Working with CEOs from Australia’s top companies, I know precisely what they’re looking for in a business partner executive assistant. CEOs consider their executive assistants as a reflection of themselves, so they expect their EA to have the same high standards of work ethics, professionalism and people skills. After speaking with hundreds of CEOs and other c-suite executives, I’ve identified several common themes in their expectations for the qualities, skills and personality fit of their executive assistants.
But first, what is a high-level executive assistant?
People often ask me what I mean when I talk about high-performing EAs or business partner EAs. Essentially, it’s a combination of:
handling the flow of information and day-to-day office operations in a way that sets up the CEO to succeed
actively supporting the CEO in the delivery of their KPIs
helping the CEO in the decision making process
acting as both a gatekeeper and a gateway for the CEO by facilitating the connection with stakeholders while also creating space for CEO to focus on the broader, long-term company vision
keeping others to account and supporting delegation from the CEO
integrating other teams and projects into the CEO function, connecting work streams and facilitating broader company cohesion
identifying potential problems early, so that action can be taken promptly
What Australian CEOs are looking for
Being extremely busy, CEOs need proactive EAs. They want a self-starter who can see what needs to be done, and make it happen. CEOs don’t have time to provide excessive guidance and instructions. That’s why experienced executive assistants are so important, because at this top level of company leadership, the CEO doesn’t have the time to onboard and hand-hold the EA. They need someone to hit the ground running. On a longer term basis, they need EAs who aren’t content to sit with the status quo, or do things a certain way just because that’s the tradition. A high-level EA will continually seek improvement, identifying new ways to get things done that will improve productivity, culture, relationships or sales.
Often, CEOs seek an EA to possess the skills they lack. For example, an introverted CEO will look to their EA to be more extroverted, social and outgoing. In this scenario, the CEO will rely on the EA to act on their behalf, particularly in regards to stakeholder relationships, office culture and other people-related matters.
Another instance may be a CEO who’s easily distracted will want an EA to hold them to account. Perhaps the CEO simply wants an EA to focus on the minutiae of projects, empowering them to concentrate on the bigger picture. Whatever the dynamic, many CEOs seek EAs who naturally bring particular qualities they somewhat lack or perhaps don't come naturally. When this gels together, the CEO and EA become a highly cohesive team, each feeding on the other’s strengths and bringing their own particular skills to the working relationship.
People skills and intuition
A high-level executive assistant will read the room on behalf of their CEO. For example, when a CEO is presenting to the board or at a team or stakeholder briefing, the executive assistant should be monitoring the responses, reading body language and non-verbal cues. They can then note anything of interest or concern with their CEO. A top EA will make sure to know the ‘lay of the land’ with key stakeholders — clients, staff, government, partners etc, feeding knowledge and insight back to the CEO when necessary. As for people skills, establishing genuine connections with stakeholders on behalf of the CEO will always be appreciated. Particularly with staff, the executive assistant can create the feeling of openness, accessibility and responsiveness so that the team feel they have the support and guidance from the CEO, fostering a productive and harmonious workplace culture.
Acting on behalf of the CEO
Being the visible face of the organisation means that the CEO is often called in dozens of different directions. Having an EA take on a portion of that pressure is vital. Sending an EA to act on behalf of the CEO allows important projects to keep moving. The EA needs to be empowered to facilitate action and make decisions on behalf of the CEO, which comes from having a solid understanding of the CEOs focus, goals and priorities. Taking primary ownership of particular CEO responsibilities or projects allows the CEO to focus on other areas of focus while still maintaining momentum.
Often it’s the EA who can identify potential issues before they flare into larger-scale problems. A savvy EA will flag any concerns with the CEO at the early stage, allowing them to make final decisions on how to proceed. Having a bigger picture focus is vital here. A valuable EA will know when to play devil's advocate. For example, they could anticipate how stakeholders might react to a strongly-worded email, or a potentially confusing directive, thus ensuring potential problems are mitigated and avoided.
As for solving problems, CEOs don’t want an EA who comes to them with a list of issues and no ideas on solutions. Rather, a CEO would prefer the EA to consider potential strategies for responding and invite the CEO to make the final call. Furthermore, EAs should be able to take action themselves on more minor issues, saving the CEO the headspace of worrying about inconsequential matters.
A can-do attitude
At the end of the day, the CEO wants to be able to hand tasks to the EA and trust that will happen. Too many executive assistants have failed to secure roles because they announced that they won’t work on PowerPoint, or refuse to learn important technology. As much as EA's preferences are respected in the working relationship, ultimately, it’s the CEO’s call. Being easy to work with is vital. As much as the relationship is collaborative, there is a clear demarcation of authority, which the high-level executive assistant understands and respects. The savvy executive assistant will know when to push back, and it won’t be for their own interests or personal preference, but for the greater interests of the organisation.
Are you a high-level executive assistant looking for your next role?
We have several employers seeking experienced executive assistants, so contact Anastasia for an obligation-free discussion on 0421 16 55 96. We can discuss your career goals and get a clearer picture on the right kind of executive assistant position for you.
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