The Vanishing Executive Assistant—NOT!

I would like to address the recent article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2020 by Rachel Feintzeig regarding The Vanishing Executive Assistant. Sorry, the article is closed to WSJ subscribers only. If you do not want to invest in a subscription to WSJ, even for a few weeks, read Joan’s rebuttal below. It will give you a good idea as to what was covered in the article.

First, I have been entrenched in the administrative profession for 50 years. I worked in the profession for 20 years before starting Office Dynamics in 1990. Office Dynamics specifically focuses on training and development for administrative professionals of all levels. I have written 5 books for assistants, educated 300,000+ assistants, have worked with 70+ Fortune 500 companies, and coached 300+ executive/assistant teams.

The article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is showing a small piece of what is transpiring in the profession. I am happy this article got published because it demonstrates the flaws in how people think about the administrative profession and how companies are overlooking these vital contributors.

The writer immediately points out that technology and automation have chipped away at duties like papers to be filed and landlines to be answered. Yes, thank goodness for that because assistants have brainpower that goes way beyond those basic duties. And yet assistants help file digital documents and manage calls through their cell phones, so the skills required for these tasks haven’t completely gone away.

Next, the article says that new generation leaders are content to schedule their meetings and book flights. The issue with this is that leaders should not be doing so. They are not paid the big bucks to manage a calendar and book flights. Leaders are hired to impact the bottom line, build strategic plans, and lead people. On top of that, these leaders don’t do a very good job of managing their schedules because they don’t have time to look at their calendar from a holistic perspective. A great executive assistant looks at the entire calendar for a month—what happened last week? What is going on this week? What types of meetings are scheduled—are they high level with stakeholders? Which meetings can get canceled and which meetings absolutely must take place? What is coming up on the calendar for the next three weeks? Managing a calendar takes brains; it should not be done on autopilot.

Regarding the big reduction in positions mentioned:

  1. According to federal data, 1.6 million secretarial and administrative assistants’ jobs have been eliminated. I am curious if this data is accurate because there are over 40 titles today for the administrative profession. They range from administrative coordinator, department coordinator, marketing assistant to executive business partner.
  2. Of course, the numbers have gone way down because of technology which led to companies thinking “Let’s have an assistant support more than one person.” The problem is some companies have gone too far by expecting one assistant to support a group of 30 or 40. This really does not give the assistant an opportunity to be a true assistant.

Often referred to as a dying breed, let me explain.

  • What is dying is the way the work is being done
  • What is dying are the old stereotypes
  • What is dying is the boxed job description that limited secretaries from their full potential
  • What is dying is being the office mom

Thank goodness!

This is a very exciting time for the administrative professional. Their role is expansive. Executives want strategic business partners, which by the way, was acknowledged 20 years ago and now is being referred to more than ever. Executive assistants are running meetings, making hiring decisions, giving presentations, negotiating contracts, managing budgets and are considered co-leaders.

Regarding the assistants referred to in the article who are 50 and older having difficulties finding jobs. I have read and agree that ageism exists in the workplace. Yet, I personally know several assistants in their 60s and 70s who are landing very good jobs. In fact, one executive assistant I know landed the best job of her career at the age of 70! She received the biggest salary of her lifetime with all kinds of perks. She is living it up. I can attest, though, that this executive assistant has never stopped learning, growing, and staying fresh. She attended many of our live workshops and assembled a powerful career portfolio. This executive assistant updated her look and has stayed on the cutting edge.

One reason why assistants might have difficulty finding a new job later in their life is they aren’t looking at all the skills they utilized during their administrative career. They are solely looking at the titles they had and so are the potential employers. The executive assistant should look at the skills utilized during their career and market those instead, such as managing projects with competing deadlines, prioritizing multiple tasks and schedules, executing corporate plans, effectively communicating directives, implementing their executive’s plan, developing processes, planning events and the list goes on and on. Many of the skills I learned as an executive assistant gave me a strong foundation when I started my training business and have carried me through leading a global company for 30 years.

In reference to assistants not having time to bond or create relationships with their executives, that is true. They are managing a lot of moving pieces. Yet everyone in the workplace has gotten away from something that is critical to building rapport and creating long-lasting relationships. It’s what I refer to as “Human Moments.” Automation and technology are good to a point but is also destroying families, relationships, communities, and marriages.

I talk with thousands of assistants and managers who think they are communicating with each other because they text or email each other all day. This is not communicating. When an executive and assistant have a daily huddle in person or on the telephone they have opportunities to clarify what they are saying, build context around a task (like scheduling a meeting); they can forecast what’s on the horizon and anticipate obstacles.

