Photo by Jean-Philippe Defaut ©2018

Elevate the Executive: Evolve the Executive Assistant (originally published in 2018)

Maïa Cybelle Carpenter

We have a mission.

After much time spent in the field interviewing, working with CEOs, Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff, our mission has become clear: The value we deliver is in elevating the Executive by evolving the role of the Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff.

A visionary leader needs a high-functioning team to execute the strategy of the business. As part of a high-functioning team, CEOs have hired Executive Assistants and (increasingly in tech) Chiefs of Staff to leverage their role. Why? Because when a great EA or CoS partners meaningfully with a leader, that leader’s effectiveness and productivity increases. If one considers the return on investment —it’s huge. For example: If a CEO’s compensation package is $1M and their EA or CoS’s salary is $160K, they would only need to increase their efficiency by 16% or, save 10 hours of time per 60 hour workweek. In reality, we know that when a leader delegates and collaborates with a high-level EA or CoS, their productivity increases by at least 30%. By this industry standard, the value of an EA or CoS is a ‘no-brainer’.

“Some people, especially entrepreneurs, think they have to do everything themselves. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Without learning the art of delegation, I would never have made it in business. By sharing my responsibilities and trusting in others who I believe are better than me, we can get so much more done. We have dozens of companies and thousands of employees, and I always have a new idea I am working on. With the logistics and details organised by others, I am free to think about the bigger picture. Without a world-class assistant, this wouldn’t be possible.” — Richard Branson

The Current Evolution of the Executive Assistant to the C-Suite Role

When people think of an Executive Assistant, many stereotypes prevail: the (female) ‘secretary’, the ‘admin’, the ‘second wife’, the ‘personal assistant’ and a role with no potential for growth. One of the reasons why the role has recently evolved into a Chief of Staff to the CEO role is because of the negative bias associated with the title of EA. Many EAs to CEOs are highly educated, have breadth of experience, have too many responsibilities and are far too strategic to be simply called an ‘assistant’. These days, an EA or CoS in the C-Suite has some of the same competencies as the people they support: influencing, managing people, power dynamics and executing the business strategy. Additionally, CEOs have recognized the strategic value of having a supportive business partner who can see the big picture across the executive team and increase cross-team collaboration. In order to attract top talent to the role, many have dropped the EA to CEO title and evolved the role to better suit the business needs. By default, it also means that more men will apply for the job. Whilst a high percentage of EAs to CEOs are women, there is more of a gender balance in CoS roles to the CEO. Let’s face it, not many men are lining up to apply for EA to CEO positions and we know why: The role is seen as something women do because it is the ‘house-work’ of the office. We are not suggesting that men who are EAs are not valued, we are in part addressing the inherent gender bias in the role of the Executive Assistant and how it is undervalued.

What Does the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Have to Say About EAs and CoS?

Please keep in mind that these are very broad and generalized statistics. Our use of them is to illustrate a point. Since the great recession of 2008, The US economy has continued to see a decline of low-skill jobs in favor of high-skill positions. The role of EA to the C-Suite and CoS has become over time, more managerial and directorial (managing ops, people, events, strategy, automation and AI). These roles increasingly demand highly educated, skilled and emotionally intelligent individuals. The title ‘assistant’ is hardly the correct title for this type of role. Chief of Staff may sometimes be the correct role, but we would argue that it doesn’t do justice to the wide variety of responsibilities that those individuals have. One needs only to point to the confusion people have on the definition of a Chief of Staff. For example, it means something very different in tech than it does in government or in the military.

US Statistics:

  • The job growth rate for a Secretaries and Administrative Assistants 2016–2026 is expected to decline -5%. Previously, this role would have been the entry-level into a career path to EA to the CEO or Chief of Staff.
  • The job growth rate for Administrative Services Managers 2016–2026 is expected to rise 10%, which is faster than the average for all occupations according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These roles plan, direct and coordinate the supportive services of a business. EAs to the C-Suite and CoS have some of the responsibilities in this category.
From the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • The job growth rate for Top Executives, General and Operations Managers 2016–2026, is projected to grow 8%, which is the average growth across all occupations. These executives are defined as devising strategies and policies to ensure that an organization meets its goals. They plan, direct, and coordinate operational activities of companies and organizations. EAs to the C-Suite and CoS have some of the responsibilities in this category.
From the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Further details on US employment statistics for Executive Assistants in general can be found here. There are no available statistics for EAs to CEOs or Chief of Staff roles.

In the US, the shift away from task-based, repetitive administrative work to higher level administrative and operations management is clear. It’s been happening for a while and there has been resistance to change. A quick search of EA job descriptions on Indeed or LinkedIn can give you a flavor of this resistance to the evolution away from task-based repetitive work to strategic and management-level work.

Entry-level administrative assistant roles are disappearing in mid to larger-sized companies because many of their tasks have now been automated. Fortunately, the new skills required of EAs are widely accessible, provided you have a growth mindset. To succeed in this role you need a high degree of emotional intelligence, strong communication skills combined with organizational chops and the ability to strategically prioritize. Junior EAs are gaining more experience and upskilling to the EA or CoS level with on-the-job training and mentoring, business and organizational development degrees and other educational models (online and in-person) that teach strategy and management.

Role Titles Inside US Tech Corporations and Investment Firms

At Google (Alphabet) and Google Ventures (GV), ‘Executive Assistants’ are now called ‘Executive Business Partners’ and ‘Administrative Assistants’ and ‘Executive Assistants’ are now called ‘Administrative Business Partners’. The former role responsibilities have also been recalibrated to better support the evolution of the business needs.

Google changed the role to avoid negative biases around terms like ‘secretary’ or ‘admin.’ They also believed the scope of work these individuals were doing had more depth and nuance than might typically be associated with those titles.

