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The ELS Forum, Chicago: Be Your Best You

The best assistants have the remarkable capacity to reinvent themselves to meet changing needs. Sometimes going in three directions at once, they, like Olympic gymnasts, swirling through the air in seemingly impossible ways, stick the landing. And, like gymnasts, they may fall -- sometimes over and over again — but they bounce back, reassess what needs to be done, how to go about it and move forward. Clearly, this is not a career for the fainthearted.

Executive Leadership Support Forum Attendees, Chicago, January 25, 2018

Melba J. Duncan and Al-Husein Madhany, ELS Program Leaders



The job now requires the ability to process information with a dedication to accuracy, group tasks, make decisions quickly, and make intuitive judgments on the fly. The best assistants not only have the most up-to-date information available and superb analytical and administrative skills, but like the best leaders, they also have great intuition — about new ideas and the people who can make them a reality. They have a remarkable eagerness to learn about changes in business and technology. They know that as an executive assistant with increasing management and leadership responsibilities, they MUST commit to continuing education, or they can no longer expect to succeed within the organization. So they make that commitment.


The "revised" job description for the executive assistant includes the management of information, time, logistics, projects and people (as individuals or as members of a team). And in their role of manager, they are increasingly taking on the role of leader so that others in and outside of the organization are motivated and prepared to participate in ways that help the organization to achieve its goals. It is not surprising that the executive assistant role is evolving in the way it is, given a business world that challenges executives to accomplish more with fewer resources. This has provided the opportunity for next-phase executive assistants to fill the capability gap. I believe today's assistant takes initiative, learns new skills and is able to make informed decisions thereby helping to transform the traditional role to one with more and more strategic management and leadership responsibility and accountability.

Although not widely acknowledged in the past, exceptional assistants have always gone beyond what has traditionally been thought of as the assistant's role. Today, executives recognize assistants who have made a commitment to the organization's mission, acquired executive level skills, and have the personal profile required of successful managers and leaders. This has resulted in a new relationship between the assistant, and the executive and organization: that of "value-added-colleague."


Executive assistants are valuable assets to their organizations, and essential to the executives they support. They partner with executives in achieving their goals, advancing their agendas and leveraging their time. In many instances, executive assistants are working with minimal direction and a blank page from which they create a plan, design the structure, build the team and accept responsibility for the outcome. These are the people who pull things together, keep them together and make things happen. Working in concert with their employers, they integrate all of the elements of the company's plans so that the implementation is fluid and seamless.

Executive Assistants are known for their ability to stay focused and to have an acute sensitivity to the importance of time urgency. They somehow manage to get the job done on time in spite of difficult situations and people, because of their engaging and collaborative styles, their ability to negotiate and their tough-mindedness. They know who to go to in order to get the information or access to resources they need, particularly when it's critical to make things happen on short notice. They are the 'go to' people in an organization, who have the information needed at their fingertips, who can integrate all they've read, seen and heard to problem solve and make decisions. They are able to see the big picture, yet simultaneously track operational minutiae.

The very best executive assistants take an idea from conception through planning, research, analysis, collaboration, execution and follow through. In order to do so, they must have not only traditional administrative skills, but also be able to manage projects and lead people. Executive assistants are natural managers because they understand that managing is a set of human interactions, not merely a series of mechanical tasks. They are the experts who have built strong business relationships — not only with executives, but with other stakeholders, including clients, board members and vendors -- and they are being called upon today to leverage those relationships in order to achieve management objectives. Today's assistants are the leaders who make the tough decisions, whose influence extends beyond the 'back office', and who have the qualities that define true leadership — courage, openness to new ideas, and the ability to bring the right people to the right job.

Assistant, manager, leader? A new hybrid essential to the modern organization.


As managers and leaders, executive assistants are strong business allies, with a real share in the purpose and mission of the organization; they are called upon to fill several different roles, from writer to stage manager to director.

Tomorrow's executive assistants will find themselves shouldering ever vaster and ever more complex responsibilities, responsibilities that demand both an "offensive" and "defensive" posture. Executive assistants are highly skilled and competent employees. We must now look at what new (or more highly developed) attitudes, skills and abilities are needed for the enhanced role. Here are some areas for consideration:

  • Impeccable ethical standards

  • Strategic decision-making capabilities.

  • Strong knowledge of business, and new developments within and outside the company

  • Financial intelligence

  • Self-management focus; able to act autonomously and make independent decisions

  • Confidence (and competence) to build relationships with all of the organization's stakeholders

  • Able to build commitment through collaboration

  • Acts as a role model and mentor

  • Forceful and able to resist pressure

  • Can impose order on chaos

  • Will support and promote company decisions and processes and lead others to do so

  • Works to maintain personal life balance

The role of the 21st century assistant will continue to evolve, but I believe it will require all of these skills — and more — in order to support executives as they address unparalleled challenges and opportunities in the global economy.

Be Your Best You..!



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