· Features

HR needs transformational thinking when recruiting exec assistants

HR recruiters have not educated themselves about this special category of assistants

In the foreword to my book Cisco’s then-CEO John Chambers wrote that he interviewed 17 assistants before finally settling on the candidate who remained his assistant for more than 25 years. It got me wondering why HR placed 17 apparently unsuitable candidates in front of him.

As he said, they were not unqualified but his expectations were higher. That seems to be the crux of the matter. HR recruiters have not educated themselves about this special category of assistants. They don’t grasp the inherent requirements of the role of executive assistant (EA) to C-suite executives.

As a former executive assistant myself, I recall setting up meetings for my CEOs to meet with candidates. Typically they were shown two to three from whom they made a selection. Why then do CEOs have to wade through 17 candidates to find the right fit for their EA? Does HR lack a robust vetting process for this role? What metrics are they using to find superior candidates who can shoulder the responsibilities and offer the dynamic support a chief executive requires from an assistant?

Executive assistants worldwide despair over what they see as HR’s inability to understand the very specialised nature of the EA role. At the 2018 Practically Perfect PA conference in London, event organiser Nicky Christmas reported substantial discussion around the perception that HR doesn’t ‘get’ the EA role, doesn’t appreciate what it takes to perform it, and doesn’t treat the position respectfully.

A story that got heads nodding was about HR thinking executive assistants should only be offered courses like Microsoft Office and not receive executive-level training, even though top assistants routinely function as their executive’s deputy.

The position of EA to the CEO cannot be filled by a run-of-the-mill administrative assistant. C-suite EAs are a unique group. Through years of business experience they intrinsically understand the needs of high-level executives. They are instinctively poised to offer superior support.

HR's difficulty understanding the role may lie with the fact that the executive assistant role is not as clearly defined as other positions. Requirements often depend on the individual executive’s preferences. Ask executives what their must-haves are and the responses are wide-ranging.

So HR struggles to find clarity and tends to focus on more easily-defined hard skills such as computer proficiency. Soft skills appear discretionary and disposable. While hard skills are essential to the role they are not what set top-performing assistants apart. What’s hard to find, and harder to recognise, are soft skills. This is where HR must develop acuity.

Adam Fidler Academy in Manchester trains executive assistants. Fidler says HR fails to present the best-calibre assistants because they view the EA role as more transactional than strategic and lack basic understanding of the EA role. He also cites outdated and misleading job descriptions.

Role basics to understand include:

How an executive and assistant work together: HR must develop a good feel for the diversity of the EA role. What is the dynamic between the executive and EA? What are the daily routines that allow them to coalesce as a team? Which of the executive’s duties are regularly handled by the assistant?

Required skills for a senior-level EA: Proficiency in the basics is a given. Advanced skills include:

  • Good business sense to understand overall strategy and direction
  • Proactive mindset to anticipate the executive’s needs
  • Resourcefulness to accomplish seemingly impossible missions
  • Superior communication ability
  • Organisational expertise
  • Decision-making skills
  • Judgment
  • Diplomacy
  • Confidentiality
  • Finding the right fit: Get clear on the executive’s work style and habits to determine the best fit. A confident self-starter won’t pair well with a micromanaging executive. A hands-off executive will be frustrated by an assistant who needs constant direction.

    Keep these fundamentals in mind when recruiting an EA for a top executive and you will deliver a candidate who is the best fit to help executives maximise productivity and meet their strategic goals.

    Jan Jones is president of Jan Jones Worldwide and the author of The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness