Executive Assistant 2.0— Up-level your executive

I used to be Kevin Spacey’s Chief of Staff but outside of politics most people don’t know what that role is so at Airbnb I am called an Executive Assistant. The EA title is also not very useful as most people assume we only do admin. I was speaking to Sam Altman the CEO of Y Combinator and he calls this role his ‘Lever’. This is an intriguing title as it gets to the core of what my function does. My boss runs the product org at Airbnb which is a $35 billion organization employing 3,000 people. He is stuck at the centre of the org but I am free to go as far from the centre as needed to help him be more effective at his job.

My boss is in back to back meetings for 9 hours every day and he somehow finds the time to respond to hundreds of emails. Meetings and emails are the communication tools he uses to manage his team to build awesome products. This is a huge challenge. It’s a bit like driving a car while reading one of those old fashioned maps made out of paper. Not only do you have to focus on the road but you also have to figure out where you are going. Throw in a couple of children screaming in the back of the car and it becomes very challenging to focus on any one thing. I’m not saying our team is like a screaming child but it fits nicely into the analogy. The road is the day to day operation of the business, the map is the business strategy and the kids are all the employees. My role is designed to provide a bit of assistance. I can help with reading the map or taking care of the kids or even holding the wheel. I can basically fill in where needed without actually sitting in the driver’s seat.

I’ll give you an example of my job. My boss is the head of product at Airbnb and we launch many products all the time. I was tasked with creating a calendar listing all our product launches. My boss wanted me to ensure the calendar stayed updated so I could use the information to schedule meetings to drive our deadlines. I asked all the key stakeholders to update their launches in the document. It would have been easy for me to let them do all this work but I took it upon myself to meet with everyone and have them talk me through what is involved in each launch and the logic behind the timing. I can now leverage this knowledge to make sure the key stakeholders are on the same page and on top of their deadlines. I sit in on all the meetings so if I see a project falling behind schedule i can nudge the team members responsible.

It’s crucial that the team knows they can confide in me and I will not break anyone’s confidence. People sensor themselves when they interact with managers which can result in management being unaware of problems brewing in the organization. For example, an employee could be suffering from startup burnout but they don’t want to say anything to leadership. I need to build meaningful relationships with the team so they feel comfortable opening up to me about issues. I can then implement a solution on my bosses behalf. I am not the only person who can solve these issues but I have a unique perspective on the situation because I see everything my boss sees so I sometimes have more context than other people on the team.

I help my boss prioritize by proactively doing the work to validate or invalidate opportunities. For example, if an investor we trust recommends we start investing in biotech. I can take the time to vet the opportunity then go back to my boss and tell him that I met the CEO’s of the top 5 biotech companies and found the best 2 people we should hire to work on this project. This is hypothetical as we are very unlikely to invest in biotech which is way out of our focus. My boss doesn’t have the bandwidth to look into all opportunities which means he might end up investing time or resources in the wrong thing. I have the time to explore opportunities so we can be sure we are not blind to more profitable investments.

Other than my boss I am the only person who sits in all his meetings and reads all his emails. I basically know everything he knows so I kind of act like his second brain. The other day we were in a meeting with art department discussing creative direction for photos and videos. My boss said we needed to make our photos more “host forward”. The creative director didn’t know what that meant but I remembered that our research lead had recently done user surveys on the topic so I reached out to her to get more specific parameters. No human can remember everything and multi-tasking is impossible to do effectively so to close with another terrible analogy, if my boss were a computer I would be additional RAM and CPU.