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How to Get the Most out of Your Executive Assistant

As innovative CEOs have discovered, executive assistants can do much more to help them perform effectively, beyond simply digitizing what used to be paper tasks. Modern EAs are conducting corporate research, providing advice on community outreach and even subbing for their bosses at meetings. Here are some tips on how to effectively utilize your EA.

Key Takeaways

  • Include the executive assistant in strategy meetings
  • Keep the assistant informed about important business issues
  • Use the assistant as a sounding board

When David Pottruck was chief executive of Charles Schwab and it came time to set the budget for his executive office, he barely talked with anyone from the finance department. Instead, a vice president and a manager of finance met monthly with Pottruck’s executive assistant, Colleen Bagan-McGill, to exchange information on past budgets, the CEO’s wish list and corporate estimates. Only when it got to the tough negotiating did Pottruck step in. “Instead of David’s having a 45-minute meeting, he just had a 10-minute meeting,” Bagan-McGill says.

Adds Pottruck, “She has the business acumen and the judgment. She would make most of the requests on my time go away.”

(Pottruck was fired from Schwab in July 2004 after revenues and the stock price fell. He now runs a small, San Francisco-based private equity firm called Red Eagle Ventures, with Bagan-McGill as chief administrative officer.)

Theoretically, CEOs know that the traditional secretary of the “Mad Men” era is as obsolete as the Dictaphone and the three-martini lunch. Chief executives today don’t need to dictate letters because they write their own e-mail. They’ve renamed their secretaries “executive assistants” and armed them with computers.

As innovative CEOs like Pottruck have discovered, EAs can do much more to help them perform effectively, beyond simply digitizing what used to be paper tasks. Modern EAs are conducting corporate research, providing advice on community outreach and even subbing for their bosses at meetings. “Executives need to see them not just as support, but as real business partners,” says Ana Dutra, CEO of Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting, the subsidiary of executive recruiter Korn/Ferry that handles corporate governance and management and is a $93 million business on its own.

A Spy at Meetings

One of the most dramatic changes is that EAs are starting to attend important corporate meetings. For instance, Dutra has brought her EA, Linda Dziubala, with her to the firm’s annual, two-day global leadership meeting for the past three years, joining the chief financial officer, the chief operating officer, the four regional heads and eight other managers. Both women say that these sessions, along with Dutra’s explanations of her priorities and strategy, help Dziubala in juggling the CEO’s schedule.

“If I know we’re trying to work more closely with [the Korn/Ferry search division],” Dziubala says, “those are appointments I would book without checking with Ana.” Dutra estimates that her assistant’s independence and knowledge reduce the time she has to spend on back-and-forth checking by about one-fifth.

Executive assistants might even do a little corporate espionage around the table. “If I’m engaged in the meeting, and I’m thinking about what I’m talking about,” Pottruck says, “she’s watching everyone’s behavior. She can see who’s really bought into the ideas and who is just checking their BlackBerry?”

The Public Face

For less-crucial meetings, particularly community events, the CEO may not need to show up at all. When neither the director of a particular library project at the Carnegie Corporation nor Carnegie president Vartan Gregorian could attend a two-day meeting of a library consortium in Washington, D.C. two years ago, Dr. Gregorian sent Jeanne D’Onofrio, his recently promoted EA. (More proof of the EA’s increased importance: Gregorian urged D’Onofrio to get a master’s degree in public administration and then promoted her to chief of staff and operations.)

Bagan-McGill gave tours of the Schwab offices and attended monthly meetings with a San Francisco public school volunteer partnership that the company sponsored. For about 10 years, she says, she sat at the corporate table for the group’s annual lunch, along with executive vice-presidents and senior vice-presidents from Schwab. That’s probably two hours per luncheon freed up from Pottruck’s schedule, she points out.

“A [traditional] secretary doesn’t maybe have the social graces to be in a large corporate situation, or they can’t speak broadly about the company,” adds Bagan-McGill, who was promoted twice in light of her added responsibilities.

Research and Advice

If old-fashioned CEOs used to ask their secretaries for advice on birthday gifts, today the assistants give advice on business issues. Dziubala doesn’t just attend the Korn/Ferry leadership meetings; sometimes she speaks up. Because her EA used to work on the search side of the company, Dutra says, “A couple of times she actually brought to the table the viewpoint of the other line of business, and that was invaluable, helping us to understand how our search partners look at the information we put in the shared system.”

Gregorian, at Carnegie, appointed D’Onofrio to the six-member search committee—along with four vice-presidents and the IT director—to hire a new HR director four years ago, while she was still his EA. “I expected that she would use her deep knowledge of the corporation and its needs and culture to identify candidates,” Gregorian says. During the process, he and his EA conferred regularly.

