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The executive assistant: The unsung leader at every great CEO’s right hand

Note: A version of this was previously published on Forbes.

You’ll find the most powerful and capable leaders at the top of a company’s hierarchy. The CEO and the senior executives yield great power and responsibility.

Yet, in all my years as a strategic leadership advisor, I have found another leader at the top of the hierarchy, one who yields a different kind of power and has their finger on the pulse of everything that matters in a company.

Who is this unsung leader? The CEO’s executive assistant (EA).

They often operate in the shadows but are the linchpins that ensure the organizational machine runs smoothly.

While the boardroom celebrates praise for CEOs and senior executives, the vital leadership role of EAs often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. And when a CEO has a genuinely exceptional executive assistant, their effectiveness is greatly amplified. At the same time, when the CEO’s EA isn’t up to the task, the ramifications are visible to everyone.

So, what are the unique leadership attributes of great EAs? I've talked to many of them, and here's what I've learned.

1. Excelling In Diplomacy And Tact

Every day, EAs handle a myriad of tasks that require them to communicate with diverse sets of people. From senior executives to frontline staff, clients to suppliers and the board, they interact with everyone. The diplomacy and tact they display while managing expectations and resolving conflicts are hallmarks of effective leaders.

2. Confidentiality And Trustworthiness

Holding the fort means being privy to sensitive information. The discretion with which EAs handle this information, ensuring it remains confidential, speaks volumes about their integrity and trustworthiness—two vital leadership qualities.

3. Anticipating Needs And Shaping Circumstances

EAs are very good at scanning their day-to-day environment and predicting what the CEO or the organization will need even before it becomes apparent. This proactive approach—the ability to foresee and prepare for challenges—is a pivotal leadership trait. Related to this is the ability to shape things as they unfold to ensure they move in the direction aligned with the CEO’s vision.

4. Making Decisions Under Pressure

While the CEO and senior executives routinely make big decisions, EAs often make countless decisions that ensure everything else functions correctly. Whether it’s deciding on the scheduling of meetings, prioritizing tasks or managing unexpected challenges, their ability to make sound decisions under pressure is commendable.

5. Gatekeepers Of The CEO

Much like a lighthouse keeper, an EA ensures that only the most relevant and necessary information reaches the CEO’s or senior executive’s desk. They shield leaders from unnecessary distractions, allowing them to focus on the strategic aspects of the business.

6. Apolitical

At times, internal politics can run high among an executive team. EAs have the uncanny ability to sense the pulse of the office, understand unspoken issues and act as a bridge between the executive and the rest of the team. They also have the courage and a solid backbone to stand up to anyone trying to manipulate a situation to their advantage.

7. Continual Learning And Growth

The business landscape is constantly evolving and changing. The best EAs consistently adapt, learn and grow with it. This dedication to personal and professional development mirrors that of top-tier leaders.

Next Steps

If you are a CEO looking to bring a strong EA on board, here are some thoughts for you to consider.

Review the attributes described above and identify the top three that are most critical to you.

  1. When conducting the recruitment process, don’t over-emphasize traditional administrative duties. These are important, but the leadership attributes may be more critical.
  2. Hire for complementariness. In other words, find someone who brings very different strengths than yours. So, together, you can become a dynamic duo.

With their multifaceted and demanding roles and unwavering commitment, executive assistants are undeniably leaders. They orchestrate silently, ensuring smooth operations and efficient functioning. In recognizing and celebrating their leadership, companies can boost morale and underscore the diverse ways leadership can manifest within an organization.

About Leadership Contract

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