How to Interview an Executive Assistant and Personal Assistant

In Good Hands: Choosing the right Executive Assistant or PA to Guide Your Journey

Finding the perfect Executive Assistant or PA is akin to finding the perfect co-pilot – someone who understands your journey and helps navigate the complexities with ease. This isn’t just another hire; this is the person who will become your right hand, your confidant, and often, your gatekeeper. The success of your endeavours often hinges on the seamless collaboration between you and your EA or PA, making the interview process not only critical but potentially transformative.
The right EA or PA should embody qualities like reliability, effective communication, impeccable organisation, discretion and unwavering loyalty. They should be able to anticipate your needs, manage your schedule with precision and handle tasks with a level of discretion and efficiency that keeps everything running smoothly. Conversely, a misaligned partnership can lead to miscommunication, decreased productivity, and significantly heightened stress levels.
To ensure you find an EA who is not just experienced with the right academic qualifications, but is also an ideal match and the right ‘fit’ for your working style and objectives, a thorough and strategic interview process is essential. From assessing their organisational skills and technological proficiency, to evaluating their adaptability and emotional intelligence, every aspect of the interview should be designed to reveal whether they can thrive in your working environment.
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Step One: Defining Your Ideal EA or PA

Before diving into the interview process, it's essential to grasp the distinctions between an Executive Assistant (EA) and Personal Assistant (PA) as well as the various types of PAs available. This understanding will help you to determine the role that best aligns with your specific needs and expectations.
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EA and PA Job Titles - Understanding the Difference

Job titles vary from company to company and individual to individual.  They are not set in stone but broadly:

  • Executive Assistant (EA): An EA plays a multifaceted role dedicated to optimising their employer’s efficiency. They oversee all aspects of their employer’s professional life, managing schedules, diaries, and coordinating meetings and travel arrangements. Additionally, EAs often oversee business ventures and projects, ensuring deadlines are adhered to while nurturing crucial internal and external relationships.  Often more experienced than a PA.
  • Business PA/Business Assistant: A Business PA/Assistant focuses on professional tasks such as managing business-related schedules, coordinating and attending meetings, analysis and preparing reports and presentations, and assisting with project management. 
  • Personal Assistant (PA): A PA primarily supports individuals on a business and personal level. PAs organise personal appointments, events and travel arrangements for their employer. Their role is supportive, ensuring their employer’s personal life runs smoothly allowing them to focus on professional responsibilities. 
  • Private PA: Focuses on supporting an individual with their personal and household affairs such as managing properties, household staff, running personal errands, and coordinating private travel. 
  • Virtual PA: Provides support to their employer remotely. Their duties can encompass both business and personal support, including managing schedules, handling emails and phone calls, coordinating meetings, and conducting research. 

Pre-Interview Preparation

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Just as candidates invest time in preparing for interviews, interviewers must also be well-prepared. Thorough planning allows interviewers to conduct a structured interview, ask insightful questions and evaluate candidates effectively.

1. Know What You Want

First and foremost, crafting a detailed job specification that clearly defines the role is essential. Before scheduling interviews, be crystal clear about what you're looking for in an Executive Assistant (EA) or Personal Assistant (PA). Begin by defining the must-have skills and experience that are non-negotiable for the position. Clearly outline the key responsibilities, ensuring that the candidates know exactly what will be expected of them on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, identify the personal traits that will fit well with the boss, team, and company culture. Creating a comprehensive job specification is essential to finding the perfect fit.

Example Job Specification:

Personal Assistant to Influential
Property Director £60 - £70k

Job Summary

We are looking for a highly organised and proactive personal assistant to an influential Property Director. The candidate must be capable of providing outstanding support across all areas of his busy private life.

The Job

  • Organising business and personal appointments and meetings.
  • Managing his complex diary and international travel.
  • Arranging personal events.
  • Communicating with HNWIs and VIPs.
  • Preparing agendas, taking minutes, and distributing meeting notes.
  • Acting as a loyal and trusted gatekeeper.

The Candidate

  • Highly organised and proactive, able to plan ahead and stay calm under pressure in a fast-paced environment.
  • Excellent people and communication skills.
  • Dependable and consistent in meeting deadlines and commitments.
  • Strong problem-solving skills and ability to think on your feet.

Essential Skills and Experience

  • At least 3-5 years of experience as a Personal Assistant, preferably within the property industry.

Benefits

  • Competitive salary and benefits package.
  • Opportunities for personal development and growth.
Establishing a clear timeline and strategy for the interview process is crucial for ensuring efficiency. It’s essential to identify who will be involved in the interviews and allocate responsibilities accordingly. Given the importance of a quick interview process in order to secure top talent, it’s essential that all interviewers are totally up to speed with the job specification beforehand. This ensures that everyone is aligned on the criteria and expectations for the role, facilitating a smooth and coherent evaluation of candidates.

2. Review the Candidate’s CV Prior to the Interview

Thoroughly review each candidate's CV before the interview. This step is crucial for understanding their background, identifying any gaps or concerns, and effectively assessing their suitability for the role. For example, if a recent graduate has frequently changed jobs, it is important to address this during the interview. On the surface, job-hopping might suggest unreliability or a lack of commitment. However, discussing this with the candidate can reveal valuable insights. They might have been intentionally seeking a variety of experiences to acquire diverse skills and are now ready to commit to a long-term position. By understanding the reasons behind any gaps or concerns, interviewers can better assess the candidate’s potential and fit for the company.