Whenever a new member joins one of Genentech CEO Ian T. Clark’s outside boards, his EA, Aggie Pagnillo, researches that person’s background online. Bagan-McGill found a speechwriter for Pottruck and also pointed out the importance of buying a corporate box when the San Francisco Giants built their new ballpark in 2000.

An Assistant for the Assistant

The EA job at larger companies has gotten so complex that some EAs may even have their own assistants for old-style secretarial tasks. Pagnillo’s assistant at Genentech orders supplies and arranges catering, freeing up Pagnillo to take on more advanced work like organizing and editing the PowerPoints for sales presentations. At Schwab, Bagan-McGill oversaw three lower-level EAs, each of whom worked different shifts in Pottruck’s nearly 24-hour day. When the CEO travels, the second-tier assistant will keep the office running while the primary EA flies with the boss.

“Anything that can be delegated so that the executive assistant can focus on the CEO’s needs saves the CEO time,” says Sheila W. Wellington, clinical professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

For all the changes in the assistant’s role, that’s one priority that hasn’t changed.

At Small Companies, Everyone’s a Manager

Everyone does double-duty at small companies, so it’s no surprise that these executive assistants may have particularly complex responsibilities. “The person is going to be cross-functionally talented,” says Leni Miller, president of EASearch, a consulting firm based in Sausalito, California that specializes in placing top-level executive assistants. “She has some good bookkeeping skills, some good tech skills, but she also has a really good overview of how the whole company needs to work together.”

As executive assistant to Lucinda Lee Katz, head of the Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California, a $19 million educational business with 560 students, Susan Walker manages her boss’s calendar while also supervising the receptionist and office/facilities manager, organizing the annual graduation ceremony and subbing for Katz at meetings to plan the academic year. When the school undertook a major expansion, she even chose the furniture.

Before working for CEO Ian T. Clark at Genentech, Aggie Pagnillo was the executive assistant to the CEO of a small venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. One minute she was discussing space needs with a rental agent; the next, she was showing the IT guy what was wrong with the firm’s computer servers.

Just as some executives work better in a big company where their responsibilities are siloed, so do some executive assistants, and a CEO needs to make sure the person matches the job. Pagnillo, for one, says, “I was grateful when I came to Genentech that I wore just one hat.”

The Skills that CEOs Seek

When Ana Dutra came to Korn/Ferry four years ago and needed an executive assistant, she knew immediately that Linda Dziubala was the right person for her. “The first thing Linda did was something I would have done,” Dutra explains. “She said, ‘Let’s go out and have coffee and talk about your expectations about the job.’”

Indeed, most CEOs are looking for just that kind of initiative when they hire EASearch to find an executive assistant, says Leni Miller, president of the San Francisco-area consulting firm. In her list of the top 21 traits of senior-level EAs, “proactive focus on support” comes first.

Former Charles Schwab Corp. CEO David Pottruck lists three key criteria: “interpersonal skills, efficiency and work ethic,” including a willingness to be available to him 24/7 the same way he’s available to clients. For his part, Carnegie Corp. president Vartan Gregorian says: “Most important is the EA’s ability to understand and anticipate the needs of the CEO.” Other crucial attributes are organizational ability, an awareness of world events and “mutual respect.”

EASearch’s list has a mix of specific qualities, such as “exceptional organizational skills,” the ability to utilize new technology, “knowledge of cultural differences” around the world and good communication skills.

Greater Glory: Eight Executive Assistants-Turned-Middle Managers

For ambitious executive assistants, the ultimate role model is Colleen Barrett, who started as the legal secretary to Herb Kelleher (then a Texas lawyer), followed him when he co-founded Southwest Airlines in 1971, and ultimately rose up the corporate ladder on her own to become the airline’s president until she retired in 2008. While no other EA has achieved such heights—and not everyone wants to—others have been promoted to middle management in recent years. Among them:

  • Colleen Bagan-McGill, Charles Schwab Corp., director of corporate administration in the executive offices (managed a staff of 12 including clerical, reception, kitchen and protective services)
  • Brady Colby, Masons of California, director of administration and board governance (identifying key issues for the service organization’s board, acting as liaison to the executive staff and following governance issues)
  • Jeanne D’Onofrio, Carnegie Corp., chief of staff and operations (manages office services and the president’s office)
  • Jean Francese, Engine Yard, vice president of administrative services (oversees facilities, office management, IT, and administration)
  • Debbie Gross, Cisco Systems, chief executive assistant and guest lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz extension program (oversees 1,000 global administrative assistants and teaches an administrative training program)
  • Christina Restivo, Sanders Capital, office administrator (oversees office operations, negotiates with vendors and assists with client liaison and HR)
  • Loretta Sophocleous, TIAA-CREF, director of executive office operations (acts as chief of staff, mentors the EAs of all of the CEO’s direct reports)
  • Susan Walker, Marin Country Day School, director of head of school’s office and board relations (supervises two people, organizes the annual graduation ceremony and is a member of the nine-person administration team)

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