The Perfect Executive Assistant—Hard Skills or Soft Skills?
Last updated: August 28th, 2023
If you’re looking to hire a new EA or EA/PA, it’s critical to assess the balance needed between “hard” technical skills and “soft” skills, before you start the process. This is especially important if your last hire didn’t work out or a new role has been created to support a C-Suite executive. Often, soft executive assistant skills are the difference between an average EA and the perfect EA. They add a significant dimension to the level of support an EA can offer to their executive(s).
Balancing Soft Skills and Hard Skills
In the rapidly evolving world of AI, many prognosticators feel that technical skills will become obsolete. Soft skills, often referred to as social intelligence or emotional IQ, will become increasingly important as the world changes. Thus, the ability to adapt to change emotionally will become at least as important as an EA’s current technical skills. Expertise in existing technology will remain important, but an EA who has the temperament, intelligence, and curiosity to recognize new and better ways of supporting their executive will be invaluable. Of course, here’s where emotional intelligence is critical: there has to be positive chemistry between an EA and their executive. They must also adapt to their style and recognize when, if, and how the executive is open to change, if at all!
In fact, there is consensus among talent professionals that bad hires usually lack soft skills. Additionally, they find that, when hiring, soft skills matter as much, if not more, than hard skills. A Linkedin survey reported that 89% of talent professionals attribute lack of soft skills as the reason for a bad hire and 92% feel that soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills when hiring. These percentages pertain to all types of jobs, so it’s important to determine how important this balance is for EAs. This will differ from company to company, from department to department within a company, and from one executive to another.
So, before you hire an EA, it’s important to determine the mix of skills required for that particular role. Then, as a next step, you must figure out how to identify and evaluate these executive assistant skills as you go through the interview and screening process.
Identify the Hard Skills Needed in an Executive Assistant
The first step in hiring a new EA is to do an inventory of the skills required. The easiest skills to identify as well as measure are the hard skills. As you identify these executive assistant skills, be sure to keep these questions in mind:
- Which technical skills are required both at the corporate level and for the specific job?
- Are these skills specific to a particular software or is there some flexibility? For example, are there equivalent or similar software on the market that would allow the candidate to easily learn your system? Flexibility in this area will broaden your candidate pool.
- What level of expertise is needed? For most C-Suite executives, expertise in booking travel domestically and/or internationally is critical. On the other hand, is the ability to create PowerPoint presentations critical or is it only necessary to be able to “edit” them. The same with Excel spreadsheets.
While it’s time consuming to figure out these details, there are many standard tests and vendors available to evaluate these hard skills on your behalf.
Identify the Soft Skills Needed in an Executive Assistant
Here’s where things get more complicated. While there are many ways to break these skills down for an Executive Assistant role, in the survey mentioned above, hiring managers identified many soft skills which can be grouped into the following categories:
- Prioritization/Time Management
- Cultural Fit and Contribution,
- Growth Potential
It’s worth spending time to define what you mean by these terms and how important they are to the role. One way to do this is to look at your top performers. What skills do they have that make them top performers? Are there any skills missing that are needed to balance out the team or the executive?
For example, if an executive has a tendency to focus exclusively on productivity and is not known for people skills, you might want to consider an EA who has excellent people skills and knows when and how to bring people issues or insights to their executive’s attention. Conversely, if you are hiring the EA for an extroverted executive who never turns down a meeting request, you may need a strong but friendly gatekeeper to ensure that the executive doesn’t overbook themselves or allow everyone through the door.
Other important criteria to determine are:
- Do you want someone who is going to stay in the role for a long time, or someone who has the growth potential to move higher in the organization?
Determining opportunities for career growth for executive assistants is key to selecting the right candidate.
- Do you want someone who will expand the cultural perspective of your team?
- Do you need someone who can lead and inspire other administrative professionals?
Evaluating Executive Assistant Skills in the Interview Process
Once you have gone through this exercise of identifying the soft skills, it is essential to use behavioral interviewing techniques as well as situational questions to confirm these skills. Develop these questions and situations up front and ensure that all candidates are consistently asked the same questions as part of the interview process. Training your interviewers on how to ask these questions and record answers is helpful when trying to compare candidates
To get a good read on a candidate’s abilities in certain areas, develop some problem solving questions or scenarios. These are harder to prepare for and you often get a true sense of a candidate’s capabilities. In jobs that require quantitative skills, it’s common to give mathematical word problems. For an EA, asking them how they would solve a real life problem their boss might encounter might be more relevant. Doing this will allow you to see how they think.
Having a standardized process and list of questions and projects will also help prevent unconscious bias. Many an interview has gone off track and resulted in a bad hire because someone has found too much in common (common friends, common schools, common interests) with the candidate and fails to ask the really important questions. Of course you want to establish rapport and really get to know someone in a relaxed environment, but make sure all the candidates are given the same questions and scenarios to address.
C-Suite Assistants Is Ready to Help Find the Best Candidate for You
Soft skills and hard skills are both critical. To support a C-Suite executive you need someone with strong technical skills in the areas relevant for supporting you. However, without soft skills, even a technical whiz cannot effectively provide the administrative support a C-level executive needs.
If you need an experienced executive assistant staffing firm that specializes in finding a candidate with the perfect EA skill set for your role, please get in touch. We’d love to have a conversation.
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