Jessica Vann recruits executive assistants for companies like Okta at her company Maven.
She says executive assistants are nothing like secretaries — they're the eyes and ears of a leader.
All it takes to get the prestigious job is business acumen, communication skills, and proactiveness.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Jessica Vann, the CEO and founder of Maven Recruiting Group. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I launched Maven in 2010 as a bootstrapped startup. I didn't know it then, but I was pregnant at the time, too. Before that, I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2003 and worked in recruiting for two Bay Area firms.
We specialize in recruitment of executive assistants for Silicon Valley firms and some adjacent companies in Miami and New York, including Okta, Opendoor, Instacart, 23andMe, and Palo Alto Networks. In spite of all the layoffs happening right now, we're not seeing many in this field. Top-performing executive assistants are viewed as valued assets, not as liabilities. After all, an executive assistant preserves a company's scarcest and most precious resource: the leader of the organization.
We have 20 staffers now and have stayed relatively boutique, though COVID-19 and the shift to remote work have allowed us to expand our business footprint and diversify our talent pool with people all across the country. Most executives and companies are adopting a hybrid-working model these days. There's definitely value to being in person with a role like this, because relationships are often the currency that enables executive assistants to be so successful and impactful — and that's a hard thing to cultivate without investing the in-person time.
C-suite-support salaries in tech vary depending on the nature of the firm
Salaries for executive assistants in venture capital tend to range from $115,000 to $170,000, plus bonuses. In startups and tech, salaries are generally $130,000 to 180,000 base with equity.
At the highest levels in both industries, base salaries tend to top out at $250,000 — these are roles supporting name-brand public tech companies or founding partners of a VC or private-equity firm.
We interview candidates for specific roles, as well as for potential future roles. We find people through our referral network, via our recruiting team sourcing candidates, and via LinkedIn.
The reality of a modern executive assistant is often different from what people think
The work for executive assistants is nothing like that of secretaries in "Mad Men" or of Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada." In these instances, they're either "just a secretary," with no concept of the secretary serving in the capacity of strategic business partner, or a punching bag for the office who does menial tasks.
The executive assistant is the person who is safeguarding and protecting the contributions, the time, and also the sanity of the most important people in the organization. When you think about the impact these leaders have — running firms making billions in revenue and employing tens of thousands of people — that's no small feat.
There's a staggering level of access and intimacy in these roles. Outside the day-to-day, an executive assistant might find themselves on a private jet to the World Economic Forum in Davos, helping their boss prepare their presentation. Or they can be at a merger-closing dinner party drinking a $2,000 bottle of wine after making sure that everything went off without a hitch. They might be navigating an IPO, a serious risk, or a crisis in the press. Sometimes they're in situations so confidential that they can't even tell their spouses what's going on. Good executive assistants are interested in business and find this riveting.
A high-level assistant role is the best seat in the house — how many people get to work within the pulse and brain trust of an organization?
An executive assistant is a proxy for their executive — so they do a lot of decision-making
Executive assistants are often the first point of contact for deflecting lower-level issues that shouldn't take the attention of their executives. The key challenge for a lot of big executives is managing and focusing their time. Higher-order executive assistants are not just moving meetings but thinking about questions such as: What's the significance of this time? What are the consequences of moving this meeting? Has this already been moved four times? Is there any concern about alienating people? How does this align with their priorities?
Executive assistants also often need to prepare the executive for important meetings — for instance, gathering talking points, putting together board presentations, or helping to manage relationships with the board and direct reports.
Executive assistants are the eyes and ears of their executive. I can't tell you how many times executives and their assistants have told me that they're the person who captures concerns bubbling up within an organization. People might see the executive as inaccessible, but the executive assistant can be a conduit for vital information, such as concerns about another staff member. Raising issues to an executive assistant can give the executive the opportunity to intervene while there's still a chance.
There's no set of qualifications or experience to get an executive assistant role
There's a low barrier to entry in terms of credentials, but there's an extremely high barrier to entry in terms of ascending to the rank of people who support the Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks of the world.
The most important qualities in a good executive assistant are trustworthiness and foresight. This means that they show extreme discretion, have the ability to instill confidence, and are incredibly proactive. I once heard it said, of an executive assistant who currently supports a Silicon Valley behemoth, that "she is more loyal than your childhood dog." The phrase stuck because it's not only witty but true.
Supporting the C-level is like playing chess: You have to anticipate things like, who are key decision-makers to have in the room? What are the outcomes that may come from a situation? How can we circumvent those situations? What are the plan B and C outcomes that could emerge, and how can I plan for those? A lot of foresight is driven by business acumen, so they really have to be knowledgeable of the business landscape.
We ask executives to define the type of person who will be successful in the role. These aren't easy skills to measure, so it's often extrapolated from a person's background.
Some of the traits we're often asked to find include communication, prioritization, proactiveness, business acumen, negotiation skills, reasoning, and leadership. Oftentimes, clients will hire for potential over experience, particularly when it comes to growing startups that are after a "put me in coach, I'll play any role" type of person. Tenure and longevity, as well as types of roles, matter in a candidate. It's virtually impossible to overcome a consistently spotty track record where they've moved around a lot of companies.
Younger or early-career executive assistants can make it in Silicon Valley. Having good business acumen, experience, and judgment will give you an advantage in this role, but the executive assistant role is also a great place to learn those things. Intangibles also matter a lot in this career. Discretion, maturity, poise, reliability, and accuracy — these are all traits that are ageless.
We also place a lot of stock in their engagement with us. How they show up to us is indicative of how they'll show up in their role.
The do's and don'ts for interviewing haven't changed much
We have a thorough interview process. Typical questions include "What are your nonnegotiables?" "What's an example of a business-critical situation you successfully navigated on behalf of your executive?" and "Tell me about your thought process in managing your executives' calendar and time." We glean a lot from how they answer questions, what they share and don't share, how forthcoming they are, and their finesse.
Disparaging your former boss is still the biggest faux pas you can make, and yet it continues to happen. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how atrocious that person may have been. As an interviewee, you have to find your spin. I encourage people to work on whatever situation they're coming out of, because they don't want to project it into the conversation. It's best to not mention it at all.
These roles often involve working for a very high-profile person, so executive assistants need to be mindful of how they project themselves in the public arena. It's a challenging area, because there's so much collateral that's available about people on platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
The availability of information goes both ways. Before an interview with your potential boss, research like a journalist. Figure out their communication style. There will be information online, such as Twitter feeds and media interviews, where you can determine how they talk, what they wear, and their interests and priorities.
A good candidate is curious and sophisticated and knows how they can provide value. After all, they need to be able to ask the executive pointed questions and be candid and authentic in response to questions asked of them. Good questions to ask include "What are your biggest pain points currently?" "In an ideal world, where would you like to be spending your time? What's currently impeding your ability to do that?" and "What does success look like for you in this partnership?"
Are you a recruiter or executive assistant at a major tech company? We'd love to hear your story — email email@example.com.
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