Help me be an amazing executive assistant!
August 19, 2010 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Can you give me advice, tips, useful skills, and important details on becoming a fantastic executive assistant? Please feel free to be as general or specific as you would like. Lots of details and

Background info about me and the company, apologies for the length:

I was hired at this company through a temp agency as a receptionist about two months ago. I heard the CEO and CFO were looking for an executive assistant (they did not have one at the time) and submitted my resume for consideration. They are going to move me into that position although they have not officially offered me the job, because my temp contract is for 5 more weeks, and there would be a financial penalty. I believe the will also be using the next five weeks as a trial period to see how I do in the new position.

I do not have experience in this type of position, and have not spent a lot of time in offices in general. However, I have a college degree, am proficient with computers, and am adapting quickly to corporate culture. Prior to this I was primarily a bartender.

The job description is a little vague. And there is not really anyone to "mentor" me, as the two executives are very busy. HR has expressed some concern about me being in over my head. And I do not want to be bugging them with lots of little questions. I want to be helpful, and make their jobs run smoother.

They are also interested in training me with the accounting department, so that I can offer suport there.

I will also be doing a LOT of filing. If there are websites, books or articles you can recommend on organizing an office that would be really helpful. I have a habit of relying too much on my memory and not enough on systems.

The company is 130 people, and we are in manufacturing (a field I have zero experience in). I tried to include the details that may be important. I appreciate any and all insight and advice. Thank you!!
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration to Work & Money (23 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Make sure you have a clear understanding of what they want you to do, and the systems in place to help you do it - will you be booking travel, managing schedules, writing correspondence, acting as a gatekeeper? Even if they don't have assistants now, they probably have processes they use and are comfortable with.Follow those for now, even if they seem horribly inefficient. You can start improving things for them once you're stably uncorporated into their daily routines.

tons of little industry-specific things will come up. find people other than your bosses that you can ask for background or context - perhaps other people in analogous positions?

establish some kind of check in system, whether its an email at the end of the day detailing schedules and status on ongoing projects, or a five minute check in at a set time, or whatever. At the beginning at least, you want them to feel secure in knowing that the things they need are getting done.

and draw clear boundaries. if your job doesn't include picking up dry cleaning, don't do it without making it clear that it's a one-time favor. this kind of duty creep is super seductive to the newly assisted - and that way lies madness for you.

be reasonably available. it sucks, but being a really good support source means always being there to figure out a travel fubar or forgotten document. work out what their expectations are in this regard - will they be able to reach you during lunch? off regular hours if they're traveling over a weekend? and the stick to it. never forget your phone, make sure its charged, answer emails promptly.

good luck! being a good executive assisstant requires a certain amount of grace and patience - but it can be really rewarding too. just make sure you understand their expectations fully, and that they understand your boundaries.
posted by peachfuzz at 4:16 PM on August 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

Wow. Read what peachfuzz said, then read it again.

My contract allows me a personal assistant, but I've never really needed or wanted one. (It would make my life easier, but I prefer to use our finite resources to better effect.)

If I did have a PA, I'd want [read peachfuzz's post a third time].
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:35 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: There is so much I could write a little book and so should you. Get a little book and keep a log. Every time you get an assignment write it down, date it, keep notes, report progress, follow up. You order something, write it down, you call a person to set a meeting, write it down. Names, numbers, dates, write it down. (a month from now you might save the day by saving I called x and asked for that widget on date y; I spoke to Mr. Z and called him back last Tuesday.

Get hold of a company directory and organizational chart and memorize both of them learning names from the top down. Get the layout of the building(s) firmly in mind. Read the annual reports and all the product promotional information. Make friends with everyone in the place who can help or hurt you with information.

Focus on learning to "read" your bosses. What kind of pace do they like. What do they need from you. What is their response time like. What is their behavior under stress. What stress can you help them avoid.

Do not play office politics under any circumstances. Do not talk about people. Smile and listen; listen and smile. Be on time. Keep a tidy office. Say nice things to people and keep moving. You will be incredibly popular and learn a lot by putting a candy jar on your desk. Especially if your budget runs to Hershey's kisses. (People like this and will pitch in to keep it filled.)

Finance people are super important and you need them on your side. HR works for the company, not the employees, but they have to follow the rules so you can ask them about personnel policies and benefits and how to handle things. Get an employee handbook and learn the rules and procedures. Remember that every computer, every office, every desk and file drawer belongs to the company, you have no private space. Do not have anything in your office, ever, that would not bear inspection.

