The Tangible & Intangible Characteristics of An Exceptional Executive Assistant

August 31, 2015


I’m convinced that what sets the exceptional executive assistant apart from the good, or even the very good assistant, are the intangible traits.  Many executives I interviewed for this book told me that in addition to the tangible skills such as computer literacy, work experience, and organizational skills, they were looking for those skills that can’t be taught. Of course, they were referring to what I call “the intangibles”, qualities such as values, loyalty and good instincts.  Exceptional assistants possess these intangible traits that yield spectacular results and give them what seems to be an unfair advantage in getting the job done, resolving a problem, or averting a crisis.

I used to think that exceptional assistants were born that way.  And I still believe that those innate capabilities that they bring to the role are not easily duplicated, which is why an assistant with these traits is so valuable. But over time, as I trained assistants and helped them develop their strengths, I realized that many of these characteristics can be developed. When combined with what can’t be taught – the intangibles – you have the makings of an exceptional executive assistant who can function as the executive’s valuable business partner.

Desirable tangible and intangible qualities an exceptional executive assistant will possess include:

  • Anticipating The Boss’ Needs: This was the first characteristic mentioned by every assistant I interviewed for the book as being the most desirable in an exceptional executive assistant.  Not surprisingly, it was the first characteristic selected by most executives as well. The exceptional assistant sees what other don’t see. They are constantly looking ahead, and with great foresight, take care of their boss’ needs, often before the boss is aware of them.  The exceptional assistant understands their role is about giving back time to the executive so they can concentrate on the strategic side of the business.
  • Resourcefulness:  Resourcefulness is an intangible, innate ability that all exceptional assistants possess.   To me, anticipation and resourcefulness are inseparable as top desired traits for an exceptional assistant, because anticipating might not always translate into doing. The assistant must know when and how to take appropriate action.  If the executive is not available in a moment of crisis, a resourceful assistant will pursue all alternatives to come up with a solution.
  • Making The Boss Look Good:  The assistant is the executive’s “face” and “voice” to the world. As an assistant, do you know what image your boss wants to project and are you successfully projecting that image?  One astute assistant told me “People take their cue from the assistant, so you have to create an aura around your boss, make him look good, give him respect in front of everyone.”
  • Reflecting The Boss’ Values: An assistant understands that they must act and present themselves in ways that are entirely in keeping with their executive’s priorities, values and goals. Dr. Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, told me this intangible trait is his top priority in choosing an assistant.  “For the Blanchard Companies, the people skills and being in line with our core values are the most important thing.  Everything else can be taught.”
  • A Self-Starter, Who Sees The Big Picture:  An exceptional assistant must be able to visualize the big picture, even while it’s still embryonic, so they can support their executive without needing constant supervision and direction. They are capable of independent thought and independent action.
  • Organizational Skills: An exceptional executive assistant will immediately bring order to chaos. Robin Guido, executive assistant to the co-founder of told me that if the assistant is not hyper-organized, their executive won’t be.  An exceptional executive assistant knows the immediate status of each project they are working on.  They have streamlined procedures in place. Everything they need is at their fingertips.
  • Focused: An assistant’s job is one of constant interruption. They must be able to juggle numerous projects and even after being pulled away from a task repeatedly, must be able to return to it and get it finished on time.
  • Persistent:  Every high performing assistant will tell you, you can’t get much done without sheer persistence and diligent follow up.  If they’re to make things happen, assistants can’t back away from something the first time someone says no.  They have to be comfortable insisting on getting the results they need without being confrontational.
  • Scrupulous About Details: Assuring a high quality of communication and service requires an obsessive attention to detail. Whether it is infallible proof reading, spelling, or board meetings and events organized down to the last detail, nothing is missing or overlooked, because exceptional assistants are scrupulous with the details.
  • Always Discreet:  An exceptional assistant shows excellent discretion in all communication regarding their boss or firm.  They never make comments about the boss, or anyone in the company, that are thoughtless. They don’t indulge in gossip, or betray confidence.
  • Excellent Communication Skills:  Exceptional executive assistants are masters of communication with strong speaking and writing skills. Because an assistant frequently speaks on behalf of the boss, they must convey an air of authority, competence and clarity.
  • Integrity:  An exceptional assistant must know right from wrong and be fully invested in doing the right thing at all times.  Failure to do so could severely damage the reputation of their boss and their company. A crucial aspect of integrity is keeping your word.  Always do what you say you will do.

In addition to acting as the executive’s face to the world, acting in keeping with the executive’s priorities and functioning as the executive’s “eyes and ears” the assistant’s priority is to handle the tasks that are not a good use of the executive’s time. With an assistant who is adept at getting things done, an executive has a partner who is actively managing their business and keeping them from being distracted by non-essentials.




Extracted from The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness, by Jan Jones. Copyright Jan Jones.  All Rights Reserved. No part of this Work may be borrowed, duplicated, quoted from, utilized in any form, by any means - mechanical, electronic, or otherwise - without the express written permission of the Author.    
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Jan Jones is president of Jan Jones Worldwide, a speakers bureau that evolved from her industry experience as Executive Assistant to author and peak performance strategist Tony Robbins, and ten years as exclusive representative for small business guru, author Michael Gerber. Prior to that, Jan spent almost twenty years as executive assistant to successful businesspeople around the world. 

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