I am disappointed that the writer did not interview more companies. Her article mainly focuses on the Ernst & Young model, which is to hire younger people with college degrees, pay them half as much while supporting more people. This implies that being an executive assistant does not take brains and that simply is not true. Today’s assistant is a cognitive being. While there are some assistants who only take orders and do the tasks, they really don’t understand the scope of this role.

I have worked with these young college people and they are wonderful. They are enthusiastic, engaged, and tech-savvy. But they don’t know how to be an executive’s business partner, nor do they understand business protocol. In 2019, I was hired by a large financial firm in San Francisco to develop and facilitate a boot camp for 5 young assistants with college degrees. I asked the executive, “Why are you requiring college degrees for your executive assistant positions?” The executive responded, “Because the kids coming out of high school today just aren’t at the knowledge level that we used to see.”

Several former assistants at Ernst & Young say they had an inkling their roles might be in jeopardy when the firm required them to pass a series of tests on PowerPoint and Excel. Being an excellent assistant is not just about PowerPoint and Excel. This is a huge misconception that society has embraced and projected. Being an executive assistant is a high touch job. Our company, Office Dynamics, focuses on developing interpersonal skills. For 30 years our research with executives, HR, T&D, and assistants continues to place interpersonal skills and the fundamentals at the top of the desired list.

If a company only thinks a good assistant is someone with great technical skills, they are completely missing the boat and it is no wonder they are eliminating their administrative positions. They clearly do not understand what this role entails and it is a shame because there is this fantastic group of individuals who are eager to support the management team. Not “just anyone” can be an executive assistant.

“Helping run executives’ lives—have faded away.” Yes and no. I know several executive assistants who are on call 24/7. They choose to have this role. It is their life mission and passion to support their CEO in running a business and managing their life. I have been on both sides of the desk, remember? 20 years as an assistant and 30 years as a CEO. Believe me, there are many things I do not want to do that my executive assistant is quite capable of handling. I want to focus on what I do best.

McKinsey Global Institute said up to 10 million women across 6 mature economies will switch roles by 2030 as office support jobs disappear. If companies do the right thing and see the executive assistant’s role as they should, they will not eliminate so many positions. As many assistants leave the profession, new ones are joining every day. These young assistants are savvy, hungry, and want to help move an organization forward.

The WSJ article stated that Dana Muldrow said she has embraced life without an admin but admitted she felt unsure what tasks to assign her. This is another area that needs to change. Managers and executives don’t know what to delegate or how to work with an assistant. It isn’t the assistant’s fault that their talents aren’t being utilized. This is also why my company has been teaching executives for 30 years how to maximize the time and talents of their assistants.

I wish that Rachel would have included stories about the amazing companies who are creating career paths for their administrative community, purposely recruiting graduates to come into the profession, training and developing their assistants, and even implementing succession planning. This is because when a C-Suite executive needs to replace or add an assistant, they don’t have time for someone to get up to speed. They need an assistant who can jump in, take the reins, and be their business partner.

Higher demands are being placed on executive assistants to expand their skills and develop business acumen, leadership, executive presence, problem-solving, and strategic planning. OfficeNinjas and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business are now offering a program for executive assistants that mirrors their executive leadership program.

There is an amazing Admin Awards program now for assistants. It is referred to as the Academy Awards for Admins and is held in 5 cities. Southwest Airlines is a major sponsor.

As of today, on LinkedIn these are the stats for titles related to this profession:

  • Administrative Assistant – 9,905,134
  • Executive Assistant – 5,765,649
  • Administrative Professional – 4,395,025 results

That is almost 20 Million in the profession and that doesn’t include everyone. That is a pretty impressive number.

Titles will change and so will responsibilities. The numbers may or may not continue to decrease. But one thing I know for certain is that there will always be executives who need an administrative business partner. And there will always be individuals who will thrive and make this their Career of Choice.

Please feel free to leave comments below and be sure to share this to spread the good news about the administrative profession.

Joan Burge

January 21, 2020


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51 thoughts on “The Vanishing Executive Assistant—NOT!”