Especially in manufacturing, your position is not income producing, it is pure expense to the company, so you have to make up for being dead expense by being uncommonly smart and efficient. People skills, discretion and a good memory are actually very high on the list of must have qualifications.
posted by Anitanola at 5:11 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: Life pre-baby I was an executive assistant and echo what peachfuzz and Anitanola said. The single most important, productive thing I did each day was to record what tasks I worked on (both completed and ongoing), what needed the executive's attention/permission, upcoming events/dates that the executive needed to be aware of and anything that needed follow up. I split this into different sections in a Word document. Each morning I would open the document, date it and then made deletions and additions accordingly. I saved this at the end of the day and thus had a record of everything I ever did at my job when I left it to stay at home. This served to purposes: 1. It allowed me to go back and see if I had indeed completed a task when questioned by the PTB and 2. It makes updating a resume that much easier. My boss and I would go over this daily, either in person or via phone or email. This made my job so much easier in that it kept him from micromanaging me and also helped me to stay on task and not lose track of the 10,000 details required as an exec assistant. Some may think that keeping a list like this and having the boss go over it sounds demeaning, but it was the best thing I could do to have freedom and accountability (for both myself and the boss) in my day to day job. Good luck!
posted by hazel bites at 5:20 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: I was called an executive assistant for a few months, and it was totally nutty. I also got the job through a temp agency. I do not think my job was the typical executive assistant job - it veered into way more personal than I expected - but unless they really lay out a specific job description, what I learned is you never really know what they're going to ask from you.

RE: personal organization: I would have forgotten all sorts of things if I hadn't started using the Outlook calendar to remind me of everything I needed to do. My boss would tell me to do such-and-such at this time on this date, and I would promptly enter it into my Outlook calendar, so that when the time arrived it would pop up on my computer screen. Do not count on your brain to remember these things for you. And whenever your boss calls you about something or invites you into their office, bring a notebook and write down whatever they tell you to do. They might rattle off a ton of things at once. I personally enjoy a steno pad for this purpose - something not too big and with a sturdy cardboard cover.

Another learning curve may be corporate office email etiquette. Pay close attention to how other people type, the sort of language they use and how they word things. And how to speak over the phone to other corporate people. I had a really rough time getting that executive assistant voice down. I don't think I ever really got it.
posted by wondermouse at 5:36 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: This: "what needed the executive's attention/permission, upcoming events/dates that the executive needed to be aware of and anything that needed follow up".

I work with a fabulous assistant, and her fifteen minute morning meeting, end of day wrap up, reminders, and calendar management are tremendous.

If you are in a large organization, getting a sense of the hierarchy is key, too - the best assistants I've known treat everyone courteously and professionally, but also have an ear for how and where to schedule a meeting or pull together an agenda with a sense for the overarching organizational dynamics.
posted by mozhet at 5:43 PM on August 19, 2010

You know that random, unknown person who just called and started angrily chewing you out before you could ever tell him who you are or who you work for?

Nine times out of ten it'll be Cranks McCrazy, but it's giving him what-for that one time it turns out to be your boss' boss' boss that can get you in hot water.
posted by griphus at 5:45 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: thankyouforyourconsideration: "I have a habit of relying too much on my memory and not enough on systems."

Wondermouse touched on it but this bears repeating and exploration. You likely need to know Outlook backwards and forwards, though every once in a while something else is The Company Tool. Outlook has a calendar and tasks system you should get comfortable with, because you'll likely be managing three people's schedules. Meetings and events go on the calendar, the rest go into tasks with Due Dates. You can set up recurring tasks and events for routine meetings and tasks. You use the calendar to pull up daily schedules and set early reminders to give you time to prepare for meetings. You can also put important notes into events and tasks, like what the agenda is for the meeting, the number to call for the conference call, and whatnot. It may well be that nobody within the organization really knows this stuff, so avail yourself of Google and Microsoft's help, and perhaps a bookstore.

Some places ask you to take notes at meetings; there's software like One Note that will let you record conversation while taking notes so you can review and improve them after the fact if you have time.

You may also be expected to read your boss's email, in addition to your own, although I'm not sure how that works at the CFO/CEO level given fun things like Sarbanes-Oxley. Outlook can handle multiple keeping inboxes separate though, so hopefully you know how to do this or use effective use of Google (fun fact: I don't).
posted by pwnguin at 6:14 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone so far! We use Outlook so I'll definitely look for a book to get to know it better. I tend to write down what anyone tells me already (I'm trying to get away from relying on my memory) so I'll keep a steno pad with me all the time. I'll be rereading these answers and marking best answers in a day or two. I'd still love to hear more.

