The Devil Wore Prada. Now Your EA Does.

A quick search of job listings for Executive Assistants typically throws me into a fit of rage. Listings which dare to print salaries of $40–50K in an insanely expensive market like San Francisco and requiring 0–2 years previous experience are the ones that will one day land me in jail for arson.

Having been a career EA for over 20 years, surviving and thriving through 2 dot-coms, several insane bosses, 2 ICU/CCU visits for “stress related heart incidences,” and enough internal organizational dramas to fill most of the pages of the book I’m currently writing, I have become a savant when it comes to C-level executives, navigating hierarchies and, especially, what it takes to be a successful Executive Assistant. And I assure you, someone with 0–2 years experience does not qualify. They’re chum in a sea of gangsta sharks.

The “secretary” is now folklore. They’re dead, along with argyle. Please only use the word when referring to Board seats. Executive MEGA Assistants are a new breed of professional that most organizations still have no idea how to utilize. We are tech savvy. We research the shit out of everything. We have business acumen on par with the people we support. We have deep connections throughout numerous industries. We can pick up a phone or send an email and make the world stop on a dime. We can spot a flagging employee and tell you when he’s quitting, why and what company he’s going to. In short, we have super powers. Yet, time and again, companies hire us as the “calendar whiz” and the one who “creates calm from chaos” and often relegate us to note takers, coffee procurement specialists, and scapegoats for their own ineptitudes.

So it’s newsflash time, kids. The rules have changed.

And please, don’t get all butt hurt about your job descriptions, “overqualification” monikers and budget constraints because you’re a startup. YOU CREATED THIS MONSTER. I’ll explain.

You hired us at your startups and proceeded to give us an administrative role. You then added receptionist, office manager, Board liaison, human resources lead, facilities manager, vendor procurement specialist, interior designer, event planner, social media coordinator and travel agent to the role. With zero increase in pay and an exponential increase in expectation and accountability. There is not a single, other human being in the building with as much aggregate responsibility. This includes the CEO.

So, we adapted. We studied up. We learned everything we could about everything we could. We formed alliances. We created efficiencies in process so that we could simply get through a work day with everything completed. We started listening, watching and got really good at seeing how things worked, how people behaved in certain situations and what it took to be successful. We started testing our theories on the unsuspecting and figured out ways to circumnavigate the rules in order to achieve our intended outcomes efficiently and undetected. And now, if our bosses are out of the office for any amount of time, we can literally run the company in their absence. We know all of the players, their roles, have comprehensive knowledge about all of the projects/initiatives on the table, which Board member to call (confidentially) to ask how to do something or whom to assign it to. We have the respect of the entire org because we’re the omnipotent resource (read: GoTo) for the company. And, in short, we know how to get shit done…even if it’s (mis)perceived as being way over our heads.

This will probably scare most employers. And to my real Executive Assistants out there, those are the employers you should avoid like the plague. They will strip you of your most basic hopes, talents, career momentum and aspirations, stuff you into a box that allows them complete control over you and hold you to a standard that they once read about on Yahoo. RUN! Those days are done.

For employers who want to attract and keep an Executive MEGA Assistant, here’s what you need to know:

1. Pay up.

We’re martyrs. While you’re at home with your families, so are we…with one hand preparing (late) dinner and the other feverishly texting and answering emails ahead of tomorrow’s Board meeting. We’re usually first to arrive and one of the last to leave, only to then head home and open our laptops for another 2-4 hours of work to the detriment of our personal lives. We constantly take the blame for our execs butting in unnecessarily and throwing something that was airtight into peril. We often get no recognition for the wins, but will get ripped a new one for any and all mistakes we make, no matter how insignificant. We keep our ears and eyes open and often counsel and reel in key employees headed for the exits. We are your parent, your second spouse, your marriage counselor, your press secretary and your biggest fan. No one in life, except your mother, will have as comprehensive an effect on your overall success in business and your personal life than your Executive Assistant. PAY. UP.

2. Let us FLY.

You’re requiring advanced degrees these days as well as senior level business acumen. So why do you excuse us from conversations and make us fetch donuts (that no one EVER eats) when you should be having us at the table and asking our opinion about the people with whom you’ve just met? We see everything. We can spot a liar or a douchebag the moment he walks through the door. We’ve dealt with enough of them. We can tell you when something just doesn’t add up or give you a list of questions to ask during your follow-up email to flesh out the truth.

We have mutated and trained ourselves to be indispensable. We’ve been underutilized and condescended for so long that we’ve had to take our own careers into our hands. We’re constantly finding ways to make contributions to our companies that last long after we’ve left, likely due to poor pay and unnecessary glass ceilings blocking our ascension. We know what we’re doing. We know what you’re doing, often better than you do. Instead of being threatened (or just being lame), partner up! Let us shine when there’s an opportunity. Course correct us, sure, but allow us to be bold, contribute and have a say. Sure, you still need us to get you on that flight to Boston, but guess what? We already suspected it and booked that shit (no change fee) last Thursday. Exit row, aisle, left side of plane, vegan meal. #what

3. Surprise us.

It’s impossible, actually. We know what you’re up to at all times. But we’ll find it cute and a sign that you actually care and appreciate us enough to expend the effort. We’re in the line of fire all day, every day. With a myriad of diverse, detailed, exhausting responsibilities. Most of us are single because our jobs scare off our partners. If our boss throws us a bone from time to time, it can literally send us over the moon. In my 24 years as an EA, I’ve only had one boss actually buy me flowers on “Administrative Assistants Day.” Seems kinda trivial right? It’s not. Those small gestures often come into play when the recruiting calls increase or we start dating someone who shows promise or our time off requests keep getting ignored. If you find a great EA, show them you appreciate them. Offer them a sign-on bonus. Just like you constantly remind us that we’re not the only game in town, you’re not either. And when we leave, the GREAT ones of us especially, chaos ensues.

4. Watch “The Devil Wears Prada.” No really! It’s homework.

My bosses laugh when I insist they download and watch this movie. Funny thing is, it’s pretty much the story of our lives. There’s not one C-suite Executive Assistant who wouldn’t agree with me. It chronicles our evolution through the ranks, how we’re treated/mistreated/abused not just by our bosses but by everyone in the organization, external business partners, etc. It shows the peril our lives are often thrown into by our boss’ requests. It shows the struggle to remain relevant in position when there’s always someone gunning for your spot. And it highlights the struggles with our own moral compass as we try to advance as far as we can in our own careers. If I accept a job with an exec, it’s required viewing. Simple as that. And they typically thank me later. They still don’t get it, but they pretend to I’m sure.

So there you have it. A Cliff’s Notes version of “The New Executive MEGA Assistant.” We’ll still get your coffee. But only if we’re headed that way. And we’ll return with it steaming hot along with a stock tip that we overheard, researched and vetted on our way back, and set up a quick conference call with you and their CEO, you know, to introduce yourself. You’re welcome.

Phoenix Normand