats would go when he ran into co-workers outside the office:
“Oh, hey, how is it going? How is your boss doing?”
“He’s good, it’s busy, but he’s hanging in there.”
“OK, good, good. [Awkward pause.] Well, let him know I’m thinking about him. Tell him if he ever needs anything, give me a call. Tell him we should grab coffee soon.”
On the surface, these interactions may seem fine, but if they happen over and over, it becomes dehumanizing to an executive assistant, Burrows said.
“Even if he is the biggest asshole in the world, there is only a limited amount that you can share.”
“It caused me to shut down emotionally and basically say, ‘OK, I’m just not going to be friends with my colleagues because they don’t care about me, they just care about, “Oh, what’s the latest scoop about what’s going on with the CEO?”’”
To be better colleagues, Burrows said, co-workers should trust that assistants will communicate crucial information to them if necessary and that if an EA cannot share, it doesn’t mean bad news like a layoff is coming.
“You don’t have to go fishing for information,” he said.
5. It can be isolating and lonely. Genuine thanks go a long way.
The knowledge that executive assistants have on the C-suite is a double-edged sword: They get access to conversations no one else in the company may be hearing, but they don’t have co-workers they can confide in, either.
“There’s only so much that you can share with your colleagues because your boss’s reputation is also your reputation,” D.D. said. “Even if he is the biggest asshole in the world, there is only a limited amount that you can share because either you’re the doormat working for him or you’re the idiot who is working for the asshole.”
Being an EA often means being overlooked. That’s why Robinson advises colleagues to make sure that EAs are getting the same benefits and kudos that other team members get, like vacations and birthday celebrations.
“We need all the other things that we help give other people,” she said, adding later that, “A thank you goes a long way.“
Consider the language that you use to compliment EAs when you are giving them their flowers, too. Robinson said during her career she has heard her role described in inhuman, otherworldly terms, like “robot,” “ninja” or “magician,” which she finds off-putting.
“That’s the other thing I hear, ‘You’re a robot.’ It’s like, ‘I’m a human being with feelings and needs.’”