Don’t tell Christine Lucy secretaries are obsolete. The 25-year-old human-resources veteran at staffing firm Robert Half International remembers the COO who hired an executive assistant right before a trip to Tokyo.
When he landed, he discovered his previous EA had forgotten to book a hotel. He spoke no Japanese, and every place he found was full. “He was going to sleep in the airport,” she says. His new hire came to the rescue: she began working her contacts in the travel industry and got him a room for the night. “That’s what a really good EA can do for you,” says Lucy.
The days of having a secretary juggle your schedule, screen your calls and remember that you like your coffee with Splenda seem as quaint as Don Draper’s fedora. Thanks to cost-cutting, calendars in the cloud and a growing embrace of flat hierarchies, assistants seem like a plutocratic splurge. Ray Weikal, spokesperson for the International Association of Administrative Professionals, says they are indeed on the decline. “Law offices that had one EA for every three lawyers now have one for every 10.”
Why is this a problem? Because secretaries are awesome. A great one is much more than a glorified iPhone. He or she can be your right hand, the No. 2 who knows not to schedule finance meetings late in the day, but also that you spilled coffee on your jacket and will need it dry cleaned.
Secretaries also make sound economic sense. “If you’re VP of finance, your job is to manage bank loans, rather than book flights on Expedia,” says Lucy. Consider that a manager who makes $250,000 and spends an afternoon booking hotels would have cost his company as much as $500—and neglected the work he’s paid to do.
So, should you get the go-ahead to hire a personal executive assistant, what should you look for?
If you want one who will remember your spouse’s birthday when you forget it, you’re going to have to say so up front, points out Lucy. If not, applicants these days won’t expect that’s part of the job. “It is OK to put in a job description that you will be managing a professional and personal calendar.”
As well, you should fight the urge to simply hire someone you like. “As humans, we like people who are like us,” says Lucy. Rather, you want to hire an extension of you, that miracle worker who will, dare we say, complete you. That’s what distinguishes a truly great assistant, says Anthony Spiteri, vice-president of marketing at food manufacturer Pinty’s. The job didn’t come with an EA—and he misses the ones he’s had at previous jobs. “Once you get the VP title, you want to believe everyone’s being honest with you,” he says. “The best EAs are going to tell you where the bear goes in the woods: They’ll say, ‘I know what people tell you in the coffee room. Here’s what’s really going on.’”