The Coolest Person in the Room: How Executive Assistants Keep it Together

The Coolest Person in the Room: How Executive Assistants Keep it Together

By Sarah Steinberg

“I would be insulted if someone called me a secretary,” says Gabriela Contreras, 36, an executive assistant at Hotwire in the San Francisco Bay area. Which, when you consider that Contreras has an MBA in business administration, and that her scope of work includes everything from dealing with expense reports and travel bookings to the logistics of off-site meetings, fair enough. Her day-to-day is a far cry from the secretaries of yore. Think of Mad Men’s Joan Holloway, a favorite of Contreras’, whose last task for the day was often handing some dapper man his overcoat. And then both secretary and exec were blissfully unreachable until morning. Ah, the past.

The modern executive assistant is a juggler par excellence: project manager, travel agent, bookkeeper, event coordinator, professional communicator and psychic, as well as a gateway to some of the most in-demand leaders in any organization. All with a view towards supporting an executive whose time is so sought after that, without help, she or he would simply not be able to perform the role.

And this means the job can get pretty busy. For Niloo Etemadi, 26, an executive assistant at Levi Strauss & Co., the day flies by. “I don’t really have downtime, to be honest with you,” she says. “The days just go by so fast, sometimes I forget to eat.

Supporting two vice-presidents means that Etemadi’s days are spent in a whirlwind of calendaring quagmires, catering requests, and administrative functions: she’s the first stop for her executives’ teams before anything goes to IT or human resources. Computer’s not working? Talk to Etemadi. Misunderstanding between employees? Talk to Etemadi. Need an event coordinator for a full-day off-site team workshop? You already know who to talk to.

It’s during those off-sites that Breather comes in. Despite having a large campus, Etemadi says that Levi’s is often lacking in meeting space, so she regularly books Breather for half and full day meetings. She’s the first person in, verifying that catering is set up and the computers are all working, and the last person out. And for her, the work day isn’t over just because she’s left work for the day.

“When I get home I’ll check emails again, just to make sure,” Etemadi says. “I’m very on top of things, and I don’t like to leave things. As soon as something comes in I like to get it done. So sometimes it’s crazy and hectic and it’s great. But other times trying to balance having a personal life with that, that can be difficult. But you just have to juggle better!”

It’s not uncommon to hear stories about assistants supporting high level executives that are expected to be on call at all hours, depending on who they’re working for and what that executive’s travel schedule and sleep proclivities are. For many, the intensity of the job portrayed in The Devil Wears Prada, the most recent blockbuster to have spotlighted an assistant, is a reality – even if the clothes, regrettably, are not. Remember when Andy had to miss her boyfriend’s birthday party because of her boss?

“I’m not one of those assistants,” Contreras says, “that is on 24-hours. I’m very lucky that my VP’s are very considerate of the work-life balance…they’re not going to be calling at midnight.”

With or without a business degree, certain characteristics are more likely to position an executive assistant for success. The first is a predisposition towards organization and planning. Both Etemadi and Contreras color-code their closets at home, and Etemadi’s books are arranged alphabetically. They’re both the types to plan family vacations and mobilize their friends for a group hang. They also legitimately enjoy helping others, and get particular satisfaction from being anticipatory: solving a problem before it even has a chance to get off the ground. And then of course, there’s those crucial problem solving and interpersonal skills.

“When something happens you can’t freak out,” Etemadi says. “You have to remain cool, calm and collected and think of a solution…something happens and I just fix it in the calmest, best way I can.

When executives and their assistants work well together, that synergy is worth protecting: decade-long relationships between assistants and the executives they support are not unheard of. But in Contreras’ case, that was never the plan. After completing her MBA, she identified the position of executive assistant as a way to get her foot in the door at a large company, with a view towards securing work in another department. Nearly three years later, she’s re-evaluating her plan.

“It’s been hard to make that transition personally,” Contreras explains. But as it turns out, it’s not for lack of support or opportunity from her VP’s. So why hasn’t she changed course? “Because,” says Contreras, “I really like what I do.”

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