  1. Thank you so much for posting this article. I saw the article in WSJ and I was extremely disappointed. I am a graduate of Katharine Gibbs, and I have over 20 years of experience as an Executive Assistant to CEO’s, and executive management at major corporations. I have also supported small business owners in entrepreneurial roles. I am so frustrated with the misconception that an Executive Assistant and/or Administrative Professional is considered a subservient role. I have dealt with business owners who just use and spit out their administrative staff (E&Y has an extremely high turnover rate; I would never apply for a job there). Too many tasks are being piled on as the Executive Assistant is expected to be perfect at “everything” with little to no advancement opportunities and a salary celling. Even though I graduated from one of the most prestigious colleges for administrative professionals, I have been turned down because I don’t have a degree. I also have an education in web and multimedia design and digital marketing. As well as, over 15 years of experience working in Human Resources. It’s frustrating when I get a job as an “Executive Assistant” then they realize I can do much more than that, and the work piles on with no advancement or salary increase. They just expect me to be the dump all for all the work they don’t want to do. The role of the Executive Assistant has changed dramatically over the past decade. Outsourcing administrative work has become the norm, especially now due to the COVID pandemic. I’m proud to say after years of being exploited and taken advantage of I decided to start my own freelancing business offering all my skills as services to small businesses. I have control over the work I perform, I set my own rates, and I set my own schedule. I only work with clients who appreciate the value of a virtual business partner. The role of and administrative professional is not going anywhere, it’s evolving creating business opportunities to a new generation.

  2. I’m afraid all this is too late for me. After over 30 years as an Admin at all levels I lost my position for exactly these misconceptions, even though I reminded management over the years that management shouldn’t waste time doing admin tasks. In the process I also lost a lot of the tech upgrading as it was deemed unnecessary training cost!! As soon as I entered my 60’s (a year ago!) I was ‘let go’.
    My confidence has been slowly eroded over the years because of the ‘brick wall’ I was always coming up against.

    Thank you, this is the first detailed response I’ve seen to the problem! Will anyone listen?

  3. I am proud of my title and passionate about the work I do. Joan – your webinars (and this blog) have helped give voice to so many misconceptions out there. They have also encouraged me to keep reaching higher. Thank you. We are fortunate to have YOUR voice defending this profession.

  4. Thank You Joan for being the voice of us Executive Assistants/Office Administrators/Girl Friday and even the “Secretary”. I can not express how much I appreciated reading your article. I have from personal experience, been on the short list of a company that believed very strongly that their executives no longer required an assistant. The day will come, in the not too distant future, when the bottom lines and shareholders are directly affected because the people responsible for increasing profits and building businesses are distracted by the administration. Kuddos to those organizations that appreciate every role and makes it work to the benefit of all.

  5. Joan: I commend you on this article.

    When I first entered the workforce just over 50 years ago, I did not want to be what was referred to as a “Secretary”, because I felt I had more to offer than what I observed and heard some of my friends saying they did in the profession. I became a successful business woman achieving my goals. When I decided to change careers after some health issues and the death of my husband, I had learned the value of an individual in position of an Administrative Assistant and elected that for my profession until retirement. It was the greatest choice I could have ever made. My manager valued the skills was bringing to his to his team and allowed me to partner with him and assist with duties, tasks and the development of projects to help the team perform more proficiently. He is free to perform more critical duties as the Director and not have to always be on available to manage staff in the performance of their duties if there was a task or assignment that needed Manager lever decision making. What has also been valuable to me as his partner, is that staff feels free rely on me to assist them when he is not available because they are confident that I will and can provide information and assistance needed.

  6. Educated response backed with stats, facts and experience; thank you Joan for speaking so much truth about our profession.

  7. I have been working in an administrative role for 41 years. I see first-hand that many managers, directors, vice presidents are extremely proficient in Microsoft Office – much more so than in years past. However, that doesn’t mean that I am irrelevant – unless I choose to be! I am constantly looking for opportunities to add value to my executives and our company and where I can take tasks off their plates . . . they shouldn’t be bogged down with tasks. I am always pursuing ways to be a business partner with them and not “just an admin.” Thank you Joan for ALWAYS having our backs!!!

  8. Well said, Joan! I do believe there are executives out there who can handle their own calendar and travel arrangements, etc. But why would they? EA or Admin are way more qualified and savvy than they give them credit for. I worked as a Legal Admin for a very prominent attorney in Indianapolis for 8 years. One day, we were at a luncheon for all the Admins in the firm. Someone asked him about his successes, etc. His answer was priceless…”I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and support of my assistant.” That statement has remained in my heart for these 20+ years as an admin. I couldn’t have said it any better. He understood this concept. We were business partners and he always treated me like a business partner.

    Thank you, Joan, for not letting the writer of the article get away with thinking our profession is vanishing. We are not that “girl Friday” of long ago. Yes, the profession has changed, the world has changed and we have changed. I think for the better!

