The Executive Assistant Guide: Skills, Guides, Courses

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Being an executive assistant can be a great career path to use your organizational and interpersonal skills. Learn how to enter the field, how to grow within it, and what an executive assistant's salary is.

[Featured Image] An executive assistant is holding papers and working at her desk with her laptop.

An executive assistant works directly with top executives in a company or organization, fulfilling high-level administrative needs and standard assistant tasks. Opportunities to enter this field exist in most major cities, with the highest employment rate in Toronto. According to the Government of Canada Job Bank, an estimated 36,700 people are employed in the field nationally [1], with an average annual salary of $64,794 [2]. 

Learn about the different types of assistants, what sets them apart, and the required skills, experience, and education. 

What is an executive assistant?

An executive assistant plays a major role in a company's structure by providing clerical and communication assistance to high-level executives. Working directly with these executives requires discretion and organization, as they rely heavily on an executive assistant's ability to handle most communication with clients, partners, and subordinate employees.

What does an executive assistant do?

A day in the role of an executive assistant typically involves a variety of tasks such as scheduling, drafting memos, interacting with others, and record-keeping, depending on the company and executive’s needs. Your duties will likely include, but are not limited to: 

  • Performing administrative tasks such as writing emails, creating memos, and drafting communications 

  • Maintaining comprehensive records and creating accurate reports

  • Completing payroll and other accounting needs 

  • Planning meetings by managing schedules and sending reminders

  • Answering the phones in a timely and helpful manner

  • Being the face of the company for anyone entering the office

  • Managing the executives' calendar, appointments, and travel details, with a key focus on organization

What do employers look for in an executive assistant?

Employers seek candidates who can handle a large workload of varying tasks and projects. If you can multitask and prioritize assignments, a role as an executive assistant may be a natural fit for you. Here are some skills that employers may look for in this role. 

1. Time management and ability to meet deadlines

You will be responsible for managing your time and the executives' time. This includes scheduling meetings, appointments, and travel arrangements. This allows executives to focus on their responsibilities and keep the workflow on track. 

Managing executives' time and your own time is equally important for your success. The company relies on you, so maintaining a track record of arriving to work on time and completing projects within their deadlines will reflect well when you're looking to advance your role.

2. Verbal and written communication skills

Daily tasks include crafting emails and reports, making phone calls, and networking. Therefore, an executive assistant must have strong written and verbal communication skills. Using a clear and consistent tone will often help you maintain your professional relationships and those of executives.

3. Strong organizational skills and ability to multitask

In this role, you will be responsible for noting a large amount of information, making organization a critical skill needed for the position. Administrative organizational tasks include filing, categorizing emails, sorting mail, and screening phone calls. For executives, it’s important for you to have an organizational system in place for calendars, appointments, reports, and budgets.

4. Problem-solving and proactivity

Companies have an executive assistant to free up an executive's time, prioritize their workload, and delegate responsibilities. To do this effectively, you must make decisions independently. This requires confidence in your abilities and a high level of strategic thinking. You'll also need to be able to proactively assess a project, predict a wide range of possible outcomes, and plan contingent solutions. 

5. Interpersonal skills

In this role, you'll interact with people with various personalities, both external and within the company, making patience and kindness vital. Often, an executive assistant will be the first line of defence with unhappy clients and in-house employees, so it's essential to be able to diffuse situations before involving executives. You represent both the executives and the company, allowing you to set the tone for the workplace.

How to become an executive assistant?

When looking to enter into an executive assistant role, it's essential to consider the industry you'll be working in. While a high school diploma or a GED can be enough qualifications for an entry role in some companies, medical, tech, and legal industries often require additional courses in industry-specific terminology.

Secondary school completion or equivalent

An entry-level position in this field usually requires a minimum of a secondary school diploma or equivalent, such as the GED. This and experience in word processing and spreadsheets can set you up for success. Some executive assistants have either a college diploma or bachelor’s degree; some employers may expect this. However, it is not usually a requirement, and years of work experience can often substitute for education requirements.

Training courses

When considering whether to take training courses, it's important to research the industry you would like to work in and its requirements. The medical field, as well as legal and tech, usually has industry-specific needs that can be met through experience or training courses. In any industry segment, it's key to have computer skills, including word processing and data entry. Newly hired executive assistants will receive on-the-job training in the first weeks or months.

Work experience in a related occupation

To advance to an executive assistant position, you may start as an office assistant, secretary, or administrative assistant. These roles provide essential work experience to move into an executive assistant position. This job depends on your interpersonal and organisational skills, which should develop over time through relevant work experience.

Licences, professional certificates, and registrations

Beyond work experience and education, licences and Professional Certificates are usually not required. However, they can help demonstrate your competency and increase your earning potential. You might consider various certifications offered by Microsoft to show your proficiency in using its Office products. You can also pursue certifications specific to executive or administrative assistant roles.

Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant

The Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant is a five-day intensive training program accredited internationally by Qualifi, an official UK government-regulated awarding body. During the five days, you will learn practical skills and a deeper understanding of operational business needs.

Certified Administrative Professional

The Certified Administrative Professional Certification is offered by The International Association of Administrative Professionals. You'll need an associate or bachelor’s degree or two or three years of relevant experience to qualify for this certification. Four years of relevant experience will also qualify you instead of a college degree. Once deemed eligible, an exam is required to demonstrate your knowledge. 

Jobs in similar positions 

If you do not have administrative experience but want to become an executive assistant, consider these positions as a starting point to gain experience.

Administrative assistant

An administrative assistant's role is similar to an executive assistant's but usually less specialized. Tasks often include scheduling meetings, screening phone calls, managing deadlines and projects, and preparing travel itineraries.

Average annual salary: $47,231 [3]

Administrative officer

An administrative officer tends to work for an entire office instead of assisting one person's day-to-day needs. This involves stocking paper and supply needs, managing payroll, working the front desk, and additional general office needs. 

Average annual salary: $56,180 [4]

Administrative manager

This is a managerial role in companies that require a team of administrators to run smoothly. Larger organizations tend to have a team of administrative assistants or clerical aids. The administrative manager is responsible for the entire team and trains new administrative assistants.

Average annual salary: $64,019 [5]

Executive assistant professional job overview

This role is common in large companies located in popular metropolitan areas. The largest concentration of executive assistant jobs tend to be in the Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary metropolitan areas. 

Job and career outlook 

This job can be an opportunity for someone without formal education beyond a secondary school diploma or equivalent but with the technical skills for a business organization. Due to its fast-paced nature, this career offers growth and challenges. Every day is different, and it can be a fulfilling career for the right person.

Typical career advancements in executive assistant roles

As you gain more experience as an executive assistant, you will often have the opportunity to work with higher-level executives up to the CEO. Another move for an executive assistant is to aspire to advance into larger and larger companies. A large company tends to offer more room to grow and higher pay. If you’re interested in becoming an executive, this role can serve as a mentorship with the executive you’re assisting. 

Build your skills as an executive assistant. 

If you’re interested in building your organizational and communication skills, a career as an executive assistant could be your next career move. To develop these skills, consider some courses offered on Coursera, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Improving Communication Skills course or the University of California Davis’s Professional Skills for the Workplace Specialization. These, along with other courses offered on Coursera, give personal and professional growth options in the workplace. 


Article sources


Job Bank. “Job Prospects Executive Assistant in Canada,” Accessed June 4, 2024.

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