New grads and job changers are often confronted with a similar dilemma: do you take your first job offer or do you hold out for a position as big as your ambitions?
I was lucky to be interning at a television network as the days ticked down on my college career, doing work that directly aligned with my dreams and my soon-to-be degree. Luckier still, an entry-level position at the network opened up just as I was preparing to paper the state with applications. The catch? It was an administrative position, not directly in television production as I dreamed.
Ultimately, I decided to take the sure thing and accepted a position as the executive assistant to a senior vice president. I was still creative-adjacent, I reasoned, and I really liked the idea of a steady paycheck.
Looking back on it now, I think these types of administrative jobs can often be disregarded by new grads, unless you’re directly on this track. That was my inclination.
In college we’ve spent four or more years immersed in the dream of our futures, often working in our industry through internships or other programs. When we graduate, it feels like our next step should be further up the ladder. It can be challenging, humbling, to have to take what feels like a step backward.
But that type of thinking is shortsighted. Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, described her 1990 executive assistant job as “the most important she’s ever held.”
Victoria Rabin, founder and CEO of the Executive Assistants Organization and Behind Every Leader conferences, feels similarly.
“I can say with conviction that I owe a vast amount of my success today as a business woman from my experience as an executive assistant,” she said. “I became an executive assistant simply to have a front seat next to the smartest people in the world. I wanted to learn from the best leaders and heavy hitters in the business while being in a supporting role. …
“It was without doubt the most influential time of my entire life, and simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding. I wouldn’t change a single moment of it.”
I can see where they’re coming from. My job as an executive assistant was foundational for my career to date, and I attribute some of what I consider my most useful skills to this start.
It’s probably fair to say you’re unlikely to land this sort of a job if you don’t already have a pretty solid grasp of business communication. But, sitting at the right hand of the boss, you can expand this into a playbook of epic proportions.
You are witness to hundreds of written and in-person interactions and will quickly get a sense for what works and what definitely doesn’t.
For example, what is:
Make note of the best practices you observe and the worst. When you become a manager yourself, you’ll have a great foundation for how to treat the people who report to you and for how to manage up.
Coming out of a production-focused program in college, I really had little idea of corporate structure and all the interrelated dependencies that are necessary to get things done.
As an assistant to an executive, however, I quickly learned who the decision-makers were and what the different departments were responsible for. I was allowed entry into meetings that I otherwise wouldn’t have even known about and was responsible for disseminating information that was sensitive and important.
I went into the experience openminded and eager to learn and was able to soak up a ton. As I moved on to other positions within this company and then others, I found I had a little more patience for bureaucracy because I had an appreciation for the players and the rules. And when I had a problem or a question, I had a better sense of how to direct my query.
Once you establish that you can rock this assistant gig, you’re more likely to start expanding the edges of your job description. This is great—and if you play your cards right it can lead to opportunities down the road—but it can also mean you have two jobs to balance.
Now you have to manage your work for the executive you assist and your own projects. And the only way you’re going to get to keep doing more is if you don’t mess it up.
From my experience, the skills you need to succeed at this double life are also essential project management tools:
Executive assistant and administrative assistant positions offer tremendous opportunity. Rabin cautions, however, that “it takes a certain breed of individual to take on the role of an executive assistant.”
“Whether the employer is aware of it or not, they seek an assistant with an insatiable hunger to learn the business, the ability to represent their personal and/or company brand, to act on their behalf in their absence, to protect and honor their business relationship and lastly, to act as a strategic partner and confidant,” she said.
Ultimately, your first job—or any job—is what you make of it. If you excel in the work you’re assigned, you’re way more likely to be given bigger and better things to manage. Do not limit yourself by fixating on your job title. Fixate on what you can learn and how it can bolster your advancing career.
Marissa identifies as a Leo, an only child, a Jersey girl, a musical theater geek, a media producer and a champion of cheese. She cut her teeth with Court TV’s documentary unit in NYC, earned her stripes developing cable programming with Powderhouse Productions in Boston and in 2009 jumped into public media with Twin Cities PBS in Saint Paul. She’s adapted well to the North Coast lifestyle and thinks everyone needs a little hygge in their heart.