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Dream Job: Executive Assistant

A Sixth Sense about How Things are RunBrenda Hendron spends her days coordinating meetings, making travel arrangements, and managing schedules. In between, she answers telephones, emails, and faxes at Broadbase Software in Natick, Mass. Hendron's an executive assistant, but don't think she pours coffee and files reports all day. You're more likely to find her in the boardroom preparing a presentation than in the kitchen preparing a morning latte.

"I love the organizational work with managing calendars, planning offsite meetings, attending meetings with executive staff," said Hendron. Although an executive assistant technically is in a support function, Hendron often takes part in executive discussions concerning business operations and future strategic initiatives of her company.

Office Manager, Accountant, and Secretary Rolled Into One
As long as there has been a Big Cheese, there have been assistants to the Big Cheese. Top executives need support to do their jobs effectively, and their assistants are considered an indispensable part of a well-run office. Executive assistants combine the organizational talents of an office manager, the recordkeeping savvy of a financial whiz, and the professional foundation of a committed secretary, in one flexible role. It's a demanding job, not one for the easily frazzled.

Financial executives are paid to find investment capital and create strategic plans, not to coordinate staff meetings or prepare PowerPoint presentations - although those things are fundamental to doing their job well. Degree-laden technology executives may be able to handle a supercomputer, but they may know nothing about replacing the toner in the copy machine down the hall. So, it's a given that behind every effective boss is a detail-oriented and on-the-ball assistant. By supporting the executive with administrative and organizational duties, assistants free executives to focus on their core responsibilities while relying on someone else to follow through on the details.

Most executives appreciate these keystone employees. After all, assistants are there to make their lives easier - who wouldn't be grateful? "There is a deep respect for this position with top executive staff," said Hendron. For example, after working on a particularly long project she's usually rewarded with compensatory time, not to mention plenty of thank-yous.

David Kirchner, a principal with the benefits consulting division of Boston-based law firm Ropes & Gray, relies heavily on the discretion and judgment of his administrative assistant, Marge Newberry. "I travel 30 to 40 percent of the time. When I'm out of the office, hardly anyone knows, because Marge takes care of everything. When clients call needing or wanting something, she has a sixth sense about when it's urgent and when I need to get involved."

Newberry said, "I can tell when someone is crying wolf and when someone really needs to get in touch with him. When necessary, I leave no stone unturned to find him."

Such dedication and professionalism is good for business. "I constantly have unsolicited comments from clients telling me how wonderful Marge is," Kirchner said.

An Assistant at the Top of Her Game
Administrative assistants aren't like personal assistants - they don't follow professionals from one job to the next. Administrative assistants are employed by a company and then assigned to a particular position. In the past two years Hendron has been through two CEOs and two mergers. "It's interesting to witness the changing of the guard," she said.

Newberry, 59, has been with Ropes & Gray for 21 years and expects to stay with the firm until retirement, citing flexibility and exposure to many fields as reasons for staying. She's also happy with the compensation and benefits. After so many years, why go the extra mile? "I feel really good. Doing a good job makes me feel good. I know it's old-school, but I take a great deal of pride in what I do."

"Because of the type of work we do and the demands our clients put on us, our administrative staff has to be first-rate," said Kirchner. "We have pretty good retention thanks to the caliber of people we attract and the competitive pay we offer." A referral bonus program helps the law firm draw in strong talent from the personal networks of highly regarded employees.

Some administrative assistants take their dedication to the profession one step further. Outside the office, Hendron participates in numerous professional organizations, including the National Association of Female Executives (NAFE), the National Association of Executive Secretaries (NAES), and the International Association of Administrative Professionals, where she is president of the South Middlesex, Mass. Chapter. "The associations are great for networking, gaining information, and trading skills," said Hendron, who has been a professional secretary for more than 15 years.

Hendron has served a multitude of top executives in a number of companies since graduating with her associate's degree in secretarial sciences from Dean College in Franklin, Mass. She excelled in her coursework and graduated at the top of her class. No wonder Hendron's so successful - she had a great professional role model: her mother, who was also an executive secretary for more than 20 years. "I followed in her footsteps," she said.

When a top executive leaves or a merger occurs, someone needs to keep the ship afloat. Working in such a transitory environment takes patience and leadership skills. "As an executive assistant, you need to be flexible and supportive during severe change, and act as a secondary leader for the employee population during the transition," said Hendron.

Newberry said of herself and her profession, "I like to think I'm Superwoman, but we just do our job."

So, if you have a broad range of office skills, thrive on multitasking, stay calm under pressure, and enjoy making your boss and your company look good, then put down the coffee pot, pick up the phone. . . and dream on!