Pinterest uses both ‘Administrative Business Partner’ and ‘Executive Assistant Business Partner’ to indicate different levels of responsibility in support roles.

Stripe’s Executive Assistants now have the title, ‘Executive Operations’ and more junior roles have the title ‘ Administrative Business Partner’.

Khosla Ventures Executive Assistants with tenure of 5 or more years that support Managing Directors have switched to the title ‘Business Partner’.

Microsoft uses ‘Executive Business Administrator’ as well as ‘Executive Assistant’.

Gusto uses both ‘Executive Business Partner’ and ‘Executive Operations’

These are just a few of the shifts we are seeing in the US away from the title Executive Assistant and additionally, an evolution of the role responsibilities that is responsive to changes in business and technology. It’s more than just a vocabulary issue: it’s defining and changing how people think. Will your business adapt to this change?

Managing Administrative Tools and Operational Processes

People still think an EA’s only responsibilities (even at the C-Suite level) are to write emails, schedule/calendar, take notes/make action items, act as the ‘gatekeeper’ for the executive, communicate with the Board of Directors, organize travel and run personal errands. Whilst some of this is still true, the role has evolved significantly. Successful leaders no longer have such low expectations of the role. You don’t need a human actually doing the repetitive administrative tasks, you need a human to manage the automation of those administrative tasks.

Increasingly, the use of automation, artificial intelligence and as some would say, ‘synthetic intelligence’ are giving businesses an edge when it comes to repetitive administrative and operations tasks. Any business that automates or uses AI for scheduling, e-document organization and retention, travel and people operations processes will have a long-term advantage over businesses that only use a human being to do this. Why? Because their executives will never be as productive. We can leverage our unique human skills by automating repetitive and mundane tasks. Time is money, but time is also important for innovation. By leveraging the unique soft-skills that your administrative and operations support team has, your business can be more strategic. We’re not losing admin jobs, we’re evolving and improving them. If we aren’t empowering and up-skilling our administrative and operations employees by having them manage automation, artificial intelligence, people and processes, we will not keep up. It’s important for both investors and business leaders to support this evolution. As one AI entrepreneur, Dennis R Mortenson (from put it, ‘We’re all about to become AI managers’.

If your business isn’t already implementing automation, AI or SI when it comes to routine administrative tasks and operations processes, you will not make it in the global economy.

It is not a smart use of business capital to hire an experienced and educated EA to do repetitive administrative tasks and run personal errands; these things can be securely ‘outsourced’ for the sake of efficiency at a reasonable cost. Instead, successful executives need the right person to manage those processes, anticipate outcomes and help them execute the business strategy. Which brings us back to our mission: “Elevate the Executive by evolving the EA and CoS.”

Administrative Infrastructure Consulting

Recently at CC Partners, we’ve been brought into organizations to elevate the productivity of the CEO through their partnership with an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff. We customize the training to each situation.

We’ve also had the opportunity to provide administrative infrastructure consulting (or audits). The term may be new to some, but it means exactly what it states. The lifeline of a company is the administrative and operational layer. If a company can’t get the operational basics right, it doesn’t matter how brilliant its strategy is (more in this study published by HBR). It’s the processes that keep things moving forwards; it’s all the people involved in supporting those that make the business decisions, create products and services. When a company hasn’t taken the time and attention to organize this layer, systems get broken, collaboration, innovation and achieving the business goals become difficult. To understand the full picture, we come on-site, interview and observe the stakeholders, do further ‘fieldwork’ and synthesize how to increase efficiency and productivity. Sometimes this involves implementation of SaaS, automation, artificial and ‘synthetic’ intelligence tools as well as the creation of operational processes. Or, it involves training executives how to delegate and building trust between those executives and their support team. Or, it involves building cohesion across the admin/ops team; creating a ‘standard operating procedure’ manual, onboarding practices, etc…. In every company, our work involves a willingness to change, however painful, for the better. It’s been incredibly rewarding to turn organizations around with optimized and efficient support teams.

Executive Operations Strategy

To further our mission in elevating the executive by evolving the EA and CoS, our vision is simple: a new, more agile role: The Executive Operations Director. It’s the better version of the evolution that’s already in progress. We have developed strategies of how to achieve this. CC Partners works with leading experts in systems and design thinking, service blueprinting and thought leadership on management of AI and automation from an administrative and operations perspective.

What’s Next?

In the short term, we will share some of the interviews we’ve had with thought leadership; CEOs, their EAs and CoS as well as other experts including retained search recruiters, organizational development and diversity and inclusion experts. We’ll also provide a list of definitive resources as there are many interesting books and articles contributing to this space (Chief of Staff role & Executive Assistant role).

We are currently partnering with a design group and creating a handbook for CEOs and their Executive Operations employees. The inspiration comes from well-designed manuals like Matthew Fredrick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Jan Chipchase’s The Field Study Handbook and our favorite alternative version of the ‘little red book’, The Little Book of IDEO.

Work with us

If you’d like to get a more in-depth perspective, please connect with CC Partners. We look forward to hearing from you and discussing adaptation to change when it comes to administration and operations processes.

We encourage you to share your thoughts on the evolution of the roles in the comments below, reach us on LinkedIn, or send us a private message through our website form.

Thank you.

— Maïa Cybelle Carpenter, Founder, Carpenter Consulting Partners, Inc.

Thank you so much for the valuable feedback and support: Annie A. Carpenter, Jean-Philippe Defaut, Cindy Jeffers, Athen Z. O’Shea and Gina Zupsich.

Maïa Cybelle Carpenter

CEO, Carpenter Consulting Partners, Inc.

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