  9. I love this rebuttal! I have been an EA for 12 years and I love it. I love being the ‘go to’ person for our office. My Executive Director has shouldered me with a tonne of responsibility to free up his time for the heavy lifting. I wouldn’t want it any other way. We are a team and I appreciate his feedback..good and bad. I plan on staying with him as long as he needs my assistance. I am blessed to have a wonderful Executive to work with.

  10. Joan, thank you! I have had this conversation with several executives in the past; some who are huge proponents of our profession and others who see us as “girls” to sit at the desk and look pretty. Of course they are the ones who scream the loudest when something happens to their calendar!

    Until recently, I was lucky enough to work for two individuals who saw me much more than a secretary and I was able to expand my skills by working with them. I hope to find another position like that again and stay until I retire.

    Thank you again for taking the time to respond to the WSJ article with so much passion and facts.

  11. Fantastic article and rebuttal. I have almost 50 years office experience, ultimately at EA level and all the way through this process the delegation has often been lacking – but not needed really as a good EA knows what to take in instinctively! I’m sure everyone reading this will have had the same experiences – get to know the business, get to know the Executive and his/her way of working and then pick out all the work you can do for them without them realising … and some! Those who think they can work effectively without a good EA are just not busy enough!!!
    Thanks for keeping me motivated!
    Norma. UK

  12. Joan, you have my heartfelt thanks for your rebuttal. Unfortunately, I think up-and-coming executives have no idea what a good EA can do. (You’ve obviously hit a sore spot with me.) At the risk of offending the PC culture, an EA’s main function is to free her executive’s time to perform the responsibilities for which he was hired, a job for which he is being paid the big bucks. An executive is not being paid to handle administrative tasks below his pay grade. (And when I say administrative, tasks are usually all-encompassing!) That business practice is not sound, and is economically unwise. An EA’s function is not simply of a clerical nature. It has evolved into being a business partner, yes, a partner, to her executive. She has skin in the game, and she is capable of running the world, if her executive would just allow her to do so. Thanks again. You rock!

  13. Love this!! Thank you! I’ve been an EA for 21 years and it is my chosen career choice. I love being the “go to” in my office and helping my leaders succeed. My bosses have recognized that I have the passion for this job so they have always been willing to support my continuing education (attained CAP, OM). I do the standard work of an EA, but have also been an admin supervisor, project managed a marketing re-brand, built a new office and moved to the new office in my 13 years with the company, led by an executive of course, but I was the boots on the ground. The key is to continue to evolve and grow our skills – we need to be lifelong learners and once our bosses see our talents they recognize how important we are. My job has evolved again over the last few months! I have recently taken over supporting our HR manager with on-boarding new employees/termination paperwork, and all things HR, etc.. so I’m pursuing the HR certificate through IAAP CAPstone in March! Very excited!! #adminsrock

  14. Thank you Joan for writing this lovely article. As much as I love my job can’t help but notice the decreasing need for EA in this day and age the main reason being to cut costs due the economic climate . EA’s functions have evolved in the last 20 years as you say and we are not here to merely answer phones and manage agendas for our executives. An Executive who doesn’t have an EA and utilizes her skills to the max is not a true professional in my opinion. Those EAs who feel their profession is diminishing should maybe learn something new, update their skills, take on an advanced course of some sort or reinvent themselves as EAs and regain their confidence because a CEO or Executive will always have a EA and a lot of Executive prefer to have a mature EA. I am over 50 and I can’t be thinking that my profession is disappearing I have another 20 odd years to work!! To us the EAs??

  15. Good stuff! I am still working in my 60s, as an executive assistant to decision-makers. I stay current on the needs of the project (celebrity, CEO, Director, etc.) I remain teachable and open to the Millenials on the newest trends; this keeps me “in the room” and “in their lives.” I am one of many who love being a good steward; kingdom-building gets you total access. There is never enough money to pay people like me so negotiate your salary up-front. We are priceless and a rare find.

    You climbed to the top, kudos to you! Send me a bonus check!

  16. Elizabeth Ayoub Blatchford

    It seems to me that Assistant titles are often used in a sweeping all-encompassing interchangeable way, which leads to the confusion and significant generalizations.

    What would help significantly is if there were a common understanding and nomenclature to describe each function. That would be the basis for a real conversation grounded in facts, rather than the outdated “Mad Men” 1950’s era conception of secretary that plagues us in the profession.

