Administrative Assistant vs. Executive Assistant: What’s the Difference?

by | Jan 14, 2020 | Admin Advice

As many of my regular readers already know, I am a proud former administrative professional. I have a deep admiration and appreciation for those who dedicate themselves to support roles, which is one of the reasons I now focus a large part of my corporate training business on working with administrative teams.

Of course, the admin field has changed a lot in the past few decades (more on that in a future article). But one of the most common questions I’ve heard consistently for many years, especially from newer admins, has to do with titles. 

Specifically, they want to know the difference between a “regular” Administrative Assistant and an Executive Assistant. Often, those who are uninformed will use these titles interchangeably, which creates confusion. In reality, these are two very different roles, both in the expectations and in the skills required to be successful.

In this article, I want to explore both the Administrative Assistant role and the Executive Assistant role as thoroughly as possible, without overwhelming you. (Note: The one area I will not be addressing is salary, as there is too much variation and nuance to adequately cover this topic here. However, I recommend that you do your own research on Salary.com.)

Exploring the Administrative Field

Did you know there are (quite literally) hundreds of titles that fall under the umbrella of being “administrative” in nature? Both Administrative Assistants and Executive Assistants are broadly considered Administrative Professionals, but because there are so many other titles also included in this category, this discussion leads us into very complex territory. I’m going to try to keep things as simple as possible.

Please understand that I am speaking from (1) a U.S. based perspective, (2) my experience training and coaching the global administrative community for over 10 years, and (3) my own personal experience both as an admin and Executive Assistant in the decade prior to becoming a coach and trainer. The information I offer here is intentionally broad and meant to be widely applicable. Recognize that specifics will vary by industry, location, and organization.

That being said, let’s begin.

Understanding the Administrative Assistant Role

Administrative Assistant is the most common and most generic title for support roles in business environments. However, there are a wide variety of other titles that frequently mean the same thing including Administrative Coordinator, Administrative Secretary, Administrative Specialist, and Office Administrator to name just a few.

The job itself can encompass a wide variety of different duties and responsibilities. Admin assistants generally provide support to a team or group of people, a department, or a specific business function. “Support,” in this context, means that the admin handles operational/administrative tasks, including but not limited to:

  • Scheduling and calendar management
  • Meeting preparation and travel planning
  • Organizing and managing paperwork
  • Data entry and reporting
  • Drafting and proofreading communications
  • Fielding inquiries from clients and other business associates
  • Handling and directing calls and visitors
  • Creating and improving operational processes and procedures  

For those admins specializing in supporting specific business functions, their titles may reflect this. For example: Legal Assistant, Marketing Assistant, Project Coordinator, Program Administrator, Training Coordinator, Event Coordinator, etc. All of these roles still fall under the Administrative Assistant category, but each role includes duties specific to the business function. These roles also may require more specialized education, training and/or experience.

Depending on the circumstances, an Administrative Assistant may be an entry-level individual or a more seasoned professional. In some organizations, you may find a role such as “Administrative Assistant 3” or “Senior Administrative Assistant”. Higher level assistants usually enjoy a higher degree of responsibility and perform more sophisticated and complex administrative tasks.

Education and skill requirements for Admins can vary dramatically; some roles require a high school diploma while others prefer a 2-year or 4-year degree. Professional certifications can also help an Administrative Assistant stand out from the competition and demonstrate the necessary skills for the job. Generally speaking, admins need to be organized, highly tech-savvy, excellent communicators, and effective time managers. 

Administrative Assistants vs. Administrative Managers

Within some organizations, you will find a role referred to as Administrative Manager or similar. Other common titles include: Administrative Director, Administrative Supervisor, or Office Manager. People in these roles may manage admin tasks of their own, but they are also responsible for overseeing a team of other administrative professionals. Unlike the typical Administrative Assistant, they usually have managerial duties including, but not limited to:

  • Training, coaching and providing feedback
  • Decision-making
  • Team building
  • Distributing workload
  • Goal setting and performance management
  • Supervising and advising team members  

Note: In some organizations, a senior Executive Assistant will assume this role.

Understanding the Executive Assistant Role

Executive Assistants generally provide support to a single high-level individual or a small group of high-level people. In most organizations, this is a higher-level position (compared with an Administrative Assistant) and requires a higher degree of professional skill.

While Executive Assistants may handle some of the same tasks as Admin Assistants, they are also expected to manage much more, including but not limited to:  

  • Helping set and keep the daily agenda
  • Overseeing projects and critical tasks
  • Anticipating needs and ensuring the executive is prepared for anything
  • Offering advice and guidance with regards to prioritizing and managing deadlines
  • Problem solving and preventing issues from reaching the executive’s desk
  • Acting as an alter ego, attending meetings or responding to emails on behalf of the executive
  • Serving as a de facto leader within the team, answering questions and “managing” through influence and indirect authority

The best Executive Assistants act as partners with the person or people they support. In order to do so successfully, they must understand not only the intricate details of the executive’s job, but also how he or she thinks and makes decisions. Executive Assistants are often trusted with a great deal of confidential business and personal information, so discretion and good judgement are essential skills.

Similar to Administrative Assistants, education and skill requirements for becoming an EA can vary. However, this is not an entry-level role; extensive professional experience is usually necessary. EA jobs are harder to come by, both because they are higher-level and because many Executive/Assistant teams have long-established partnerships. To fill Executive Assistant positions, organizations will often recruit from within, promoting established, high-performing Admins or transferring existing EAs. Some will work with recruiters to identify and entice top talent from other organizations.

I speak from personal experience when I say that the Executive Assistant role can be demanding and challenging, but also very rewarding. With the right partner, an EA can become an invaluable business ally and a powerful part of the leadership team.

Corporate Assistants vs. Personal Assistants

Lastly, it’s worthwhile mentioning that corporate assistants or office assistants are different than personal assistants. A personal assistant may be employed directly by an individual, rather than an organization. They are typically responsible for providing more personal support, including running errands, organizing the household, managing family events and travel, and more. While some corporate Executive Assistants may handle some of these elements, their primary role is to support the person as a professional within the business context. Personal Assistants do not have this same limitation. They may be on-call 24-hours a day and, while they may also handle business needs, their primary role is to serve the person, not the organization.

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About the Author

Chrissy Scivicque is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and certified Professional Career Manager (PCM). She is an author, in-demand presenter and international speaker known for engaging, entertaining, educating and empowering audiences of all sizes and backgrounds. Learn more here.

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