Can Executive Assistants Become CEOs?

With over 14 years of combined experience hiring EAs, supporting their growth, and empowering their success, Base has been laser-focused on one thing: exceptional Executive Assistance. We see the role of an Executive Assistant (EA) as a highly strategic one, serving as a key partner, facilitator, and advocate for the high- performing leader they support. With the right mindset, desire, and development opportunities, we believe Executive Assistants are positioned to take on future C- Suite roles, such as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or Chief Operating Officer (COO). 

Let’s talk a moment about the value of a great Executive Assistant. Even the best CEOs see their productivity and impact doubled and tripled after partnering with an EA. Behind nearly every successful CEO is a powerhouse assistant. Executive Assistants multiply not just the professional impact, but the relational reach, operational potential, and legacy of the C-Suite. 

The EA role is also a great incubator for leadership. After working with hundreds of Executive Assistants, we have seen first-hand what it takes to succeed in and beyond the role. Many Executive Assistants in our network have been career-EAs, and we have also seen how the role of an Executive Assistant can act as a launchpad for a career, honing invaluable leadership skills and providing the ability to work with and learn directly from C-Suite executives. 

Can EAs really become CEOs?

Yes! With the right combination of mindset, desire, development, and opportunity, an Executive Assistant has highly transferable skills to succeed in the C-Suite. Both Executive Assistants and CEOs think proactively about how today’s efforts will produce tomorrow’s results. 

Further, the EA role provides an unparalleled view of the factors that make a CEO successful. Executive Assistants work with the highest levels of leadership on a regular basis— and not from an obstructed view in the nosebleed seats, but from backstage, right behind the curtain. (Let’s be honest, many EAs are running the full backstage production!) 

The Transferable Skills from EA to CEO 

Harvard Business Review outlines the four essential behaviors that set successful CEOs apart. Based on their findings, the factors which lead to high performance in the Chief Executive role often deviate from the commonly held stereotype of a CEO. They share that success in this lead role has far more to do with a specific set of behaviors than it has to do with someone being a “charismatic six-foot-tall white man with a degree from a top university, who is a strategic visionary with a seemingly direct-to-the-top career path.”

From their 10-year study, HBR summarized four top behaviors of successful CEOs:

  • Deciding with speed and conviction
  • Engaging for impact
  • Adapting proactively
  • Delivering reliably 

Wow that sounds a lot like what we look for when screening EA candidates! A great Executive Assistant is proactive, decisive, collaborative, engaging, adaptable and reliable. In more detail, we’ve found that successful Executive Assistants display these aligned behaviors: 

  • Strategically maximizing a leader’s time and energy, enhancing their impact
  • Solving problems proactively; seeing around corners
  • Making autonomous and effective decisions
  • Prioritizing key stakeholders
  • Surveying the forest, not just the trees, to align their actions with the highest impact work
  • Managing well through change
  • Wrangling chaos to reach desired outcomes
  • Delivering consistent and reliable results
  • Collaborating well and engaging others to achieve results
  • Unearthing new ideas for process improvement and better team collaboration

How directly supporting Executives trains you for executive work 

Consider the unique vantage point of an Executive Assistant. Being an EA provides you with the opportunity to see the work of an executive up close and personal. You become a crucial part of the executive’s day-to-day, and often more than anyone else, you are able to see what it takes to successfully lead a company. You have a special lens into how a leader spends their time, addresses challenges, sets priorities, engages the team, and manages through change. In some cases, an EA can even become the protégé of the executive they support, developing key skills through this mentor- mentee relationship.

One of our favorite case studies drives home the potential for an Executive Assistant to become CEO. Ursula Burns joined Xerox as an intern in 1980, moving up through various roles within the company. In 1990, she took the role of Executive Assistant to a senior executive, and then to the CEO & Chairman at the time. From there, she continued to rise. After making an incredible mark at Xerox, Burns stepped into the CEO role in 2009, becoming the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

Pave your path

If you are an Executive Assistant looking to rise to a CEO or other senior leadership role, consider the following questions: What are the highest impact skills or tools you can develop as a rising EA this year? Where would you like to be in your career in 5 years, 10, 15? What key experiences will help you pave your path?

As you explore your answers to these questions, start working backwards to outline the steps to get there, and you’ll have a map to make those goals a reality.

Want support with making moves in your EA career?

Base equips you with the tools, training, and support to be more efficient and lead an impactful career. Connect with us to discover your next career opportunity, grow your network, hone your skills, and more. 

Written by Paige McPheely

Paige is Base’s Founder and CEO. Supported by a team of dreamers, doers and thinkers, Paige is making her long-term vision of equipping leaders with excellent, affordable and scalable assistant support a reality. With the largest pool of EA talent in the world and the very first platform built for EAs, she is committed to matching leaders with strategic, high-impact, tech-enabled assistants to meet their unique business needs. Paige believes in empowering assistants to lead more impactful careers by equipping them with top tier tools and training from Base.