"Many Hats" or Exploitation?

It's time to call out something that I see as a blatant injustice. It's the whole "wearing many hats" phenomenon that still runs rampant in startups, and is now being adopted by large, successful corporations as a covert way of saving money on headcount.

I've been an Executive Assistant for over 25 years and have worked at several successful startups and larger companies. I wore many hats at a recent startup and literally helped build the company from the ground up, administratively and operationally. While it was an incredible learning opportunity with full autonomy granted by an incredible CEO, over time it became clear that my $75,000/year salary as EA to the CEO was exploitative given all of the additional roles I was handling, quite adeptly, and without the cost of hiring specialists for those roles. The appreciation was there from both my Exec and the team, but I couldn't help but feel undervalued and disrespected, especially when I was aware of the salaries of junior Engineers with singular responsibilities far eclipsing my meager compensation with at least 3 additional part-time jobs rolled in. I did manage to renegotiate my salary and receive a healthy bump in pay and stock options, but it made me keenly aware of a practice I call hyper loading.

Reading "must wear many hats" in an Assistant job description translates as "no money and 10-hour workdays" to me. It also leads me to believe that the company and the Exec will feel it's okay to hyper load an Assistant with 2 or 3 additional part time jobs under the guise of "wearing many hats." But let's call it what it is. Lack of respect for the role.

The role of Assistant is a vital one in an organization. They are privy to sensitive information across all departments. They see/hear everything and have the ability to make or break an Exec, team, or the company. They also handle an inordinate amount of minutiae to accomplish the most intricate, time-consuming tasks with such aplomb and ninja-ness that most are never aware of, especially their Execs. And, therein, lies the problem. Execs often only see the end result of their requests. They're rarely aware of everything it takes to actually achieve those results. The number of touches. The number of reschedules. The number of emails. However, anytime there is a mistake in achieving those results, Execs are all too aware of what went awry and are quick to assign blame without really understanding how many moving parts there actually are and how few actually went wrong. But the assumption is made at face value and the Assistant suffers in negative trust points and often during performance reviews and compensation bumps.

Now, Assistants are hyper-loaded with numerous responsibilities outside of the original scope of their roles with tasks like booking agent-level travel itineraries, acting as the company HR specialist, or project managing an office move or buildout. Great opportunities to learn and grow a skill set, sure, but it's doing a disservice to the Assistant by pulling and redistributing the focus needed to do a great job at ASSISTING. Engineers get the opportunity to focus on one or two objectives at a time and be paid handsomely to do it. Assistants, however, are considered and treated as less essential contributors to the tangible success of the company simply because they aren't coding. Being paid a singular salary to do the work of 3-5 people is exploitation. Period.

So how do we fix this disparity?

Hopefully, by bringing it to light and being incredibly honest about how we perceive the role of an Assistant. The majority of C-level Execs that I've come into contact with over the past two decades don't and will likely never look at Assistants as peers. Dear room, here's your elephant. You're welcome.

The only time I've seen this not be the case is if the Execs were, at some point, Assistants themselves. The assumption is that Assistants are only there to serve one purpose. Getting shit done. Kinda like the automagic elves who make your hotel bed sometime between the time you leave and return. Assistants are typically not viewed as business or strategic partners, even though they often have the same advanced degrees from the same schools as their Execs, the same ability to problem solve and the same desire to create the strategies to win. When performance reviews roll around Engineers and Project Managers with singular focus jobs are first in line to get the big, spot bonuses and kudos, while Assistants often receive little-to-nothing in reciprocity based on "that thing" that went wrong a couple of months ago that was "a really big miss," blithely unaware and uninterested in the fact that the company saved 3 headcounts and the money tied to them and avoided several major issues due to their quick thinking and action.

Lackluster Assistants have done the profession a disservice from a PR perspective. No doubt. But I believe the most egregious issue here is the blatant lack of interest in wanting to understand what makes an Assistant successful in the role coupled with a real interest in their professional development. Hyper loading a cheap headcount with numerous "higher level responsibilities" is lazy management, at best. That's not even worthy of "sink or swim" classification. It's setting someone up, unnecessarily, for failure. And even if an Assistant is able to succeed in that circumstance, they'll likely emerge bitter and disappointed having worked 3 or more jobs while being paid for only one.

So, yes, offer roles that are multifaceted, challenging and require wearing multiple hats. Those are actually my favorite and most successful roles. But please do your work as Execs and HR reps and spec these roles at the same compensation level as Director or above as the contribution to the success of the company absolutely warrants it. Paying $75,000/yr for an EA to the CEO and then hyper loading it with travel agent for the company, event coordinator, office manager, receptionist, HR lead, interior designer, project manager, social media coordinator, or supporting multiple, insanely busy Execs IS exploitation. Pay up and adjust your budgets to accommodate or hire specialists for those roles. Doing neither is not only wasting the company's money by creating unnecessary turnover, it's also perpetuating the message that Assistants don't deserve the same amount of respect and consideration as other members of the team when assigning a value to their contribution to the success of the Exec and the company.


Phoenix Normand