Also, I'd love tips for organizing an office, or a standard filing system that works that I can refer to for ideas. Thanks again!
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 6:55 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: Hmmm. Organization. You should maintain an inbox for yourself, an inbox for stuff that needs to go through you before going to your boss, and an inbox for the stuff they want to see first. Depending on what your workplace is like, it may be further worth splitting these up into urgent and non-urgent piles. Make sure you have an efficient and predictable travel path set out for physical things - you should know where any given thing is at any given time, or at least be able to track how and where it went. Trust me, you will get asked at some point. You may even ant to actually record the movements of important things. Keep a giant stash of paper and binder clips and sticky notes of different colors.

Designate a spot for "today" stuff and make a point of making sure it is completely clear by the end of the day.

They will probably already have some kind of filing system in place already. Take some time to sit down with it and understand it. If they really want you to establish a new system you will need to know the content better before you can begin to do that.
posted by peachfuzz at 7:15 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: I was going to chime in to say Notes! Notes! Notes! Take a lot of them. You need to be able to rattle off every known detail of a situation when they ask for an update. You don't look stupid if you say, "Just let me get my notes.", but you DO look stupid when you can't remember a minor detail.

Outlook gives you the ability to see the bosses' information when set up correctly. Note that you can set it up for each component of Outlook, so if they don't want you in their inbox, but their calendar is fair game, that's doable in Outlook.

Also, Outlook has the ability to color-code items (whether the item be an email, task or appointment!) based on categories that YOU define. When working for more than one person, this can be invaluable in keeping their info separate at a glance while still being able to see it all at once.

I always used Tasks to keep track of my assignments, much like the earlier poster used Word. I like tasks better because you can check items off, but still access completed items later. For me it worked better than keeping daily tally sheets in Word, which I sorted by date. It's harder for me to remember WHEN I did something than it is to remember what it was for.

As for filing systems, you'll learn as you go. Personally, on my desk I would keep a "do as soon as possible" slot, a "when I can get to it" slot, a "ready to hand off to someone else" slot, and a "to be filed" slot. You might need to keep two instances of each of these since you're working with two bosses. Time will tell.

I'll also echo the advice to learn as much as you can about the business itself. What do they make? How do they source the materials they need to make the product? Who do they sell to? How do those buyers use or re-sell the items? How do they communicate with their suppliers and their buyers? (For instance, do they use EDI?) How do they make the product (each step of production)? Try and get a "tour" of the manufacturing facility if at all possible. Speak to the supervisor of every area of the company to get an idea of what THEIR mission is. Seriously, set this up like interviews by making an appointment with them and picking their brains. By knowing what the middle management needs, you'll be better able to help your bosses provide it to them. This is not to say that your "loyalty" shouldn't be to your bosses; it should, and you should figure out how to be a good gatekeeper. But understanding the requests coming up the chain will make you better able to do this, and in some cases you may just be able to solve a problem without bothering your bosses about it at all. That is called initiative and "gettin' 'er done" and makes you look really good :)

Best of luck to you!
posted by wwartorff at 7:33 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: I've worked with four executive assistants in the last eight years. All four were great to work with, even if they had different styles and different strengths. Here is what I would be looking for if I was hiring a new EA tomorrow:

1. First and foremost, the EA manages my calendar. I don't even see my calendar invites (Outlook), my EA and her backup are my delegates and get all of my invites and decide what to accept and what not to accept. There is some telepathy involved in being able to decide what to accept/reschedule/reject without checking with me. My current EA will batch up the things she is unsure about and check in once or twice a day for 5 minutes for clarification. She will also make sure I've got travel time between meetings if I have to go somewhere and will try to give me some breathing room so I'm not in meetings back-to-back from 8 to 6.

2. The EA is also my gatekeeper. More telepathy involved here, plus some diplomacy. I want them to be cordial and polite to everyone, but I've only got so many hours in the day, so there is a lot of saying no, or saying, "send an email". Anything my EA isn't sure about, she is adding to that daily "check-in" to get some guidance. Plenty of vendors will flat out lie about their relationship with me, so there is always someone to ask about. Also: my EA has editor rights on my mailbox, so she is sometimes sending emails as me or for me.

3. The EA is a walking to-do list for me. All of the EAs I have had used the same system: a steno pad, per executive (when shared across multiple execs), to keep a list of to-dos in chronological order.

4. Filing -- I don't care what the system is as long as they can find stuff for me when needed. I have no idea how they are filing things, but whatever it is, it seems to work.

5. EA for personal life. I draw a bright line with my EA that I don't want her scheduling or dealing with any of the stuff in my personal life (anniversaries, birthdays, personal travel, etc.); anecdotally, I see many other executives that do have their EAs deal with this stuff. So don't be surprised.

