What makes an exceptional assistant?

July 21, 2020
Level Up

Every Executive Assistant role is different, maybe your role is particularly travel heavy, or you have the opportunity to develop and deliver projects. Either way, there are certain skills - for example diligence and trustworthiness - that are core to any role. With that in mind, how do you elevate yourself from being a good EA to exceptional? The following isn't an exhaustive list of suggestions by any stretch of the imagination, more a starter for 10.

1. Listen

Not only to your principal but to what is happening in the broader company : are your teammates happy? Do they greet each other in the morning? What are their pain points? Keeping an ear to the ground allows you to affect positive change when it is needed and to nip situations in the bud before they become disruptive.

2. Learn to structure your time

Make sure to settle into a routine that works for you. In my previous role I got into the habit of booking a meeting room for one hour every morning. The team knew that if I was there, I needed to concentrate with limited disruption, which meant that at the end of the hour I had a clear vision of how my day would look and could focus on the task at hand. If being away from your desk for an hour isn't feasible, I'd highly recommend turning off all notifications for a period... it's amazing how much you can get done without Slack/Email/WhatApp/Spotify vying for your attention.

3. Don't be afraid to say "no"

How many times have you found yourself taking on more work because you're diligent, resourceful... and can't bring yourself to say "no"? For such a small word, it is fully charged but if you can learn to use it constructively it will make the world of difference, for example "I have X, Y, Z priority at the moment so I can't help this time, but will be happy to in the future". Your time and skills are just as valuable as anyone else's, make sure you are putting them to good use.

4. Set boundaries

Much like saying "no", setting boundaries is a muscle you have to exercise. It could be something small like not answering work emails and/or Slacks unless urgent when you get home, asking team members to collect their own lunch, having a sacred lunch hour, or something bigger like not getting involved in personal admin. Either way, being clear about your boundaries will lead to more honest, open and respectful relationships with your colleagues. The key is to make sure your teammates understand why the boundary is important to you. I go into much more detail about boundaries in this blog post.

5. Earn the trust of your colleagues and then nurture it

Earning trust takes time, but losing it only takes a moment. A good example of this is calendar management. As an EA you will spend a huge amount of time prioritising and reprioritising your principal's time. A knock on effect will be changes to the wider team's calendar also; suddenly that weekly 1:1 is fortnightly or that monthly meeting has been pushed back a week. If the wider team trusts you they will understand you are acting with the principal and team's best interests at heart and not feel that they are no longer important. Be open about your constraints and you'll find the team will be more open and understanding with you.

6. Don't be afraid to ask for help

Putting your hands up and asking for help makes you human. Whether you are totally swamped with meeting requests or you're stuck on a particularly thorny problem, seek out a helping hand or someone with the expertise you're missing. To be an effective EA you need to be efficient, make sure you're not hindering yourself.

7. Find your superpower

Maybe you have exceptional PowerPoint skills, can schedule travel like no other or are simply insanely efficient. Find that power and make sure your principal, team and wider community know about it. Who knows where it could lead?

8. Identify your weaknesses and work on them

Whether you need to pay a little more attention to SPAG spelling and grammar or there's an aspect to your work you don't enjoy as much (expense anyone?), lean into the discomfort and find a way to make it work for you eg by scheduling a power hour once a week to just get it done.

9. Find a tool that works for you... and actually use it!

On any given day my desk will be covered in Post-Its, either reminders, random thoughts that have occurred to me, or requests, however, the main crux of my day is recorded on Notion, with separate pages for meeting requests, travel and project/event management. Find what works for you - be that a notebook, bullet journal, or online tool - and make sure to use it. Productivity tools only make you productive if you put the work in.

10. Have faith in yourself and believe in the value you bring

Being exceptional doesn't mean shouting from the rooftops, it is the quiet confidence that comes with remembering that you bring order and calm to chaos, there is pretty much nothing you can't accomplish once you put your mind to it, and anyone who feels the need to put "just" before your job title clearly never met you.


When all is said and done, being exceptional is not the same as being perfect or never making a mistake, it is knowing your strengths, working on your weaknesses, and consistently iterating within all aspects of your role.

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