The Discretionary Effort Test: A Key To Hiring Amazing Executive Assistants

Executive assistants and administrative assistants are the unsung heroes of many organizations.  As a consultant I interact with them daily as they control the calendars and planning for the executives with whom I work.  Just last week I was working with a client in Boston and the executive assistant to the president was super impressive.  She was energetic, humorous and extremely proactive.  She was a pleasure to work with and reflected so positively on the corporate culture.  While this is not the norm, I have had the pleasure of working with several amazing executive assistants.  On the flip side, I have also worked with some miserable and incapable ones.

The organized proactive executive assistant. Photo by  Amy Hirschi  on  Unsplash

The organized proactive executive assistant. Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

So what differentiates the rock star executive assistants from the duds?  I believe it is discretionary effort.  That might be code for employee engagement.  It is people who genuinely care about the company, their job and the person or people they support.  Their level of engagement and willingness to go above and beyond is rooted in who they are.  Yes, being recognized and rewarded for their performance is also important, but some people are just wired to do it right.

A few years ago I was working with a CEO who had run through several executive assistants.  Some could not keep up with the pace, others were too passive.  All in all it was tough to find someone with the right skills and attitude.  HR had stuck out several times.  I suggested we take a different approach to the interview process.  We identified the root of the problem being a lack of pro-activity.  The CEO needed an executive assistant that would anticipate his needs and proactively seek out solutions and make plans. HR presented another slate of candidates that I helped him review.  On paper many of them looked well qualified.  They had executive assistant experience, the right software skills and solid employment histories.  The resume cannot provide insights into that X factor.

I suggested that we choose three candidates to bring in for interviews and that the interviews would tell us who to hire or at least who not to hire.  I had a unique plan to test the initiative of the candidates.  We scheduled each candidate to meet in the same conference room. The interviews were all scheduled on the same day but at different times. I wanted to meet each of them one on one.  Before each candidate arrived I staged the room.  I opened one door to the cabinet along the wall, I tilted a hanging picture on the wall, I left two almost empty paper coffee cups on the table and a messy pile of blank sheets of paper.  The room was clearly disorganized. I did this before each of the three candidate interviews.

The discretionary effort test

The discretionary effort test

When each candidate arrived, they were shown into the room and told to wait for the interviewer.  Five minutes later the receptionist checked in to say that the interviewer would be a few minutes more and asked if the candidate wanted a coffee or a water.

After leaving the candidate in the room for 10 minutes alone I entered to conduct the interview. The first candidate while good on paper had trouble giving me strong examples of times she was proactive and sought out solutions.  For the second interview we set the room the same way and did the same experiment also telling the candidate that I was running late.  When I walking into the room, the candidate stood to greet me. She told me the room was a mess and that she had cleaned things up, closed the cabinet, fixed the picture and organized the table.  She told me that she could not bear to sit there with the room disorganized.  We had an excellent interview and we hired her.  She is still there and doing an outstanding job.

The point here is that discretionary effort can be measured pretty easily.  It doesn’t show up on a resume, but in an interview there are several ways to test for it.  The disorganized interview room is one of my favorite ways and it works for just about any role.  It is just one data point, but it tells a lot about a person.

I have shared this story with several other clients and they have incorporated the approach or a variation of it into their hiring practices.  To all the executive assistants out there making great things happen, I appreciate you and all you do.