Titles are a tricky thing in most organizations, especially when they are tied to organizational history, culture, and pay scales. As an employee and as a supervisor, my mantra for cutting through all of the red tape around job titles is that they should clearly communicate the person’s role and scope of work. And as a Christian leader, I am also committed to helping shape workplaces where people are equipped and empowered to flourish fully in their God-given gifts.
For these reasons, and in what may be the most controversial post I’ve ever written to date, I’d like to propose rethinking a ubiquitous but often inadequate job title—executive assistant (EA). Disproportionately held by women, the title often fails to capture and communicate the full scope of the role as it is lived out in most organizations today, including schools. And importantly for Christian workplaces, the title can unfortunately lend itself to a “less-than” way of talking and thinking about our team members in administrative roles, which in turn falls short of the Christ- and other-honoring cultures we seek to promote.
Elevating the Title to Match the Role
In corporate America, the role of executive assistant (often referred to in years past as senior secretary or similar title) is highly professionalized. There are associations, books, and in some cases administrative unions for EAs. Often EAs are highly trained, highly compensated, and highly valued by executives and the organization. In a large-scale survey detailed in a 2018 State of the Executive Assistant Report, EAs nationwide shared that they serve as schedulers, coordinators, event managers, finance managers, communication managers, document managers, project managers, and more. As the researchers note, “Today’s Executive Assistants contribute to the high-level strategy and operation of the organization” by “doing the job that entire teams of assistants used to do;” this is largely because the “scope of the executive assistant role has expanded” in an age of technology, organizational cutbacks, and team-based approaches to leadership.
As Forbes.com explains, EAs have become the incontrovertible “superheroes” of organizations. That’s a good enough reason to ask whether it’s time to think about “elevating” the title of EA—for example, to team coordinator or manager. The words “executive” or “senior” can also be added to denote someone who works directly with the CEO. Another good reason to think about retitling the role for future hires, and in building out organizational charts for the future, is the changing expectation around job titles among younger employees. In the coming years, Millennial employees in particular may take umbrage with the EA title than previous generations of workers, given the importance they can place on the meaning that titles confer—to the point that they are often willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a title that conveys more meaning or is linked more explicitly to the core business of the organization.
But what about administrative staff that are currently serving in an EA role? You may be thinking that the EA in your organization or department has never complained about or asked for a different title. This is not surprising, because as the State of the Executive Assistant Report found through research, “Candor is essential, but difficult for executive assistants.” Here’s a question for managers and CEOs: have you asked EAs on your team how they feel about their title? Specifically, do they feel it reflects all they do for the organization and for the team? If you’re concerned about singling out an EA on your team, consider having HR survey all those in that role in your organization (or all individuals in administrative positions) to get their honest thoughts.
Shaping Our Culture by Valuing Others
Without a doubt, many executives’ work is such that they need administrative support in order to lead successfully. And yet over the years I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard EAs introduce themselves as “the person who keeps so-and-so [insert boss’s name] happy,” or heard managers introduce EAs as “the one who really runs the show around here” or “the one who makes me look good.” While these kinds of phrases may sound like they are from a bygone era, they seem to persist in many Christian workplaces (in fact, I’ve heard them in multiple Christian settings as recently as two months ago). Although in some cases these descriptions may (unfortunately) be accurate, at best they do not serve to professionalize the role of EA or signal that the EA is a valued and crucial member of a team. At worst, they can come off demeaning of the role and the individual, to say nothing of reflecting poorly on the overall workplace culture.
Even if this kind of language would be anathema in our workplaces, the “assistant” title still lends itself too easily to the possessive “my” (as in, “please email my assistant”). Even the title of this article—“Time to Promote Your Executive Assistant?”—demonstrates this level of ease. In Christian workplaces, we can ask whether it is more appropriate to use titles that lend themselves better to other-preferencing (Philippians 2:3) language, as in, “please email the team manager, who coordinates scheduling.” If this seems like semantics to us as leaders, the way we refer to our team members who report to us is—and ought to be—vitally important to them, as our words communicate how and to what degree we think, value, and honor them. Elevating the title of EA may help to better reflect the role’s—and more importantly, the individual’s—true value, as well as the type of imago Dei-honoring culture to which Christian teams aspire. While it’s never a panacea, sometimes a title change can serve as an impetus to kick start culture-level change.
It may seem fairly low on the never-ending list of a leader’s priorities to reconsider the titling of administrative staff. Is it worth all the trouble to rethink (and as a result, possibly change) HR policies, job descriptions, email signatures, etc. for something that doesn’t even seem to be a concern or problem? When it comes to shaping an organizational culture that values our team members as image bearers and equips them to use their God-given gifts and talents, things like job titles—and especially what they convey and how they are used—have a powerful impact. Christ-centered, culture-minded leadership knows that the answer to whether we should be thoughtful, intentional, and proactive in these areas is always yes.