How to Be an Amazing Executive Assistant

If you search “how to be a great executive assistant,” you’ll find article after article listing different EA skills. They’ll have guides on topics like organization, prioritization, email management, calendar management, and so on.

These articles are incredibly useful, but there’s a key element that’s often missing, and it’s the very foundation upon which truly effective assistants build their entire career. Any experienced EA will tell you that admin skills are only half (or maybe a quarter!) of the battle. So what really makes an amazing executive assistant?

What makes a really good executive assistant?

That key to being an amazing executive assistant is building an excellent relationship with your executive and your team. Admin skills are useful, but having a rock-solid understanding of how someone thinks and what motivates them is the most impactful way to fully anticipate their needs and goals.

This relationship will eventually grant you the fabled superpower to “see around corners,” allowing you to support your exec and team by anticipating their needs before they even realize they have them. This is the key element that sets high-level executive assistants apart, and helps you to be more comfortable acting on someone’s behalf even when they aren’t around (and having them be comfortable with it too!)

How do you build a relationship with your leader?

Before we talk about building a relationship, we need to define what that means. You’ve probably heard at least one company say “We’re like a family!” That is not what we’re talking about here, and that mentality often leads to toxic workplaces. A relationship is simply the way in which two people are connected, and it is very possible to have a strong relationship with someone in a professional manner without it getting… well, weird.

Good EA/exec relationships are sculpted from a foundation of understanding, trust, and a genuine investment in the other person. Building a healthy relationship can be tricky, to say the least. The good news is we have some fantastic shortcuts that will help speed up the process a bit in a healthy way!

Step 1: Start off the relationship with understanding

The first building block of a relationship is understanding. We executive assistants can do many things, but we can’t read minds! By beginning your relationship with your executive or team from a place of trying to understand their motivations, aspirations, and roadblocks, your job will become much easier. It also helps to share your own preferences early so there are also clear expectations and boundaries in place on both sides.

Here are some great tips for starting a professional relationship:

  • Learn their work styles and preferences. When and how do they do their best work?
  • Understand their main challenges. What’s standing in the way? Why is this a challenge?
  • Set boundaries and expectations. How late is too late? How early is too early? 
  • Discover their professional and personal goals. How do they plan on achieving them? 

You’ll want to be sure to keep a log of this information to refer back to later, and Base Dossier is the perfect place! With Dossier you can organize all the knowledge you could ever need in one convenient spot.

For each of these items, be sure to share your own information too! A healthy relationship is a two way street, so it’s equally important they understand these things about you as well!

Step 2: Build investment by setting shared goals

By sitting down with your exec or team and learning their goals and the motivations behind them, you can formulate goals for yourself to support those end results. In this way, goal setting with your executive provides a unique chance for building a strong relationship, as you can tie your own goals to theirs and share in the success. This builds your own investment into their success, often leading to a stronger relationship – but there’s a catch.

Executives are usually quite experienced at goal setting – so they might not immediately think to clue you into the process. But don’t be afraid to ask! Executives love proactivity, and asking to learn their goals so you can better support them is as proactive as it gets!

When you’re setting a goal together, keep these things in mind:

  • Remember, your goal is to support their goals, which are likely set externally by a board of directors or shareholders. Try not to audit the goals.
  • Understand the specific need the goal fulfills. What is the desired outcome?
  • Inquire about specifics. The more you know, the better you can support!
  • Make SMART goals for yourself to support their goals. Ask them, “What’s the best way I can support here?”
  • Recap: determine and communicate the specific role you can play in helping them get to these goals.
  • Create a process for tracking your progress and set monthly check-ins.

Above all else, the key to creating a good shared goal is to understand what’s behind the goal. For instance, your executive or team may have a goal of spending less time in meetings. Find out the “why!”

  • Are they experiencing “Zoom Fatigue?”
  • Do they say “yes” too often?
  • Are the meetings not as productive as they should be?
  • Is it a work/life balance issue?

Once you know the “why” behind their goals, you can align your own goals to better support them. As an added bonus you’ll understand them more along the way too!

Step 3: Demonstrate understanding though finding unspoken goals

Another important aspect of goal setting is listening for unspoken goals. Sometimes your executive or team may have a goal they aren’t even aware of. By finding these goals and coming up with your own goal to support them, you’re well on your way to the “seeing around corners” superpower! This is also a fantastic way to build their confidence and trust in your abilities to make decisions.

Here’s an example: Imagine your leader wants to meet with a person they met at an event last week, but can’t remember their name or contact info. Maybe it’s buried in a stack of business cards. They croak out in frustration, “Ah, there are so many names to remember! I can never find anyone’s phone number!”

This is a perfect example of an unspoken goal: they need an easy way to catalog their networking contacts! An amazing executive assistant would notice this, and suggest a new goal or solution to create a system for managing their professional relationships. 

Pro Tip: Your ears should perk up any time you hear frustration from your executive or your team. Ask yourself, “Is this something that would make sense for me to help with? Do I know how to help?” If the answer is yes, you probably have an unspoken goal!

Step 4: Build trust through strategic gatekeeping

Strategic gatekeeping and diplomacy are two of the most significant and effective roles of an amazing executive assistant, and a fantastic way to build trust!

But it isn’t enough to simply say yes or no to meetings. In order to convert your leader’s ideal priorities and schedule into reality, you must first complete steps 1-3 above: get to know their work style, pain points, preferences, and goals. This entails leading from the top, holding your executive (and their team) accountable, and structuring your own goals around their core values and vision. 

As an executive assistant, you will also have access to extremely sensitive information like wages, HR decisions, acquisitions, and private appointments, among other things. Consider that information and relationship you’ve built to make the crucial judgements necessary to focus your executive’s time on their most important goals.

Once you’ve done that, exercising strategic gatekeeping will become almost like second nature. You’ll know what, when, where, and why of what they want, and be able to keep on on-track for success.

Step 5: Nail down your own admin work

Now that you truly understand your exec, have invested in their success, and started building confidence and trust, it’s time to focus on all those “how to be a great executive assistant” articles and start optimizing your processes!

Make sure every meeting is effective, every calendar managed, every inbox optimized. This can be a daunting task in and of itself depending on the systems your executive or team uses.

One of the best shortcuts to elevating your productivity is through our own platform, Base. Our workspace for the modern assistant is equipped with the tools EAs need to succeed. No more bouncing between different apps: Base has it all in one place!

If your team does use a number of different apps, Base also features a host of integrations to help you capture those Slack requests, Google meetings, to-do lists and so much more with ease.

If you’re interested in trying out Base, request a personalized demo here!

Written by Bryn Smith

Bryn is the Senior Manager of Brand and Product Marketing at Base, where she is on a mission to build a world-class EA community by connecting them with top-notch thought leaders, invaluable resources, and cutting-edge insights.