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Behind a great CEO is an executive assistant

The role of an executive assistant has evolved from a personal secretary to someone who has the ability to execute decisions, network, influence, manage and even lead


A decade ago, when Amita Kapoor, who has a master’s degree in human resources from Pune’s Symbiosis International university, started her job as an executive assistant in consumer durables firm Usha International Ltd, her role was that of a secretary. She used to manage the CEO’s calendar, handle basic logistics and book hotels. “Now it’s changed dramatically," says the 42-year-old, now an assistant vice president in the company. Besides handling operations, Kapoor executes decisions on behalf of her boss, assists him in his responsibilities, gives strategic inputs on business campaigns and handles projects independently.

“I consider myself as a professional who understands the complexities of business, the business landscape within and outside the organization and all the stakeholders involved," she says. The job has changed from just “hanging around" at meetings to being attentive so she can understand the intricacies of the business, personalities of the people her boss is working with, their equations and expectations.

Kapoor’s working day starts with ensuring all meeting papers and agendas for her boss are in place, getting updates on projects she is in charge of and following up at multiple levels in her company’s business. Last year, she was part of a team that handled various marketing projects, including Usha International’s collaboration with YRF Studios for 2018 film Sui Dhaaga: Made in India, and an advertisement shoot with Mumbai Indians. “Like my boss, I need to be on top of what is happening in the world of business, politics and the ramifications these things will have on my company," she says, adding that now she is required to be forthcoming and have a “voice", which wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.

Being an executive assistant is no longer just about handling the daily schedule of the boss. “They are the gatekeepers to the leadership office, competent and savvy in handling this proximity to power," says Sourav Mukherji, professor of organization behaviour, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. He adds that the role has extended in trust as some assistants are managing their leaders’ online image and actively taking executive business decisions on their behalf.

Hema Gowda is working towards getting a C-suite position.
Hema Gowda is working towards getting a C-suite position. (Photo: Jithendra M/Mint)

High return on investment

According to data on salaries in financial year 2016-17 by the Institutional Investor Advisory Services, 123 executive directors in the top 500 Indian multinational firms receive over 10 crore as annual remuneration, while the average remuneration in multinationals is at a 4.1 crore median. In contrast, an executive assistant earns between 8-20 lakh annually. If we take a senior executive’s base compensation for the organization to break even and profit on the return on investment on the assistant’s position, the assistant must make the leader three to four per cent more productive than they would be when working on their own. That’s two hours more efficient in a 40-hour workweek.

In reality, good assistants save their bosses much more time and energy, says Krishna Sriram, the executive chairperson and chief marketing officer in Usha International and Kapoor’s boss. “Amita is an extremely critical part of my team who brings a semblance of sanity and order, filters out the noise, handles multiple stakeholders and understands the intricacies of business," he says. This delegation helps Sriram focus on his company’s goals rather than execute or get updated on projects.

Key skills required

The role of executive assistants requires strong problem-solving and decision-making skills, says Bengaluru-based Hema Gowda, 28, who works with Namdhari Group as an executive assistant to the CEO. Gowda moved from guest relations and marketing in the Taj group to an executive assistant role a couple of years ago. “I’m empowered to take key decisions on behalf of senior management and see my role as a stepping stone towards getting a C-suite role," she says. Administrative responsibilities (boss’ calendar, schedule of his travel plan, meetings) make only for only 30 per cent of her work. “Rest of my week includes analytics, corporate research, vendor relationship management, finalising deals, management of strategic projects and reporting to the CEO, overlooking internal meetings and other things that might need me," she says. According to Gowda, the four key skills every assistant needs are clear and precise communication, implementation of process, presenting reports on projects, meetings and events, and leveraging technology and outsourcing effectively.

Even the job postings for executive assistants have evolved, according to Karthik Prasad, founder of job portal BeatMySalary. “When CEOs approach us these days to provide them an executive assistant, they are looking to get another functional version of them, who can understand finance, have domain expertise, ability to strike deals with clients or in business, build strong relationships with stakeholders and preferably have an MBA," he says.

Getting ready to lead

Perhaps that is the reason that after a few years of working as a lawyer, doing an MBA from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and a marketing job at a startup, Mumbai-based Divya Sood wants to become an executive assistant. “This is my aspiration," says the 28-year-old, “and I have interviewed for many such positions across industries." She doesn’t think of herself as over-qualified for the role. “Today, CXOs are hiring highly qualified professionals as executive assistants who then hit the ground running, get exposed to a variety of tasks, and are expected to lead," she says. “I see it as essentially a mini-CEO role, where you are the eyes, ears and hands of the CEO and the role is not defined in terms of calendar, diary, travel management but different tasks with ever-changing priorities."

Though being in the role for a few years has many advantages, Mukherji cautions that staying too long in it is not the best idea. “It’s a politically strong role but one should not continue in it for a long period or there is a risk to be perceived as nothing but a glorious secretary," he says. Do remember, he suggests, the power and access an executive has is because of the CEO they represent. “Executive assistants are often associated with the CEO or MD (managing director) than an organization and this dependency can be dangerous for them if the CEO moves on or gets fired," he says.

It’s best to learn, build loyalty and to transition into a management role in a few years time, or, as Gowda suggests, rename your job title to “executive business administrator" to avoid bias and confusion.

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