PM 101: What Executive Assistants Need to Know

Interview with Rhonda Scharf

Project management (PM) is an essential skill executive assistants already have. The key is to exercise your PM muscle by expanding in both education and certification. It’s vital because it allows for an executive assistant to be seen as a respected member of the leadership team. Not only does project management education/certification help you get a seat at the table, it also allows you to step up as a leader and grow within your career.

Rhonda Scharf is a professional speaker, trainer, and consultant that happens to be an expert instructor on project management at the ELS Forums across the globe. We set out to provide you with all the answers to your project management questions as it relates to the executive assistant career. Being that Scharf is an EA’s best PM resource, we rounded up the vital answers every EA wants.

Why should an executive assistant pursue project management education?

The role of the administrative professional has been for quite some time, the role of a project manager. The challenge is when you fall under the umbrella of an administrative professional, especially with large companies, you are bound to salary caps. In reality, the role of executive assistant is much more of a project management role. Going back to the days when the glass ceiling was more prevalent, the admin career wasn’t seen as dynamic. EAs make sure the right people are in the right place at the right time doing the right things on the proper schedule. They make sure everything is coming together to complete something, whether that’s a meeting, event, or function. Executive assistants should get their certification because they will then move to a different salary band and make more money. When they are seen as a junior project manager or project manager, they’re seen as having a different skill set.

In this role, is certification necessary?

It’s not necessary but a progressive next step. EAs already have a PM skill set, but the difference is that with certification, they are seen as having that skill set. Professionals within their company will see them in a different light and value their contributions more. What doors would certification open for an executive assistant? Professionals at your company will stop seeing you in an admin role, and instead, see you in a manager role. It will empower you to be a respected member of the leadership team and allows you the flexibility to expand into a PM role if desired.

What certifications are there?

There used to be two main options for certification including the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification and Project Management Professional (PMP)) certification through Project Management Institute (PMI). Recently, IAAP introduced a PM designation through their Certified Administrative Professionals (CAP) program which is tailored specifically for the EA career. What certifications do most assistants go after? The most common right now for executive assistants is the PM designation through IAAP that came out last fall. Many assistants went through that initial launch of the program, and due to the success, IAAP is conducting the program again this fall. As an EA, you’ll go through a couple of workshops and take an exam to receive the certification. You have to have your CAP already to enroll in the program. Outside of the admin space, the CAPM and PMP are more popular. Moreover, you can get project management education at every college or university without having to get certified.

What certification would you recommend for the EA role?

The Mecca certification is the PMP, but for the most part, many executive assistants won’t qualify for it because you have to have so many hours docked of project time. I would recommend assistants to get their PM designation through IAAP first and then graduating to their CAPM. If an EA wants to stay in the admin space but wants to be recognized as a manager, then they should get the PM designation through IAAP. If an EA wants to expand out of the admin space and into the PM space, I would recommend they get the CAPM certification.

What are the different phases of project management as it relates to the EA role?

Step 1: Planning – This is where someone says “I think you should” and instead of running to execute, you ask the important questions and conduct a needs analysis. For example, where is the money coming from? During this phase, you walk through the entire project requirements, who’s involved, what the timeline is, and the scope. If you skip this phase, your project isn’t going to turn out right. When I speak to the EAs at the ELS Forum, we talk most about this step, because EAs are executors. EAs tend to go right from “I think you should” to execution. That’s a natural admin jump. The planning phase helps you avoid assumptions about the project.

Step 2: Initiation – This is where the PM will set deliverables, activities, and scheduling for the project. – We need to set the checkpoints and dependencies here. What is required before we can move to the next step. For instance, I can’t book the hotel space for the function until we determine the date. The date selection is a dependency. This is the stage where we need to meld stakeholder expectations into management objectives or tasks.

Step 3: Execution – This phase is where EAs are typically the most comfortable. When you’re in a PM role, it’s important to recognize that you won’t always be the executioner. Instead, you are responsible for making sure others are executing. You’re managing the project and not doing the project.

Step 4: Performance Monitoring and Cost Control –  We make sure what is supposed to be getting done is getting done, and we make sure that someone is keeping an eye on the budget. This is the management piece of project management. Making sure that everyone is doing what they should be doing.

Step 5: Final Delivery, Close Out, and Review – Once the project has been delivered, and everyone walks away happy (hopefully), we need to ensure we do the close out and review step. Most PMs and project teams forget about this phase because what often happens is you get thrown onto the next project before you have a chance to complete this phase. It is where the most learning happens and is important that we evaluate how well we did our job, what went well, and what we would change the next time.

How are EAs already executing these phases in their day-to-day?

Most executive assistants are already doing all of it. Executives are often the ones who are given the title of project manager and then it’s the EA’s responsibility to make sure it’s all being done: the reports are being created, the project is on budget, etc. The EAs are the ones that are following up with both stakeholders and colleagues. They’re also the ones that bring people together when things aren’t getting done. They are already doing the management piece, and once they get the authority through certification, they become a more respected and valued member of the leadership team. They are already doing all of the organization, implementation, and documentation. And at the end of the project, they are passing it off to someone higher who gives them the seal of approval. It’s time to have our name on the project!

What tools/programs/software would you recommend for project management?

The number one project management tool everyone should be using is Excel. People are often embarrassed if they use Excel because they think they aren’t being sophisticated enough. The truth is, Excel is the most commonly used PM tools. It’s also a segway into using Microsoft Project which is another phenomenal tool. Now, professionals are using programs such as One Note, Slack, Trello, and Asana. One Note is not only a project management tool, but it’s also an all-encompassing tool. It keeps everything organized in one place, such as your emails and project scope, documents, conversations, etc. It’s a one-stop shop. If you are breaking into the PM space, you should be familiar with at least one of two of the newer project management tools such as Slack, Trello, or Asana.

Any last words to executive assistants who want to learn more about PM?

Use your eyes and ears and start paying attention. Change your language to reflect the language of project management. For example, in meetings, start calling clients “stakeholders”. Start calling things “projects”. Use the lingo of PM. And when you’re sitting at the table, participate. Don’t be quiet. The more you are seen as a valuable piece of the project management team, the more responsibility you get, and the more you learn.

Rhonda Scharf will be training executive assistants through an interactive project management session at the ELS Forums. To dive further into project management, join other executive assistants at any of our ELS Forums across the globe.