From EA to Business Partner: Developing the industry to have something to strive for……
I ran a Twitter poll recently asking you all if you felt there was a difference between the role of a Personal Assistant and an Executive Assistant. Hands down, you all agreed that there definitely is a difference, or at least there should be. As assistants, we all understand the difference between the two roles, yet time and time again I see position description after position description posted online for Personal Assistant roles that essentially are identical to that of an EA. This leaves me questioning, unsurprisingly, whether others, outside of the administration and assistant profession, actually understand the difference between the two roles, or any of the other assistant roles for the matter. It’s no secret that collectively as an industry our roles are misunderstood. With stereotypes and misconceptions attached around the purpose we serve and the value we actually add, it wouldn’t matter what type of assistant role you actually perform, to most, we are all just seen as ‘secretaries’, lumped into one large group of general support roles that are nothing but subservient, and dare I say it, submissive.
Now from what I understand, in America and even in the U.K, the difference between a Personal Assistant and an Executive Assistant is distinct, and very much defined by their titles – one is ‘personal’ and the other ‘executive’. Yet sadly this differentiation is not apparent ‘down under’ in Australia, where the two roles are basically one in the same. But it does beg the question however, why these roles do not have the same distinct differences globally, when the majority of other professions seem to translate no matter where you are in the world. So for all you Aussie assistants out there, I ask you, how can a PA aspire to being an EA, if the role is essentially advertised as the same? But this title and role issue is not just reserved for Australians only. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you’re a PA and were so lucky to land a promotion to an EA role, for example, beyond that, what naturally would be the next step to aspire to, career wise? With such a lack of job levels and so much similarity of responsibilities across all assistant roles, I find a lot of assistants that I mentor, asking me, “where to from here?” With assistants seniority basically dictated by the seniority of the manager you support, there really leaves no room for movement when trying to strive higher in your career.
Now for me personally, I started out my career as a Personal Assistant (slash Receptionist, slash Events Administrator, slash Office Manager, slash, slash…..if you know what I mean), and that role served me well in learning the basics of what was required as a PA to support the Manager I had at the time. But moving on from being a PA, I was keen to become more senior, so to speak, so secured (and talked my way into) an EA role (supporting a Chief) early in my career, which was followed by another EA role at a Chief level, and then another, and another, and another! But without any distinction between these EA roles, on my CV, it appeared that I just was moving from one EA role to the next – all at the same level, without gaining any real seniority with each role. But had I not chosen this elustirus profession of administration and gone into medicine, for example, I would have no doubt started my career as an Intern, then moved up to a Junior Resident, then a Senior Resident, then Chief Resident, a Fellow, then on to a Physician, followed by a Head of a department, and then finally a Medical Director. With each of those levels of medical roles, would come different levels of responsibility, different duties, and different levels of decision making. On paper you would see this clear progression, climbing the ladder, gaining seniority and striving to reach the top of the game. Similarly, had I chosen a career in Law (which my parents were keen for me to do!), again I would have started as an Intern or Clerk, moved up to a Junior Associate, then Senior Associate, Partner, Managing Partner and then even striving finally to be a Barrister. But it’s not just the legal or medical professions that have a clear career paths with set hierarchies for those to move up through. You could be in mechanics, electrics, accounting or even zoology – and always have a bar to reach and roles to seek higher and higher, to essentially try and reach the top of your game. So why is this not the case for assistants? Now some may argue that there is a clear career path in administration, perhaps starting as an Admin Assistant and eventually landing yourself a role as an Executive Assistant supporting a CEO of large organisation. And yes that may be true. But let’s be frank here…..depending on company size, you could literally take the step from Admin Assistant to Exec Assistant to a CEO, without fulfilling any other roles in between, because to most, the responsibilities are again just seen as being the same. If you’re organised enough to do the Admin or Office Management in one company, well then you’re probably organised enough to support an Executive, one on one, in another company. Recruiters and Hiring Managers aren’t looking for clear career progression in assistant roles, but rather just transferrable skill sets, which to me really poses a problem in our industry.
Clutching at straws, I now see many EA’s these days inserting the word ‘senior’ in front of their title, essentially to try and set themselves apart from other EA’s, to demonstrate that they are in fact more senior than the next assistant that shares the same title, but isn’t as senior. Rightly so, there does need to be something that shows that you have worked your way up to a senior level that is more superior than other Executive Assistant roles, and if anything to demonstrate that your responsibilities are more than just the likes of diary and travel. I worked in one organisation, not too long ago, that had more than 50 Executive Assistant’s and all with that same EA title, regardless of the level of Manager they supported. EA’s that supported a Head of a department, had the same EA title as those that supported a General Manager, and the same title as those that supported Executive General Managers and even the same title as the EA that supported the CEO. To me that made no sense and I literally scratched my head on a daily basis in that company as to why the lower management positions would not have Team Assistant’s or Personals Assistants, reserving the Executive Assistant roles for those that actually supported Executives?!
