Think of Google, the Virgin Group and Microsoft and immediately the great leaders behind these iconic brands come to mind. In addition to having built multibillion dollar enterprises, Eric Schmidt, Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates all have something else in common: They could credit the seamless running of their enterprises to their valiant executive assistants.
"The goal of every CEO or leader is to have [his or her] organization run like a well-oiled machine," declared Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline.com, from the stage of a conference held last year in Newark, N.J., just for executive assistants. "I have only been able to accomplish that when I had a true partner by my side, my co-pilot in the cockpit, my EA. A talented EA is one of the most important decisions an executive will make."
These days the image of the person directly helping a CEO is far from that of a Mad Men-like secretary bound to a typewriter, preferring to be seen but not heard. Today's assistant is the driving force at many startups, responsible for fortifying the foundation of support that positions entrepreneurs for ultimate success.
Herculean efforts are required to sustain longevity in this role. Being a top assistant demands a certain breed of individual. Assistants who survive at the highest levels share a hunger for perfection and an insatiable drive to surround themselves with others having the same level of commitment.
Much like their relentless executives, executive assistants do whatever it takes.“When he was doing deals we’d work from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.,” Penni Pike, the former executive assistant of 31 years to Sir Richard Branson told Executive PA. Although Pike's marriage broke down under the pressure of her work for Branson, she remains philosophical about its demise. "If you work for someone like Richard, the work comes first."
Sacrifice, devotion, loyalty and backbone are what's required initially to survive and then succeed in these roles. Many of these professionals admit to having lost a great deal of their personal lives due to their devotion and loyalty to the role.
"Assistants notoriously give up their lives and sign a deal with the devil once they decide to work alongside great leaders," Michelle DiGiacomo, executive assistant to Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, said at another executive assistant conference in August. "I knew that going in, however, I didn't realize the magnitude I had to sacrifice."
The challenge involved in aligning one's job to a person of power and leadership is simple: Change is not always welcomed unless there's a guaranteed advantage or certainty of an outcome.
There's been a gradual progression in the terms used for those working behind the scenes at companies, from "secretary" to "administrative professional."The role of executive assistant did not become clearly defined until the 21st century. Some companies today even hire chief executive assistants.
Until now a lack of respect and recognition created a level of doubt, fear and uncertainty. Due to the subordinate nature of their roles, many assistants felt deterred from standing out and instead opted to stay behind the scenes and out of the limelight. That's gradually changed.
In 1942 the International Association of Administrative Professionals was born. Based in Kansas City, Mo., it has a loyal global following and held its first conference in 1946.
In 2011, I founded the Executive Assistants Organization as a global network based in San Francisco. Twice a year I organize the organization's Behind Every Leader conferences where executive assistants can revel in the rare opportunity to meet one another, enjoy camaraderie and share war stories.
At these conferences, assistants' speak candidly of their experiences: valiant triumphs, revelations of workplace bullying, moments of adoration and catastrophic endings. Some even do comedic re-enactments.
In August executive assistant Rosemarie Terenzio, who worked alongside John F. Kennedy Jr. for more than decade, captivated the audience at this summer's Behind the Leader conference in San Francisco. "When John died, my life fell apart. My world centered around running his world, therefore, when he was gone, I felt empty."
These powerhouses are taking it upon themselves to change history and build a movement with nothing more than a microphone and a mission.
These accounts are part of a monumental shift in the industry as assistants feel inspired to gather together. They are sharing their stories and seeking support and guidance in their profession.
Our great leaders, business tycoons and celebrity icons have a job to do and their assistants curate the world around them. Yet, one could argue their assistants are the co-stars of the show. They make the executives' world turn each day. And now the time has come for these remarkable individuals to gain the recognition and honor they truly deserve.