Celebrating the glue that binds the business

By Raewyn Court

The best executive assistants play the role of confidante, problem-solver, sounding board and diplomat.
The best executive assistants play the role of confidante, problem-solver, sounding board and diplomat.

Today is Administrative Professionals Day, and managers fortunate enough to have an exceptional executive assistant (EA) will no doubt take the opportunity to show their appreciation of one of the most valuable assets in their business arsenal. Flowers? The afternoon off?

The afternoon off seems less likely if you've read Jan Jones' new book, The CEO's Secret Weapon, and realised the indispensability of top EAs. If not for EA Marion Keisker the world probably wouldn't have had Elvis, and without Penni Pike, Virgin Airways quite possibly would never have got off the ground.

When Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records in 1953, it was Keisker who saw his potential, recorded his voice and persisted in mentioning "the boy with the sideburns" until her boss, Sam Phillips, relented and signed him up. And when Penni Pike took a call for her absent boss Sir Richard Branson from Randolph Fields about starting an airline for 1 pound, instead of laughing she thought, "God, he would love this," and couldn't wait to tell him about it.

Branson said, "Get him on the line," and Virgin Atlantic Airways was born.

These stories are told by Jones, a former executive assistant who worked for 20 years alongside a variety of highly successful businessmen, including personal development guru Tony Robbins. Her book, fully entitled The CEO's Secret Weapon (How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness) debuted at number one on Amazon's hot new releases in the office management category on its release last year.

While giving us fascinating glimpses into the work practices of the rich and famous, the book is essentially a tool for professionals and their assistants to realise the full potential of the role of executive assistant. Jones uses a combination of practical advice including tips and examples, and commentary from top international leaders such as Steve Forbes (Forbes magazine), John Chambers (Cisco), Steve Jobs (apple), and Greg Renker (Guthy-Renker). Jones also interviewed close to 100 executive assistants, and includes candid comments from assistants to many high-profile American leaders including the late John F. Kennedy jr, facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, supermodel Cindy Crawford, former US President Ronald Reagan and aspiring US President, Donald Trump.

Jones says many young executives she interviewed seemed to think they didn't need an assistant. "They think that it takes too much effort to break in an assistant and explain to them what they want from the relationship, so they either didn't hire one or severely underutilised them. My own experience is that the 'old school' executives were much more likely to understand the value of an exceptional assistant and avail themselves of such a partnership."

She gives credit, however, to Mark Zuckerberg for hiring Anikka Fragodt, "who was older than he was, but he was smart enough to realise (albeit not immediately) that he needed her level of experience to manage his day-to-day life as Facebook moved from start-up to one of the world's most valuable brands. Zuckerberg said, 'Annika helped me become a better CEO'."

Jones says the best executive assistants play the role of confidante, problem-solver, sounding board, diplomat, and someone who will tell you the truth when everyone else is running for cover. Former EA Abe Hersing says an exceptional assistant has a sixth sense -- they can anticipate what their boss needs before even being asked. And much like a marriage, chemistry and compromise both play a part in the relationship. Branson told Jones that "you end up spending more time with your assistant than your partner, so it's critical you're great friends and you get on really well. It has to be give and take in the relationship, just as there is with your actual partner."

High-level executive assistants in the US can earn eye-watering salaries. When Jones joined a start-up 12 years ago as EA to the president, she was making US$85,000. If she were in that role today, she would expect her salary to be in the $150,000 range. Salaries range across roles and states, with the national average around $57,000, but in Silicon Valley, those supporting the C-suite (CEOs, CIOs etc) can rake in as much as $200,000 plus bonuses and equity.

These days, Jones runs her own speakers bureau but is still a passionate advocate for the executive assistant profession. She will be in New Zealand at the EA Leadership forum on August 5, where, among top international speakers, our own Rebeka Adamson will speak about her challenging journey to becoming New Zealand's 2015 PA of the Year.

Jones' book is available from theceossecretweapon.com or mightyape.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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