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My experience searching for a Personal Assistant and other stories

Over the past few months, I have been on an employment spree of sorts. At the Open Institute, we had a number of positions that opened up and at a personal level I have also been hoping to find a Personal Assistant (or Executive Assistant as they are called) – a person who would help me stay sane and organised as I live a fairly chaotic life. We filled all the positions except that of my Assistant.

Having gone through many, many interviews and hundreds of CVs and applications, here are some observations I have made. I share them in the hopes that they can be used by someone as a cheat sheet in future job hunts.

  • There are a lot of people looking for work – unemployment is high in Kenya and therefore competition is very high. A person who demonstrates proactivity and multiple skills has way higher chances than a highly skilled person that needs to be managed to closely. At interviews, these things are seen rather than said, so don’t put too much of a premium on the statement you write on your CV – “I work with minimal supervision.”
  • Application: most people do not know how to write – spelling and grammatical errors were seen in most of the applications. I found many CVs and application letters in which people misspelt their own names! In others, the name on the application letter and the name on the CV differed – Anne in one Ann in another.
  • Application: Most people are somewhat familiar with Microsoft word but do not know how to format their documents. Some documents had 2-3 fonts. I threw out all applications written in Comic Sans. Comic sans!!
  • Application: lots of people overstated stuff in their application letters and CVs. Lots of people downright lied.
  • Interview: everyone that I met came early or on time. Most came reasonably prepared for questions they read online and had crammed answers for. Few were real and open in discussing themselves.
  • Interview dressing: Most came dressed okay. I have no expectations personally of formal dress. But some effort to be a little more presentable – it’s better to have clean unadorned nails than chipped nail polish, ladies. It’s better to have a simple T-shirt than a shirt with frayed collar. Gents, at least manage the hair – whatever the style.
  • Interview: One thing that amazed me is the sheer lack of curiosity about everything – even places one had worked.

    “You worked at this company I see.”
    “Yes, I was a developer.”
    “What does the company do?”
    “Something to do with land…”
    “What about land? Like selling or what?”
    “I am not sure…”
  • Interview: In some cases the interviewer had no idea who the CEO of the company was, “Er… her name was something like Mary, I don’t remember her second name…”

My search for an Executive Assistant continues.

As a former EA myself, I am keen to meet a very curious, self motivated person, with diverse skills and a huge appetite for knowledge. I think the best Executive Assistants are highly likely to be CEOs because they understand that they will not specialize in terms of tasks. Most people who applied were administrators or glorified secretaries.

I was pleased to see the different kinds of assistants in this article – the gofer, the admin assistant, the executive assistant and the chief of staff. Most applicants I have met are really Admin assistants.

“Executive assistants aren’t put off by uncertainty. They can take an unclear assignment and actually figure out, within certain boundaries, how to make it work. They can handle tasks that are sketched out instead of being engineered out... Executive assistants are highly autonomous; they just need help understanding the context of your requests. EAs need a certain base amount of information to help them make good decisions on your behalf. They need you to communicate your expectations and preferences.”

It was sad to see Executive Assistant applicants who did not know how to use Google, could not research and who did not have curiosity. A EA is supposed to be a mini-leader, someone who can learn all aspects of their leaders lives and even represent him. Curiosity is the biggest skill.

The good ones I could not yet afford but I am very hopeful that I will meet someone interesting soon enough.

At the very least, we had some amusements during the process. The most amusing was when a candidate was found to have prepared thoroughly for the interview, she had positioned herself very well, her LinkedIn and CV were packaged for the organization, she had thoroughly reviewed the organization and could explain what role she saw for herself in the organization. The only thing was, she had researched and prepared to work at the Open Society Initiative for East Africa instead of the Open Institute.

Despite this, she got the job.

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Also published on Medium.

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