Is Your Executive Assistant the ‘Whole Package’?

Jana DiCarlo

Jana DiCarlo, Serco Inc.

Remember your first car?  Not the one your dad and mom handed down to you, but the one you bought with your own money. You likely thought it was the coolest thing ever, even though by today’s standards its features were barebones.

Cars today are far better equipped.  Most come standard with Bluetooth, MP3, navigation, satellite radio and things we would never have imagined even a handful of years ago. As for add-ons, who doesn’t love a car that reads emails and texts, gives you a bird’s eye view while you park or, even better, parks itself?  In fact a law set to take effect in 2014 will require automakers to produce all new cars with backup cameras.

Much like today’s automobile, modern day executives come with some standard features they didn’t used to have — like the ability to answer their own phone and email.  Most even know how to bang out a basic power point presentation.  Many have iPads or other tablets and can download apps which enable them to read an e-edition of the Wall Street Journal, watch the path of a hurricane and play Words With Friends while they track the status of their flight which has been delayed due to the aforementioned hurricane.

My humor is admittedly bordering on irreverence. The point I’m trying to make is this: since today’s executive can handle many of the most basic  tasks, he or she no longer needs today’s Executive Assistant to complete such routine tasks, and the EA should be used more strategically. Standard features you should find in today’s EA are more robust.

Aside from performing the most basic administrative tasks, your EA must also identify opportunities to free up your time by absorbing parts of your job.

Below are three different packages you should expect to find in today’s model of EA. I’m not going to list tasks such as intelligent phone screening, basic calendar management, routine travel arrangements and expense reconciliation. Those are the engine, wheels and transmission you’d expect on every model of EA.

Today’s EA should also come standard with trust, loyalty and confidentiality. He or she needs to have your back; and, when working under less than auspicious conditions, should be capable of carrying on with a business-as-usual attitude. Staff will use him or her as a barometer to gauge the current state-of-the-union.

Get ready to pick your next EA from the packages below or conclude that your current EA is a keeper. Each progressively capable EA should possess the skills and qualities from the preceding level.


• Understands nature and criticality of appointments. Capable of shifting appointments as necessary without your input.

• Able to handle all logistics for a business trip with four basic pieces of information: who, what, where, when.  For example, instructions could be as scant as, “I want to meet with John Smith of ABC Corp. in San Diego sometime in the next three weeks.”

• Relates to direct reports, visitors and Board confidently, with congeniality and collegiality.

• Possesses strong proofreading skills. Reads your writings or those submitted to you for content and is capable of making suggestions for edits.

• Recognizes need to introduce and implement new processes in executive office.

• Expresses curiosity in the business to understand your primary focus areas and makes attempts to anticipate future concerns.


• Manages your email inbox, prunes it of junk mail, responds on your behalf when appropriate, follows email threads to stay in synch with initiatives and deliverables.  Identifies, extracts and tracks actions to completion.

Reads industry and relevant publications identifying tie-ins to your business.

Capable of handling planning and logistics for both on and offsite meetings.


• Stays a step ahead, understands ripple effects of changes and minimizes or eliminates conflicts.

• Cognizant of events and deliverables. Carves out and protects time in the calendar for drafts and finalization of associated materials and sets aside time for dry runs or rehearsals.

• In a small business scenario, capable of handling multiple roles which may include public and community affairs, recruiting, facility management, research and proposal writing. May act in role of project manager, possibly possessing PMP certification.

In 1983, I paid $8,000 for my first car — a Honda Prelude.  It was a zippy little sport coupe which Brock Yates of Motor Trend described at the time as a “splendid automobile … by any sane measurement. The machine, like all Hondas, embodies fabrication that is, in my opinion, surpassed only by the narrowest of margins by Mercedes-Benz.” The boys at Mercedes-Benz probably had a collective herzinfarkt when they read Brock’s review.

Mercedes surpassed the Prelude, a car that was only loaded with a moon roof, velour and vinyl seats, AC, rear defroster, AM/FM/cassette and a clock only by the ‘narrowest of margins’. At the time, that was state-of-the-art.  At least Brock and I thought so.

If I were still driving that car without the benefit of the soon-to-be-standard back up camera, my chances of backing over the neighbor’s cat would be pretty high.  When we upgrade, we pay more, however, the benefits and extra amenities associated with it make it worthwhile.  If your current EA doesn’t possess many of the skills above, it might be time to visit your local recruiter for an upgrade.

Read DiCarlo’s previous column 7 Keys to Executive Success: A View from the Desk Outside Your Door on WashingtonExec.

Since 2008, Jana DiCarlo has held the post of Executive Assistant to Ed Casey, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Serco Inc.  Prior to that, for five years, she supported Brad Antle during his tenure as President and Chief Executive Officer of SI International, until it was acquired by Serco.  She was the founding chairperson of the WashingtonExec Assistants (Group 1).  Also an accomplished equestrian, she continues to hold a healthy lead in an ongoing Yahtzee tournament against her boyfriend of 15 years and is anxiously awaiting the next season of Breaking Bad.

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