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Helen Blog

Tips from an EA

A good executive assistant really is worth their weight in gold. Here, our Senior EA - Helen Slack - shares tips for those looking to get time with leaders, alongside tips for fellow or aspiring EAs.

Most people will be well aware that getting time in with a CEO or board member can be challenging. Here are some tips from our seasoned EA

Tips for securing time with a CEO/board member

Tip 1: if they have an EA/PA, go to them

CEOs and senior teams appoint an EA or PA to support them, because they have limited time and need to focus on the priorities. If you try and go direct, you’re much less likely to get a response than if you come straight to the EA/PA. The likelihood is if the CEO does see the email, they’ll forward it to the EA/PA anyway, so it’s just adding to how long things will take.

Tip 2: be specific about the ask

Asking for time in someone's diary is one thing, but to increase your chance of success, include the specifics up front. Make sure you say what the time is needed for - this will be used to prioritise requests. And always give a reasonable time frame. Asking for time today or this week is very unlikely to be possible. I’m usually booking two months ahead - though this can vary.

Tip 3: is your need genuine?

It may seem like an obvious thing, but if you’re requesting time in a CEO’s diary, you need to consider where on their priority list the thing you want to talk about is. If you’re just looking for a casual chat, consider other ways to connect, like at networking sessions or talks they’re taking part in.

Tip 4: don’t cry wolf

If you constantly ask for urgent meetings, or add the urgent flag for things that don’t need a 24-hour response time, then the one time something is genuinely urgent, you may find you don’t get the time in diaries you were hoping for. As with tip 3 - consider not just urgency to you, but priority for them. Showing you understand this when making your request will win you points.

Tip 5: politeness goes a long way

You would be surprised at the number of people who forget an EA/PA is a human being, doing a difficult and demanding job. Remembering our name, keeping us copied in on important threads - especially anything with scheduling involved - and just being polite and friendly is always appreciated. And as an extra bonus, when our boss asks how our week was, you’re unlikely to be the thing we mention as having given us a headache!

Tips for new EAs

Being an EA is not for everyone - it's a demanding job, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.

Tip 1: Take time getting to know those you’re supporting

If you’re supporting multiple people, this will take a bit longer, but it’s really important to spend some time understanding how the C-suite team members like to work. What are their preferred ways of communicating, how long do they like meetings to last, what breaks do they like to take, and who are their ‘always-on’ connections, who need to be jumped to the top of the priorities list?

Tip 2: Be one step ahead

You can guarantee that plans will change, and there won’t always be much warning. Being an EA is like being the swan gracefully gliding over the water, while the unseen feet paddle away frantically to keep things on course. Having a flexible mindset is key to success, as is being prepared to jump online at a moment’s notice to cancel a meeting, arrange an emergency taxi as the trains have stopped running, or to reschedule an entire week’s worth of meetings due to a change in priorities etc. If you expect these things to happen at any moment, then you will not only be prepared, but also grateful for every day that runs like clockwork.

Tip 3: Understand people’s boundaries

With access to work systems being constant, it’s important to understand and agree boundaries, in both directions. Make sure you know when leaders do/don’t want to be contacted out of hours. If they’re going on holiday, find out beforehand when an interruption is expected and when time off is to absolutely be respected. Once you understand these boundaries, you will be empowered to push back on those making unreasonable or unachievable requests, with the confidence you are doing the right thing for the leader/s you support. And in the other direction, make sure you’re clear when you’re available and when you’re not. If you’re going away on holiday, it’s absolutely fine to expect total downtime – but do consider the impact and who can cover for you in an emergency, so your time off can also be protected.