Training and Resources Exclusively for Executive Assistants

When All You Have Is A Hammer

There’s an old adage...”when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Basically, what this means is that we tend to use what we know – to approach every problem by using the tools we have in our arsenal.

So it is with the average Assistant. Assistants use the (limited) tools they know to do their jobs.

But, it goes beyond just the Assistant herself – business executives limit themselves the same way.

Here’s what I mean…

Most business executives tend to use their Executive Assistants the same way lower-level managers use Administrative Assistants:

  • For managing the calendar
  • For making travel arrangements
  • For arranging conference rooms
  • To run routine reports
  • To type correspondence and other materials that are dictated to them (or handwritten by their managers)
  • To answer incoming phone calls
  • To handle basic office skills such as copying and filing

Likewise – most Executive Assistants tend to see their role exactly the same as the lower level Administrative Assistant – just doing them for someone who holds a higher-level position.

These are the skills they have developed over the years, and have been all they need. In other words – this core skill set is their “hammer.”

For the executive (many of whom rose through the ranks from lower-level management positions) – the Assistant, herself, is the “hammer.” In other words, most executives ask far too little of their Executive Assistant in terms of skill set.


To continue the carpentry analogy – every skilled craftsman has a full array of tools at his disposal. In addition to a hammer, he has a saw, a screwdriver, a drill…you get the idea. For each, he has completely mastered how to use them.

When he has a task to complete – he starts with asking the question “which tool do I need to achieve the desired result?” For example, he could make a hole by driving a nail in a board, then remove the nail, leaving him with a nail hole. But, with his knowledge of all the tools, he instead chooses to use the drill. It’s much more efficient and effective for creating holes.

So, how does this translate to the business executive?

Make sure your Executive Assistant has a full array of training and skills that extend beyond the typical Assistant!

This higher-level role (the Chief Executive Assistant – CEA), should be well-versed in project management, staff management and scheduling. She should have the ability to conduct research, and she should interact effectively with others at all levels of the organization (as well as outside the organization).

Further, she needs to have a command of the software used in business. More than 90% of current Executive Assistants have very basic skills when it comes to the software needed in business every day. Generally, these include such programs as the Microsoft Office suite of products (Excel, Word, PowerPoint and Outlook).

The more your assistant knows - and the more she can do - the better equipped YOU are to run the business.


Rather than just asking your assistant to perform "tasks" - take the time to analyze all of your needs and the company's goals (as well as your personal goals). Then, have a strategy meeting with your assistant to discuss them in detail. Enlist her help to use (or find) the appropriate tools to accomplish them. The key is not to limit yourself by asking "what can my assistant do?" Ask what's possible and what's desirable - then look for a way to accomplish them.

The result is that you'll have better information and tools at your disposal. These result in better (and quicker) decisions.

You'll also have more time to concentrate on what's most important for the business.


Let’s say that your goal this quarter is to launch a new product that’s currently in development and nearing completion. You’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time with the heads of the Marketing and Sales teams. Together, you’ll develop a timeline that makes sense, then execute according to that timeline.

That’s the goal – the problems are that (a) you’re already overbooked for time and will be out of town several times; (b) the two team leads are notoriously bad at working together and their time is already stretched pretty thin; and (c) you need to keep a close eye on the numbers to make sure the product is being promoted and sold at the level you expect or there will be serious financial implications.

In discussing these needs and goals with your CEA, the two of you can decide a course of action that includes

  • Having your CEA reschedule or cancel non-essential meetings from your calendar;
  • Scheduling regular progress meetings with you and the Sales and Marketing leads;
  • Minimizing the amount of time you spend on other (routine) meetings by having your CEA reach out to the meeting organizers to ensure that your time is well-spent and included only when essential;
  • Having your CEA triage your emails to allow you to keep focused without distraction (she should already be doing this anyway);
  • Creating a follow-up project plan that empowers your CEA to routinely communicate with the Marketing and Sales leads to make sure everything is keeping on schedule and that deliverables are on time;
  • Having the CEA request sales activity information from the Sales team, along with sales reports and web site activity reports from the IT team on a weekly basis – then parsing the data into a meaningful report.

This gives you a good picture of the effectiveness of the sales and marketing campaign as it unfolds.

By having a well-trained and skilled CEA handling these business activities, the product launch stays on schedule. It also gives you have time to react proactively when things aren’t going according to plan rather than looking for heads to chop when sales fall flat.


Review your assistant's training and skills. Does she have ALL the tools in her arsenal? Or is she trying to do it all with a hammer?




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