3. Online Research

Conduct online research to gain a more comprehensive view of the candidate beyond what their CV presents. Checking their LinkedIn profile, professional websites, portfolios and social media presence can reveal additional qualifications, interests, or red flags that might not be immediately apparent.
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Understanding the Candidate’s CV:

  • Key Positives: Look for relevant experience in similar roles or industries. For example, if you work in the art world, a Personal Assistant (PA) with five years of experience supporting an art dealer might be more suited to your needs than someone from a boutique finance background. Their experience suggests they have a good understanding of the art world, its unique demands, and the specific skills necessary in that environment.
  • Red Flags: Note any areas of concern, such as frequent job changes, short tenures, or unexplained gaps in employment. For instance, if a candidate has taken a two-year break from their career without specifying reasons, it’s important to explore this during the interview.
  • Areas of Interest: Identify elements that may complement your company’s culture. For example, if your company values adventure and often organises activities, such as climbing the Three Peaks, a candidate who expresses a passion for hiking in their free time might be a strong cultural fit.

Conducting the Interview

Selecting the right interview format is crucial as each format offers unique insights into the candidate's suitability.

Different Interview Formats

  • Formal Interviews: These are excellent for evaluating professionalism, structured communication, and suitability for corporate environments. They help gauge how candidates present themselves in more traditional settings.
  • Relaxed Interviews: These are useful for evaluating cultural fit, especially in creative environments or entry-level positions where a more relaxed setting may help the candidate showcase their personality.
  • Competency-Based Interviews: These are ideal for understanding how candidates apply their skills and experience in practical situations. This format is particularly effective for predicting performance in roles requiring effective decision-making and problem-solving under pressure.

Types of Interview Questions

The questions you ask can significantly impact the information you gather. A mix of open and closed questions is recommended.

Question Types:

  • Open-Ended Questions: Help you understand the candidate’s thought process and experiences, for example: “Please describe a time when you managed multiple priorities successfully?”
  • Closed Questions: Obtain specific, straightforward information, for example: E.g., “How many years have you worked as an EA?”

Examples of Good Questions:

General Interview Questions

  • Tell me about yourself?
  • What are the key skills needed to be an excellent PA?
  • Why should we hire you as a PA?
  • Where do you see yourself in 2 and 5 years’ time?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Is there any part of this role that worries you?
  • What do you do when you are not at work?
  • How do you handle stress and pressure?

Experience-related Interview Questions

  • Tell me about your current/last job?
  • Why do you want to leave your current/last role?
  • What is the biggest mistake you have made at work?
  • How do you prioritise tasks and manage your time effectively?
  • Tell me about an event you have organised?
  • How do you handle working with confidential information?
  • How do you deal with last minute and unexpected changes at work?
  • How do you handle receiving constructive criticism from your boss?

Competency Based Interview Questions

  • Give an example of a challenging situation you encountered as a PA and how you resolved it?
  • Give an example of when you went above and beyond your duties as a PA?
  • Give an example of when you had to handle stress and pressure at work?
  • Give an example of an initiative that you took that improved efficiency in your PA role and company?
  • Give an example of when you anticipated the needs of your boss before he asked you to do something?
  • Give an example of how you dealt with a tricky individual at work?

Selling your Company: Interviews are a Two-Way Street

Interviews are not just about candidates selling themselves; they’re also a prime opportunity for companies to showcase what they have to offer.

  1. Sell the Opportunity: Present the role not just as a job but as a career opportunity. Highlight the competitive salary offerings, benefits and perks such as flexible work arrangements, wellness programs or employee discounts. Emphasise the potential for professional growth within the company, illustrating this with examples such as the career progression of past employees who have advanced within the organisation.
  2. Highlight Company Mission, Values, and Culture: Clearly articulate how the role aligns with your company’s overarching mission and values. Describe specific initiatives or events that showcase your commitment to diversity, sustainability, or community involvement. For example, at Sky, employees are granted the opportunity to volunteer an hour a week to engage with the elderly, aiming to combat loneliness. This initiative not only showcases Sky’s commitment to social responsibility but also highlights a supportive and compassionate workplace culture.

Feedback

Providing constructive feedback to unsuccessful candidates is important as it acknowledges their effort in attending an interview, can be helpful for future interviews and enhances the candidate experience.

In conclusion, interviewing your next EA or PA successfully requires thorough preparation, a clear understanding of what you need, and conducting a structured, insightful and strategic interview process. By following these guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect candidate for your company. If you are considering hiring an EA or PA, please contact Knightsbridge Recruitment as we would love to help.

Contact Us
Knightsbridge Recruitment is a boutique consultancy which has been placing stand-out candidates in the most sought after permanent, temporary and part-time Executive Assistant, Personal Assistant, Private PA and executive office support jobs in London, for over 35 years.  If you would like advice on hiring and retaining exceptional staff, we would love to help - please call us.
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