To those of you that are in these more senior EA positions (and are only titled as ‘EA’), you will know as well as I do, the role is more than how they’re described in their job descriptions and job ads, and then even more so again. Albeit all the duties and responsibilities we actually perform are never captured in any position descriptions, as if they were they’d resemble something of a short novel, and even then that wouldn’t even touch the sides of some of the things that we get asked to deliver on. But is it enough to just reference ourselves as being a ‘Senior EA’? Should these level of roles be even titled as ‘assistant’ roles? As to me, and as someone who performs one of these more senior roles, the title does not match the brief. I rarely ever talk about my current employment, nor do I ever go in to details, and for obvious reasons, but on this occasion I do want to reference my current position to make my point. If I had to describe my current position as Executive Assistant, I would basically describe myself as my Executive’s shadow. Yes I do his diary, I book his travel and do the random errands that we all get asked to do. But my role is so much more than that. In fact those particular responsibilities would only make up, say 20 per cent, of my day. The other 80 per cent of the day I find myself sitting in on the majority of my manager’s meetings, co-managing his projects, acting as his advisor, and strategizing, planning and delivering tasks on behalf of him and the wider team. Essentially I am an extension of him. Now this particular role is titled of course as an ‘Executive Assistant’. But comparatively I have worked in other Executive Assistant roles supporting the same Chief level, that saw me do nothing more than making coffee, sending out meeting invites and getting documents signed. Now blind Freddy can see the difference in these roles. So why aren’t the titles different? For those of us that have worked hard to get to the level of seniority that we have, and actually deliver different responsibilities than other EA’s and PA’s, why do we share the same title? And why do we get no credit for the level that we are at? Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not tooting my own horn, I’m purely trying to make the point that there is a distinct difference in types of PA and EA roles, that should be broken down further, allowing us to actually grow through our careers.
There is clearly a disparity between the jobs that we do, so why don’t our titles reflect that? If leaves no room for growth and advancement in our careers, as when you become an EA and intend to be a career EA, you can basically find yourself at the top of your game very early in your career, leaving you with no where else to go and nothing more to strive for except chasing more and more senior Executives. But even then, just because you may support a very senior and significant individual, depending on how they approach your role, you may find yourself still just pushing meetings around in the diary and getting them endless cups of tea. At the end of the day, your role will be dictated by the manager you support and how they intend to utilise you and the responsibilities they delegate to you. I’ve worked for extremely senior Executives in huge organisations that saw me as nothing more than the ‘tea lady’, yet at the other end of the spectrum I’ve worked for less senior individuals that have treated me as their dedicated 2IC, seeking my advice and input on every single aspect of their day and portfolio of work. Make any sense to you? I wouldn’t think so!
The final progression for many assistant’s however, is moving into a Chief of Staff role. And to me, that really is the ultimate to strive for. Set apart from any assistant title, and really leaps and bounds above any EA role, the Chief of Staff is the ultimate partner to the Executive and is seen as the ultimate advisory role, over and above all the general organisation and planning that assistants do. But for many assistants, becoming a Chief of Staff just isn’t an option for various reasons, as many organisations require you to have business qualifications to fulfil roles to that effect. Ultimately this just throws a spanner in the works for those of us that don’t intend to do any further study. But alas, there is another role that I have in mind, and it’s not one that you hear of often, but it is one that I feel we need to push in the industry to enable us to actually have another level to strive for and motivate us to develop our skill sets further, simply by shadowing our Executives. The role I’m referring to here is that of the ‘Business Partner’. So how is the Business Partner different to that of the Executive Assistant, or Senior Executive Assistant? Well whereas the EA or Senior EA provides ‘support’ to their Executive, the Business Partner instead ‘partners’ with them whole heartedly. So that means, whatever they work on, you work on. Whatever they attend, you attend. You’re across every email, every task, every deal/sale, project, client interaction and deliverable. This isn’t the role where you meet once a week and look ahead at the week’s meetings and get told what to set up and what to move, but rather it’s approached as more of a strategic role and that entry level into advisory that would then naturally lead, in time, to that ultimate Chief of Staff role at the top of the hierarchy.
So how many of you actually feel that you are fulfilling that ‘Business Partner’ role right now? I’d be interested to hear if you think you are but are still battling with that EA title that lacks the respect and credit you so properly deserve. Like in a lot of my other blogs, I’m keen to create a movement around this, to push for the title change and introduction into the industry so that we have another level of complexity in our careers to strive for. But more so, so we can finally call a spade a spade and stop the incorrect labelling and titling of so many assistant roles that are delivering so much more than just assistance. Like anything, if we want something to change, especially in our industry we need the weight and support of us all, in order for our profession to grow, develop and change. So I challenge all of you senior assistants out there that are bound by your ‘Executive Assistant’ title, to have that conversation with your boss and introduce them to the concept of you becoming their Business Partner, for all the reasons stated above. So have the conversation, good luck, and go get ’em! And don’t forget to spread the hash tag #FromEAtoBusinessPartner !!