According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 92 percent of executive assistant roles are held by women. Formerly called a “secretary,” the job became women-dominated in the 1950s, but its existence stretches back much further—some sources claiming that the first secretaries were scribes in Ancient Egypt, and others dating true secretaries, by name, back to the Renaissance, when men conveying the correspondence of powerful leaders took on the title.
Regardless, the task of a secretary, or an executive assistant, has always been a meld of communication, trust, and proximity to power. Executive assistants today manage calendars, events, calls, and more for the busiest and most high-profile people in the office, like CEOs and other members of the C-suite. They protect their boss’s time by both organizing it and ensuring the more granular things that might distract from an executive’s big picture responsibilities get done.
The job requires people and organizational skills, as well as patience. Lots of patience. (Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting with nine executives before a major holiday?) And because executive assistants coordinate with internal and external stakeholders, professionalism and discretion are absolute musts.
Want to learn more about the day-to-day work of an executive assistant? Here’s what one woman who’s done the job for 15-plus years has to say about this rewarding people-facing role.
Technology Executive Coordinator at Brighthouse Financial with more than 15 years of experience
What does an executive assistant do?
I support a wonderful group of leaders in our technology organization. In all, I support nine leaders, as well as their team leads, and to some degree everyone within each team. I manage calendars, which is my main function, as my leaders are extremely busy, so it’s a constant shuffle, or what I call a “chess game,” of rearranging meetings to try to accommodate all schedules. I also work closely with other assistants in and outside the technology organization with scheduling requests. In addition, I assist with interviews for potential new team members, and I process expense reports and travel requests. Since COVID-19, I have tried to come up with ideas for virtual team-building events to help keep team members “connected” in a different light than solely work-related. I also keep track of birthdays and other occasions and events. I’ve had to adapt my role during the pandemic, given that much of my role was “in the moment” (conference rooms needed, supplies, catering, desk setups for new hires, etc.) so I decided to create a team newsletter, which has been very well received. With nearly 200 people able to contribute to the newsletter, it’s a labor of love, and I feel it helps to keep us connected to each other.
What’s your professional background and why did you pursue your current career?
My lifelong friends will tell you that, growing up, the only thing I wanted in life was to be married and be a mom. I began dating my husband when I was 16, married before I was 20, and this year we celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary. I didn’t pursue a college education out of high school, and it wasn’t until our two sons were grown that I decided that the only thing holding me back from furthering my career was a degree. While working full time, I went to school to pursue my associates degree. It took me five years to do it, but it’s something that I am extremely proud of. I have always loved being a “worker bee.” In high school, I worked in our co-op program, where every afternoon I left school and went to work in a professional setting. I was chosen to work at IBM. I learned so many valuable lessons and skill sets, and I knew then that an office environment was where I wanted to be. When I first began working in this field while in high school, this role was known as secretary. Oftentimes it just sounded degrading: “Ask the secretary to get me some coffee” or something similar. I began to resent that title. Then, years later, I read that the actual meaning of secretary is “the keeper of secrets.” I thought that was so profound because it’s so very true. I am trusted with so much information. I hold that trust true to my heart and have never betrayed a trust.
How do you help the company?
I do whatever it takes to help whoever needs it. I’ve worn multiple hats, and there is no task that is beneath me. It’s all in how I look at each task. If I’m doing all that I can for my leaders, that frees them up for the bigger picture within their roles. It’s definitely a team effort. I also assist our talent acquisition team with calendar availability for interviewing candidates, onboarding new team members (including submittal of onboarding requests for our technology new hires and processing shipping labels for all new hires within the company) and offboarding (arranging for equipment to be shipped back to the home office).
What does a typical workday look like?
My day is never the same. I learned long ago not to even try to plan a to-do list because requests change rapidly. I prioritize each request based on the importance of it. I’m very good at judging what needs to be done first, and my leaders trust me in knowing that their requests are going to be handled.
What are the three most important parts of your job?
1) Calendar management
2) Event planning
3) Accuracy (If I’m not accurate in helping my leaders, then I’m not much help to them.)
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Finding common availability between multiple calendars. When I get a request for a meeting with multiple attendees, I find what works best for most, then I go to the other attendees’ calendars and see if they’re blocked with something that I can rearrange. Again—a chess game. I’ve been lucky, and some of my leaders start out the request with, “Maryann, I need you to work your magic with this one.”
What’s the best part of your job?
My leaders. I have waited my entire life for a job this wonderful. I wouldn’t trade my role or the people I support for anything. They consistently make me feel valued and appreciated—and that is the best feeling in the world.
What’s one piece of advice you could give to someone interested in being an executive assistant?
Learn from every role you take on. You may have great leaders or less-than-great leaders, but you can learn from both. In fact, those roles will make you stronger and more determined to find your perfect role. When obstacles get in your way, find solutions to them. As long as you believe in yourself, you can achieve whatever you want to.