6. Computer skills are expected and the norm. Besides Outlook mastery, I'm expecting that my EA can at least print, edit, and reformat any MS Office document I might deal with (including Visio and Project)

7. While certifications aren't a huge plus for me, it appears that the admins who are operating as EAs all have their CPS (certified professional secretary) or CPA (certified professional admin)

Hope this helps -- good luck!
posted by kovacs at 8:37 PM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: Yay! Thanks for more awesome answers which will soon be marked best answers as well!

peachfuzz (and everyone): The company was recently bought (a year ago) the CFO has been there two months, and they both just moved into a new building. So they'd like me to reorganize/file their new place. I'm going to research this on my own, but I also want to know if there are "normal" systems in place or some sort of guidebook I could use. Throughout life and college I've always kept things way too many things in my head and I'd like to know if there's some sort of reference book for filing systems. Thanks again!
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 8:39 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: Two things I learned as an assistant in Hollywood (YMMV):

1) Be resourceful. Try to figure things out on your own as quickly as possible. "I don't know" or "I don't have it" or "I can't find it" don't exist. "I'll find out and let you know as soon as possible" etc is always a better answer.

2) The worst part of being an assistant is messing up. When I first started I would get really upset about making mistakes. But then I learned that as soon as I recognized I made a mistake that I needed to a) Take responsibility and tell my boss I screwed up b) Fix it immediately if not fixed already and c) Remember not to do it again.

Now, part 2 doesn't need to happen for every little mistake, but for those errors that you know are going to bite you in the ass later, or with clients or co-workers, it's a good policy to fess up before you get ratted out. There were many times people tried to throw me under the bus with a particularly demanding boss, but she always believed me and took my side because she knew that if I screwed up I would tell her immediately. Saved my ass on many occasion and people stopped even trying to mess with me.
posted by buzzkillington at 8:50 PM on August 19, 2010

My friend was an executive assistant, and her boss recommended this book to her. I haven't read the book, but it might be worth checking out.
posted by cider at 8:55 PM on August 19, 2010

Don't overcomplexify the fact that good coffee often runs a company more than masses of paper and reports. Have a cup of class, and remember it might be one of the first things to greet visitors or entertain people while they are waiting.
posted by buzzman at 9:32 PM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: Former EA here. You can't just be reactive to be a good EA. You have to be proactive and constantly follow up with people, guessing what else they may need based on patterns and observations. It also depends heavily on the executives and their personalities.

To be more intentional about what was suggested above re. expectations: I suggest having a conversation with them about their style and how they like to work with assistants. Specifically asking what their previous assistants did right and wrong is helpful to get a sense of what you should focus on.

Here's a few systems I found helpful:

Organization: use folders within the inbox for sorting related events, tasks, and projects. This keeps important emails in an organized easy to find place. Flags are also helpful for filtering through the many many e-mails that you will be getting on a daily basis. Dedicate a folder on your desktop that is easy to access that has templates for agendas, memos, the corporate logo other heavily used forms or items.

The filing system: In our office was organized by document type, and then alphabetical. I.e. external contracts, communication, etc. and then within those sections, alphabetized. Pretty simple. Whatever you do make it easy for others to use and understand, label everything. When I organized our supplies and shipping materials in the copy room I had such an organized system that I thought was obvious- but it wasn't and everyone always came and asked me where things were. Make it easy and when it doubt, label.

Last two tips I can give is that tone is really important. You want to be seen as supportive, don't let the "you're bothering me" vibe creep into your voice when someone asks you to do something ELSE on top of everything at 4:55PM. Also, "attention to detail" is kind of a meaningless phrase because it's used so often, but details are basically your job. I learned I need to pretty much triple check things before I'm done for every part of what I say and do. Really try to go above and beyond at first and then you'll get a sense of what is expected from you on a regular basis. Good luck!
posted by goodnight moon at 12:19 AM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: Don't forget that you will need to have filing systems within Outlook, on paper and on whatever drive or shared drive you use. What sort of system will probably depend on how you work best. I work as a PA to two bosses, so whenever I get emails on a particular issue, I create a subfolder starting with a prefix for each boss (their job title initials on my case) and keep it in a current tasks folder. All emails about that topic or issue go in the folder so I can find all references to it in one click. Once the issue isn't live any more, I move the folder into another bit of my inbox (also divided into which boss).it means I don't have to remember when something happened, and if the issue becomes live again I just pull the folder back to my current tasks section. I also have a folder for each of the key people that might contact my bosses (I work in a political environment) so that I can check quickly when person A last was in touch and what they wanted.

Also - reminders! If you have regular tasks you do every x weeks, set up reminders in your outlook calendar to prompt you to do what you need to, or to remind your boss of what they need to do.

I have a regular slit in their diaries each week to go over current issues (a list I make from checking through my outlook folders) and horizon scan the next 2-3 weeks. I save up non-urgent issues and decisions for this meeting so I'm not always having to bother them with little details. In the early days though, ask questions if you need to. Over time you build up a rapport and can judge what they would do, what they need to know etc, but at the beginning, it's better to ask and then remember for next time than get it wrong.

The easiest way to impress a boss I think is to anticipate. You think that for meeting x they might want paper y, even though they haven't asked for it? Have a copy ready for when they ask you for it, so you can just hand it to them straight away. Are they likely to need briefing or pre-meets? Get them set up, or at least know whether the relevant people are going to be around and when. Memorising extension numbers of key people and their PAs is never wasted time.

Sorry this is getting a bit rambly, but one more thing, on day one, read back over the last couple of months diary. Look for regular meetings, for any issues which seem to be live currently, for the people they tend to meet with and what type of meetings need premeets. It should give you a flavour of what is going to be needed going forward. Make a list of regular meetings and make sure you always have them programmed at least six months in advance, you may have to move them around, but they won't get forgotten.

Finally, during the first couple of days, get some time with each boss and ask them to talk about what they want from a PA, how they like to work, and anything else they like. Just listen while they talk and make notes. The things they say and the order they say it in should give you some good insights into how they want you to be as their assistant.

Also, I agree entirely with buzzkillington, if you make a mistake, which you will, own up, apologise and tell them what you have done to fix it. Gets you far more respect than trying to hide it and getting caught out.
posted by helenfin at 12:24 AM on August 20, 2010

Sorry, one more thing. Working for two people means you are going to get conflicts between their priorities. Be honest about how quickly you are going to be able to get something done. If person A is giving a speech in an hour and you are working on edits for it, B might tell you that their report for the meeting tomorrow needs to be done now, but by managing their expectation and telling them it will be a bit later, as long as they aren't jerks, they'll be more ok with that than if they are waiting on it coming immediately.

It basically comes down to open and honest communication with each boss about what is possible.
posted by helenfin at 12:31 AM on August 20, 2010

This may seem a little glib, but ask yourself What Would Joan Holloway do? She seems to be just like the most competent executive assistant's and secretaries I've run into. She's organized, professional, and always a step ahead, intuiting what people need. I think that's one of the things that makes her character on Mad Men so believable for me.
posted by bubonicpeg at 5:56 AM on August 20, 2010

Best answer: There are great organizational systems out there, but after many years I have found the simpler the better. By category, alphabetical works for me. You have the advantage of building a filing system from the ground up, as all of you are new.

As others have said, anticipate what your boss will need. This will take time as you become familiar with their habits, and they will have to communicate with you about their expectations. For example, my boss was emailed to send a recommendation for a very senior executive in the company. Boss was in a never ending meeting, and this was at the end of the day. I forwarded the request to another person in our area that could fufill it, and it was taken care of without my boss ever having to look at the email.

I cannot stress enough to keep up with your email inbox. Set aside time at the beginning and end of every day, to delete junk, flag follow up issues, file things in subfolders. Use your calendar and your tasks. TIP - if you are notified when another user is invited to a meeting (you are their delegate), do not delete that notification until it's been accepted. If you delete it before it's accepted or declined it will disappear from the calendar!
Find out if your boss wants you to accept meetings on their behalf, if they will be accepting all meetings, or a mixture of both.

Make sure you know your boundries about running personal errands. I don't mind the occasional package pick up, or purchasing a gift for a anniversary/birthday/holiday. However, everyone I have worked for knows my priority is at the work place. If they have enough personal stuff that it starts impacting your work productivity, that has to be addressed.

Be professional and friendly with everyone! The person who empties your garbage can, the receptionist, your boss's boss, because you never know what resources you will need to tap. Also because everyone deserves the same amount of respect regardless of who they are or what they do.
posted by lootie777 at 7:26 AM on August 20, 2010

Rule #1: Prevent the boss from being embarrassed or caught off-guard.
Rule #2: As noted above - be resourceful. Set up Google alerts, monitor blogs/sites, etc, for words & phrases that are relevant to your company and/or your competition and/or your industry.
posted by davidmsc at 7:57 AM on August 20, 2010

Also, be prepared for the fact that all the weird queries and questions that no one else wants to deal with will end up on your desk as PA to the CEX. When people don't know who else to go to, they'll cone to you, so be prepared to undertake research on all sorts of different and weird and wonderful things!
posted by helenfin at 12:38 PM on August 20, 2010

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