  17. People don’t really understand the position until they experience the job. I was an EA for 30+ years and decided to retire because there is age discrimination. Sorry, but my experience has been that agencies don’t want to put forward a woman in her mid-50s or older yet, whenever I was interviewed by the executive, I was offered the position. Also, these tests the agencies give EAs are useless. A good EA knows how to get the job done and create/lean short cuts to help improve time constraints. I failed the agency test because I use short cuts like “control p” to print.

  18. So well said! I work for a technology company as an Executive Assistant to the President, and have for 15 years, and we are hiring more Executive Assistants! We are growing at a rapid rate and our roles are ever changing. As you mentioned, more support as the executives’ business partners demands more skills and business knowledge than ever before. I love my job!

  19. Hi, it’s such a shame some high level Executives don’t understand the true worth of a good EA. Thank you for highlighting the many skills we have.

  20. Thank you for this brilliant response, Joan. Have you submitted it to the WSJ? Those readers need to hear this, too.

    1. I completely agree – this rebuttal needs to go to the WSJ and particularly to author Rachel Feintzeig!

      Joan, I’m consistently impressed by you and your work. You are the hands down embodiment of professionalism, poise and personal style.

      Thank you for being a trusted advocate and role model for our thriving profession!

  21. This was a much needed article to showcase that the EA position is not redundant or vanishing rather its evolving. There is no one more committed to their role than an EA who is a thorough professional and dedicated. An EA actually is the mirror to the Organisations values because she/he is the first person after the front desk who meets, greets and interacts with external parties. The impression a good EA can leave goes a long way.

  22. Hi everyone! Joan, thank you very much for sharing such amazing detail as well as your incredible insights into the Executive Assistant role. I am so proud to be an Executive Assistant and I believe that all administrative professionals bring so much value to their teams every day. Your empowering and motivational message really hits home for me, and this was exactly what I need to read today – thank you! Have a wonderful day, everyone! Onward and upward! We got this!

  23. Thank you! I have been an Executive Assistant for over 20 years and I am proud of what I do. I have a college degree and stay on top of technological advances. Your rebuttal was spot on and I am grateful that you continue to elevate our profession and support us in our endeavors.

  24. Well written! I have been lucky in my career to have managers who understood and respected their admin support. And I am working for a company now that I have had to fight for everything I have achieved. And that included having to take on additional managers to keep my job.

    There is so much confusion over what an EA does, and the difference between an EA, and admin assistant and all the other titles in between.

    When I see companies advertising for an EA at a salary of $16 an hour, it saddens me. I have a 2 year diploma, certifications, a certificate through online university and continue to work towards a degree, along with more than 30 years’ experience at a senior EA level, and the salary being offered has not changed much from what I was making 10 years ago.

  25. Well said Joan! When you interview 12 people and think they represent 20 million, your thinking is flawed. There was SO much wrong with this article.

    Yes, the days of the Mad Men secretary are gone. Personal Assistants still pick up dry cleaning. Executive Assistants is not a catch-all phrase.

    I’m glad we are rallied up. But what about the people who don’t follow the Admin world? They are still walking around thinking that EAs are vanishing.

    Sad and bad reporting.

    #AdminsRock and they always will regardless of their title – they are not vanishing.

    1. Hi Rhonda! Those of us who care about the profession just need to keep pushing forward. There are many naïve people about the role. It has gotten complex and people are confused but I am so happy to see the changes in this profession. We will carry on!

  26. If this article isn’t the truth, I don’t know what is. Some hiring departments need to change their mindset about what they feel an executive assistant’s role entails, especially when you’re supporting an executive and more than 50 other staff. Whew!!

  27. Joan is clearly on point when she writes, “I talk with thousands of assistants and managers who think they are communicating with each other because they text or email each other all day. This is not communicating. When an executive and assistant have a daily huddle in person or on the telephone they have opportunities to clarify what they are saying, build context around a task (like scheduling a meeting); they can forecast what’s on the horizon and anticipate obstacles.” E-mail, text and other messaging apps does not replace 2-way dialog. Communication is essential to the success of an executive assistant.

  28. Thank you for outlining the importance of the Executive Assistant role, and why it is necessary for business success.

  29. Heartfelt thanks, Ms. Burge, for beautifully articulating as a Thought Leader what so many of us in this, our Profession of Choice, think and feel. Continued success.

  30. Thank you Joan for rebutting the article with facts. You continue to keep our profession on the forefront and help it evolve. We need more people like you to shout off the rooftops that we are here, we are intelligent and we are not going anywhere!

    1. Hello Yvonne! I’m shouting as loud and as much as I can. The older I get, the more I shout! We need the assistant, too, to be vocal and help educate anyone they can about their profession.
      Thank you.

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