How to Hire a Great Executive Assistant

By Robert Half November 4, 2019 at 4:15pm

Top-notch executive assistants are more than just assistants: They are partners to the senior managers they support. They get to know the likes, dislikes and priorities of executives to the point where it becomes second nature. In short, they know what it takes in every instance to make their boss look good.

The role of executive assistant is also always evolving and expanding, becoming more and more critical. That’s why it requires a higher degree of initiative than most administrative positions and someone who can think in terms of strategy, not tasks.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to assume top executive assistants don’t need to be detail oriented. Quite the opposite. They need to be masters of detail.

And while company leaders have a 30,000-foot view of the business, executive assistants can offer an invaluable day-to-day perspective. Getting a ground-level assessment can give company decision makers a novel point of view on how to manage and execute programs.

But here’s the bottom line: Because the job requires such trust and special chemistry, hiring an executive assistant can be a challenge. Here’s a step-by-step guide to recruiting an executive assistant who’s right for you.

1. Create a unique job posting

Everything begins with updating and tailoring the existing job description. This step is crucial because the job posting will be based on the job description, which singlehandedly (at least initially) must attract the right people.

List in detail whether the executive assistant will be expected to manage your calendar, screen calls, schedule meetings, prepare financial and data reports, help coordinate key projects or all of the above.

What about interpersonal skills? Executive assistants should be resourceful, collaborative, adaptable and able to think on their feet. Because they may interact with everyone from clients to vendors, they should have excellent verbal and written communication skills. The executive assistant is often the go-to person when an executive is out, so good problem-solving and leadership skills are essential. Also, because executive assistants are often privy to sensitive information, they must be able to be relied upon to maintain strict confidentiality. 

Do you expect a certain level of education? Special credentials? Some employers ask for the certified administrative professional (CAP) designation, for instance.

An effective job posting consists of more than simply a laundry list of the duties that the job entails and background you seek, though. It must convey what you consider essential skills and traits. Here’s where you should get detailed about how you expect your partner to collaborate with you.

Given the pace of digital disruption, you will also want to include technical skills in the posting, especially software skills, internet research capabilities, social media savvy and advanced proficiency with Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook. Typically, candidates also should have a working knowledge of database management software, such as Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro, or other specialized software used by your firm. Knowledge of Workday and Salesforce is also highly valuable. 

In addition, mention the importance of keeping pace with industry tech trends. In a recent Robert Half survey, HR managers reported the primary ways technological advancements such as AI and robotics will change the administrative profession are to replace routine responsibilities, enhance employees’ productivity and require new skills. 

In short, the more time you spend on the job posting, the more effective it will be in attracting the right candidates. Also, assuming that you’re putting the job posting online, you’ll need secure systems in place for taking in, evaluating, sorting, and tracking resumes.

2. Seek hiring help from the specialists

Consider using a specialized professional staffing agency such as OfficeTeam to help you find the right person faster. Recruiters have access to a broader range of candidates for executive assistant jobs. They can also vet applicants more quickly and keep you abreast of the latest administrative hiring and compensation trends. If you decide to go this route, make sure someone in the company — either you or the hiring manager — is directly involved with the staffing expert who’s handling the search.

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3. Narrow the field

After you’ve posted your job, it’s not time to just sit back and wait for resumes to pour in. Monitor your recruiting efforts closely. Evaluate your progress not just by the number of inquiries you receive but also in terms of their quality, meaning applicants who not only meet but also exceed your basic requirements.

When reviewing resumes and cover letters, look carefully to see if candidates really seem to have the skills and attributes needed for the position. Just because applicants are experienced administrative assistants, don't assume they have what it takes to transition to an executive assistant role. Both positions share a basic core skill set, but an executive assistant's role typically requires more initiative and problem-solving. Note evidence of this in the job history. Sometimes candidates’ involvement in professional organizations and volunteer activities (if they list them) and are also indicators of these qualities.

4. Fine-tune your job interview questions

When it comes to the in-person interview, make time to properly prepare. After all, you’ll be working closely with the person you choose so you want to find out as much about their skills and finesse as possible. Fashion your questions in a way to elicit the most revealing answers. Here are 10 examples:

  1. What kind of work environment brings out your best performance?
  2. How would you describe your ideal boss?
  3. What appeals to you about our company and this particular executive assistant job?
  4. Can you tell me about a workplace conflict you were involved in while in an administrative role and how you handled it?
  5. How do you go about learning new software programs and keeping up with technology?
  6. How do you anticipate the needs of the senior leader you’re supporting?
  7. Tell me about a project you are particularly proud of managing.
  8. Why are you leaving your current job?
  9. How would your coworkers describe you as a team member? As a team leader?
  10. What have you done at your current company to save time or reduce costs?

5. Make a thoughtful choice

While the requirements and preferences you listed on the job posting should serve as your guide throughout the evaluation process for most new hires, bringing on an executive assistant is different. True, you don’t want to become so enraptured by one particular aspect of the candidate — a particular credential, for instance — that you let that aspect influence all your other judgments, but you do need to rely to some degree on your gut. Is this a person who can be a true partner to you?

6. Check references

Rushing through the process of checking references can be tempting. But top candidates have many opportunities today, and few are patient with a long evaluation process. Still, getting reliable information from former supervisors and peers is an important part of avoiding what turns out to be a bad hire. Don’t skip reference checking.

Be clear with candidates from the outset that your company will be checking their references. This helps ensure the answers they give you during the interview are truthful. Also, don’t delegate this part of the process. Calling someone at your same level may prompt a more honest and detailed reference.

7. Know what to offer executive assistant job candidates

The most in-demand administrative professionals today know they’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to being hired. The U.S. unemployment rate recently hit a 50-year low and is giving workers more confidence to ask for higher salaries. In fact, 55% of workers polled in a recent Robert Half survey said they tried to negotiate for higher pay with their last job offer.

According to the 2020 OfficeTeam Salary Guide, the salary midpoint (or median national salary) is $55,500 for an executive assistant in the United States. With increasing levels of responsibility come rising salaries. The midpoint starting salary for a senior executive assistant is $63,750.

Salaries range from city to city. Use our Salary Calculator to find out what executive assistant salaries are offered in your market.

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