Advice & insights: masterclasses from industry leaders

Be the Ultimate Assistant: A Candid Interview with a Seasoned Executive Assistant

Bonnie Low-Kramen

Bonnie Low-Kramen

Executive assistant, best-selling author and ceo

Key Takeaways

  • Details Matter: Success as an EA hinges on managing minutiae and prioritizing effectively. The smallest details can have the biggest impacts.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): Develop a high EQ to anticipate needs, manage relationships, and communicate effectively.
  • Evolving Role: Seek ways to evolve your role by taking on responsibilities like onboarding, team leadership, and project management.
  • Represent Your Executive: Learn to emulate your executive’s communication style and preferences to become an indispensable proxy.
  • Visibility Is Key: In a hybrid work environment, ensure you remain visible and connected, whether through webcam or regular check-ins.
  • Resilience and Humor: Cultivate an unflappable nature, don’t take things personally, and maintain a great sense of humor.
  • Continuous Learning: Embrace lifelong learning and seek out professional development opportunities, preferably funded by your employer.

Getting started as an Executive Assistant

What was your path to becoming an executive assistant?

“Nothing about my career journey was planned, so my road to assisting was not typical at all. I was planning to be an actress. I was an English and Theatre major at Rutgers University in New Jersey and what I knew for sure is that I needed to work in show business.”

“The obvious way to do that was as an actress but what I came to learn is that there was a whole world of “behind the scenes” work that went into putting on a show. After 3 months of auditioning, I realized that acting was not going to be my path.”

“Instead, I worked in several theater box offices and loved being in the hub of the theater. That led to being introduced to Olympia Dukakis who ran the Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. Olympia was not famous when she interviewed me in December, 1985.”

“We met on a snowy winter night and by the end of our meeting, she said, “When can you start?” We worked together for 25 years. I was her Personal and Executive Assistant.”

Olympia Dukakis & Personal Asst. Bonnie Low-Kramen on the set of “Over the Hill” in Australia, 1991
Olympia Dukakis & Bonnie Low-Kramen on set of “Over the Hill” in Australia, 1991

How has working with high-profile clients shaped your perspective on the role?

“My mother worked as a legal secretary in the 70’s and so I had a role model for this profession. My work with Olympia resembled what my mom did but it was also so much more, especially in the personal realm.”

“What I learned quickly is that the smallest details matter and the ability to prioritize tasks in the moment was imperative to success. My mother showed me how a consummate professional behaved and the importance of manners and kindness as the most effective ways to work to get things done.”

“My work with Olympia is the reason my book and my workshop are called, “Be the Ultimate Assistant.” This work is about delivering excellence not just on some days, but every day.”

The people in Olympia’s life began viewing me as an extension of her and I took that responsibility very seriously.”

What qualities are crucial for success as an executive assistant?

“Unflappable personality, does not take things personally, great sense of humor, resourceful, resilient, direct communicator, detail oriented, and a person with a great work ethic who thinks outside the box and is excited to do whatever it takes to get it done.”

“High EQ – emotional intelligence – is key to success as an EA.”

“This means being attuned to body language and being able to correctly answer questions like, “Is this a good time to talk to your executive?” I developed the ability to write emails and correspondence in Olympia’s voice and to act on her behalf at meetings.”

“Having an EA function as an informed set of eyes and ears is important for a busy executive. Mind-reading is a desired skill along with asking great questions. Being highly organized, detail oriented, and tech savvy are vital skills as well.”

What’s life as an Executive Assistant?

What’s the most rewarding part about your work?

“I am rewarded by making a positive impact on the profession. Since 2012, I have traveled to 13 countries and 38 states teaching and speaking, working with Executive Assistants and the leaders they support.”

“I have trained the administrative staffs at Microsoft, Wharton, Amazon, Starbucks, and British Parliament, have written two books, and given a TEDx talk called “The Real Reasons People Quit.””

“It is exciting to hear from assistants and leaders all over the world reporting the positive difference my work has made in their work. I want the workplace to improve so that it is a more respectful place for my grandchildren and yours.”

What’s the most challenging aspects?

“The post-pandemic workplace is one where the experience of staff in many companies feels fractured and fragmented. Some people are working fully remote, others hybrid, and others are coming into the physical office 5 days.”

Maintaining a strong personal connection between the people on a team is a big challenge. It is important for Executive Assistants to be seen and heard, to stay visible, as in literally visible – on webcam.”

“Proximity bias is a modern risk factor for those who work remotely. The staff who are coming into the office have more proximity to the decisions being made in real time and therefore, can have advantage over remote workers. This new reality puts the burden on leadership to maintain strong connections with their remote teams.”

What experience(s) gave you the most career growth?

“No successful person you can name gets to where they are alone. No one.”

“I am no exception. The biggest influencers for me are my parents, Ruth and Sol Low, and my employers Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich but I have had many other mentors throughout my life.”

“Throughout my career, I stayed alert to opportunities that presented themselves and followed my instincts when I said, “yes.””

“When Olympia asked me, “when can you start?”, I said, “How’s next Monday?” I listened to Olympia’s vision for the theater and where she felt I could fit into that vision. I believed in her as a leader.

“This was 10 months before she got cast in the movie that would change all of our lives, “Moonstruck.”” 

Advice for Aspiring Executive Assistants

What is the career outlook for the Executive Assistant role?

“The US Department of Labor is reporting that the number of Administrative Assistant see a reduction in workers. That may be true because of AI. However, high level Executive Assistants are another story.”

“As long as there are CEOs and executives who are running complicated companies and are leading busy lives, there will be a strong need for talented and highly paid Executive Assistants by their side.”

“The EAs may perform the work virtually but it will still need to be done. Robots and AI will be their tools, just like Siri and Alexa.”

What would be your best bit of advice for an aspiring Executive Assistant?

“Money is only one factor to choosing a job. Choose to work with the people you respect and admire. Be the very best assistant you can be every single day.”

“Be the one who runs towards the problem, not away from it. Commit to life-long learning that your employer pays for and do not take vacation time to take a class. Insist on balance. The work will be there tomorrow.”

“Take vacations and don’t do work on vacation. Have fun. Be sure to spend time with family, friends, and the people you care about.”

“Don’t allow the work to consume you. You can love your work but the work won’t love you back or give you the hug you so badly need. Work with people who believe in these things as well.”

Reader Q & A with Bonnie Low-Kramen

What does a CEO look for in an executive assistant?

A CEO looks for someone who compliments his/her own skills and talents. A CEO needs a business partner who has their back, reads what they read, and can see around corners.

The top EAs to CEOs are discrete and someone who is respected and whose opinion is valued and sought after.

Is an Executive Assistant a dead-end job?

No, it is not a dead-end job. Executive Assistants are evolving the role within their organizations by getting involved in onboarding, interviewing new staff members, leading teams, computer technology training, and disaster planning.

It’s about using their formidable talents and skills to fill the gaps in companies. There is even a name for it. Quiet Hiring.

Where should I see myself in 5 years as an executive assistant?

The answer to that question is not one-size-fits-all. In the C-suite, it can mean earning six figures, it can mean being promoted to a Team Leader with supervisory responsibilities, or it can mean becoming a Project Manager.

Whatever the answer, I urge Executive Assistants to see themselves as the CEO of You, Inc. You are in charge of your career and your life.

So wherever you are in 5 years, it should be performing a role that gratifies you, utilizes the skills you wish to leverage, and compensates you fairly.

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