Is technology whispering R.I.P to the traditional E.A?

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Friday, February 15, 2019

Is technology whispering “R.I.P” to the traditional E.A? I don’t think so…

by Joanna Middleton.

In her brilliant 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review, the author and business leader, Melba Duncan cleverly points out that “Microsoft will never develop software that can calm a hysterical sales manager, avert a crisis by redrafting a poorly worded e-mail, smooth a customer’s ruffled feathers, and solve a looming HR issue – all within a single hour, and all without interrupting the manager to whom such problems might otherwise have proven a distraction.”

Historically, the recruitment market for senior secretarial support to Directors and board-level executives has flourished. Most CEO’s would arguably grind to a halt without the support of a super-organised EA to manage their globetrotting, inbox-swelling, meeting-manic lifestyle that goes hand-in-hand with a reserved parking spot next to the front door of the company.

However, over the five years where I have helped EA’s and PA’s find their next career challenge, I have observed a distinct decline in the volume of vacancies, particularly in the £40,000 to £50,000 salary range. It’s a regular frustration of mine to meet with an outstanding candidate who I would love to place into a challenging and diverse support role, whilst knowing that finding a position pitched at a commensurate level in today’s job market will be hard – ‘needles’ and ‘haystacks’ spring to mind.

In a world where you can book a flight or reserve your favourite table at a restaurant with three taps on a smart phone while you wait for your Uber to arrive, senior executives and business leaders are far more adept at organising their own schedules. Sure, there are still a few ‘old school’ Chief Exec’s who have never learned to send an Outlook diary invite or who always forget to pick up a birthday card for the wife or hubby, but their numbers are dwindling as retirement approaches and the golf course or the rose garden beckons.

The business leaders of today are far more tech-savvy and they have grown up in an egalitarian world where seeing the MD fill the photocopier with paper doesn’t elicit a single raised eyebrow in the break-out area. However, as much as businesses may try to argue otherwise — particularly those organisations with a younger executive team — technology simply cannot replace the emotionally-aware ‘grey matter’ stored between the ears of a great PA or EA. Technology and Artificial Intelligence are undoubtedly on the march but there is not (and never will be) a piece of software or an algorithm which can manage multiple competing egos, mop up tears, intercept low-priority distractions and spot a misspelled client name on that crucial tender proposal. As Melba Duncan so rightly phrases it, EA’s are the essential “human face” of our senior level executives.

Rather than thinking of EA’s as a resource that can be cut from budgets and replaced by clever technology, business leaders should think long and hard about the invaluable (and often overlooked) contribution the modern EA offers; very often with a direct and positive influence on the bottom line. Strategic decision-makers can’t make key strategic decisions if they can’t find that sales report buried deep amongst three hundred emails about fire-evacuation procedures or they can’t remember if the ‘new guy’ who will run the marketing team in Bristol starts this month or next.

The best EA’s and PA’s I encounter are not blind to the changes threatening their existence. Most continue to up-skill themselves with valuable new capabilities, both technological and commercial – learning new languages, honing their project management skills and sometimes even embracing the very technology that is designed to, one day, usurp them. In doing so, they can stay ahead of the curve and not just survive, but flourish.

This is work-place Darwinism in action and seeing an MBA on an Executive Assistant’s resume is no longer an occupational rarity. So, the question I have for the business leaders of today and tomorrow is not how long will the EA or PA survive? But rather, how will your companies survive without the ever-evolving EA or PA of the future?