In May, Blackbird hosted an event with Faye Stirling, the Executive Assistant (EA) to Mike Cannon-Brookes and Gisele Karame-Kemp the EA to Scott Farquhar, Co-Founders & Co-CEOs of Atlassian.
In the session, Gisele and Faye dispelled myths around EAs, discussed how to hire the right EA, and shared all of the ways an EA can supercharge a founder or executive.
Here are the learnings from the session.
EAs have big career ambitions
There's a hangover from the 1950s that an EA is like a secretary, but this is not the case. Today EAs act as strategic partners to their executives. By creating opportunities, building trust, and seeing an EA as a strategic partner in your day to day operations, you will reap the rewards.
Another common misconception is that EAs are not motivated for career growth. "We are absolutely motivated and hungry, just like other direct reports that want opportunities," says Faye. "That's not to say we all want to grow out of the EA role, but we want to be given opportunities to challenge, develop and hone our craft."
The best companies and best leaders will hold on to EAs by creating opportunities and stretch goals, as you would do for any direct report. If you don't, you will lose good EAs to other companies.
EAs are relationship stakeholders
Executive Assistants bridge the gap between you and your staff. They have high emotional intelligence and pick up on things that others don't. In meetings where the executive focuses on the topic at hand, an EA can read a room and filter through different information, including things like whether an employee is at risk of leaving the organisation. "We can really be your eyes and ears within the business," says Gisele.
Career EAs will build genuine relationships with those around them, spanning across your business, stakeholders and customers. "The flip side to this is to be aware of EAs who have an ego or those who manage up and kick down," says Gisele. “The ones that treat you like God, but it's a different story for your team. They can really be toxic." Remember that your EA is a reflection of you so find one that shares your values.
They are time magicians
EAs are not only the guardians of your most precious resource — time — they can make more of it by taking charge of your calendar and working their scheduling mastery. "We can ensure you're not in meetings that could be handled by someone else on your team," says Gisele. "And better yet, not in meetings that shouldn't happen at all."
A good EA will know when you do your best deep work. "Perhaps you find you're at your best when you exercise first thing in the morning, then do deep work and then take meetings in the afternoon. They will make that happen," she says. "Or during COVID-19 restrictions, you realise that dinner with your family makes everything worthwhile. Your EA can make sure you never miss out on dinner with your family again."
They can also take it to the next level by tracking where you're spending your time and will help you determine whether you're spending time on things that aren't aligned with your current priorities. So share your priorities with your EA, and they'll keep you on track.
The decision tree
To set expectations and harness the full potential of your Executive Assistant, Faye suggests using something called the 'decision tree.' The decision tree is a structure to set out guidelines for how you would like to work with your EA. It will also ensure no critical mistakes happen in the beginning. A leaf decision is a decision made without an executive or founder's knowledge. A branch decision is a decision made by the EA, with a heads up to the founder or executive (for example a thank you gift). For a trunk decision, the Executive Assistant will prepare the solutions or recommendations and the final decision will be made by the founder or executive. A root decision is addressed immediately, and the EA takes no action until it's signed off. "Over time Mike and I have worked together to grow the leaf and branch option," says Faye. "So now that I can take more off his plate."
You want to find someone who aligns with your values, so don't rush the decision-making process when hiring an Executive Assistant. "The more successful that you become, the fewer people that will be around you, who will tell you the truth and not just what you want to hear," says Gisele. Your Executive Assistant can become the most loyal person to you outside of your family. With this in mind, Faye says it will take around six months to determine whether your hire is a good fit for you and your company. If you make a mistake in your hiring, fire fast. "It's better to start again than have a bad EA and live in fear of not knowing when your world is about to blow up," she adds.
Where an EA focuses their time will depend on what's of value to you and your business. It can vary from calendar management, arranging travel, to planning and executing events, managing projects, creating presentations and writing speeches.
An experienced EA's role can extend to customer research, managing budgets and financial reporting. They require context, understanding and communication skills. It takes a lot of trust on both sides, and this does not happen overnight.
Sound like you?
Blackbird is looking to hire our first EA to supercharge our founders Rick and Niki. We're open to your background, however, we are looking for someone with a few specific superpowers.
- Customer Experience. Little things account for the majority of results. Every interaction is a chance to craft a great experience.
- Words. More than dotting i's and crossing t's, you'll master email to the highest of standards, and always striking the right tone when addressing our founders, investors and stakeholders using Front.
- Hyper-efficient. At Blackbird, we call this Batko-like behaviour, named after Startmate CEO Michael Batko our shining beacon of efficiency. You can read more about Michael’s systems of efficiency and processes here to learn more.
- Ownership mentality. No job is too small. You're happy to roll up your sleeves and do the task at hand.
Apply here for the Executive Assistant role at Blackbird.