Crucial Characteristics of an Exceptional Executive Assistant (and Why These Matter to You)

If you think you aren’t being judged by the caliber of your executive assistant, think again. Your executive assistant is your face to the world, your brand ambassador and your ultimate PR person. That being the case, executives must be mindful about whom they are choosing to represent them because your choice of assistant tells the world what you wish to convey about yourself.

In my book, “The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness,” I devote several chapters to discussing what I call the tangible and intangible characteristics of exceptional executive assistants. These are the characteristics to look for when choosing the person who will be your secret weapon, acting as your deputy and trusted resource.

Finding the right assistant might be a challenge. A good starting point is clearly defining your needs. Don’t skip this step because it will save you time and disappointment in the long run. Ask yourself:

– What is my preferred work style?

– What personality type would get along best with me?

– Do I want someone who is a self-starter or someone who needs to be managed?

– Do I value personality fit over skillset?

– What are my non-negotiables, my “must haves”?

– What am I willing to compromise?

Talk to your current assistant or someone who will be candid about what it’s like to work with you. If you are a micromanager, an assistant who is a self-starter isn’t going to get along with you. If you prefer an assistant who is self-directed, then someone who needs guidance and direction will drive you nuts with constant interruptions.

Once you establish what your work habits are, you can move to the next phase of selecting an assistant. It is a given that you will be looking for someone who has mastered general secretarial skills and has a solid grasp of popular computer programs and the latest apps. They must have excellent spelling, grammar and good business communication abilities. Here are several more characteristics to look out for:

Anticipation Ability: If Murphy of Murphy’s Law had hired an exceptional executive assistant, he would never have come up with his law. An exceptional executive assistant anticipates what can go wrong and makes sure it doesn’t. It’s no wonder that every executive and assistant I interviewed for my book cited anticipation ability as the number-one characteristic a top executive assistant must possess.

Resourcefulness: A resourceful assistant knows how to get things done. It takes an entrepreneurial spirit, someone always looking for ways to make things better. Because they are solution-oriented, they don’t just anticipate challenges, they know how to get resolution. Doing the so-called impossible is routine for a resourceful assistant.

Decision-Making Ability: While it may take time for your assistant to be fully confident to make decisions on your behalf, if you communicate frequently and they are in no doubt as to your wishes, they will develop the confidence to make decisions in your absence. Invest in an assistant who has solid decision-making ability and is not afraid to step up.

Organizational Skills: For you to be on track, your assistant must be organized and disciplined. They must know the status of projects you are working on and make certain all deliverables are received on time. Your calendar is 100% up to date, all your files are current, work inflow and outflow – what goes where and to whom – is handled quickly.

Dedication: An exceptional executive assistant is not stingy in their efforts to get the job done. They constantly perform at their peak and exude a “whatever it takes” attitude. Their passion for their job may be hard to comprehend because they don’t have an illustrious title or massive paycheck. Yet you will find them plugging away long after most employees and you have called it a day.

Reflecting Your Values: In my book, Dr. Ken Blanchard stressed the importance of finding someone “who shares my values because they really are ‘me’ to the people out there. If my assistants don’t get my values, then I’m in trouble because they are interacting with people who are so important to me all the time.” Exceptional assistants understand that they must conduct themselves in a manner that is entirely in keeping with their boss’ priorities and values.

If you already have a top-notch assistant, congratulations!  Treat them professionally and provide opportunities for them to develop their talents. Keep them informed and engaged. But most importantly, communicate constantly with your assistant so they know you well enough to deputize for you confidently. Then they can show your very best “face” to the world.

Jan Jones is president of Jan Jones Worldwide, a bespoke speakers bureau which evolved from her industry experience as executive assistant to personal development icon, Tony Robbins, and ten years as exclusive representative for small business visionary, Michael Gerber.  Prior to starting her business, Jan served as a high-level executive assistant to businesspeople worldwide.  She enjoys guiding executives on how to get the most out of their relationship with their assistant.

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2 Responses to “ Crucial Characteristics of an Exceptional Executive Assistant (and Why These Matter to You) ”

  1. Rhonda Dougherty on

    Jan, I can’t thank you enough for pointing out what is important from the Executive’s perspective! As one of 300 applicants in the last 5 interviewing for the position of Executive Assistant to the CEO of a hotel chain, I certainly will take your thoughts and ideas into the interview with me!

    Many thanks again,


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