Summary

  • PA work in EA is probably more impactful, slightly better paid and in much higher demand than you thought
  • Indications of personal fit: support mindset, organised, conscientious, detail-oriented and big-picture-oriented, communication skills, social skills, non-judgemental, discreet (and sometimes: proactive, creative, flexible, okay with some disorder)
  • Add yourself to a public PA directory here, sign up for private consideration here, and apply to relevant roles here

This post aims to help you decide whether or not to do Personal Assistant, Executive Assistant, or similar work in EA, whether that be part-time or full-time, remote or in-person, short-term or long-term, contracting or employed (from now on we will simply refer to all of this work as ‘PA work’ for ‘a client’). We provide information on a range of relevant considerations, ask for more information in the comments, and share relevant links if you decide to try to look for work as a PA.

Considerations

Demand

Over the past four months, 92+ EAs have asked Holly for help finding a PA (mostly for ~5 hours a week), despite the existence of many non-EA PA agencies.

People often worry about the opportunity cost of hiring EAs for roles that could be performed just as well by non-EA professionals. But while some tasks can be just as easily delegated to PAs outside of EA, benefits of EA PAs include:

  • the high levels of trust and collaboration that come from value alignment and sharing a community (especially useful given the access often granted to personal details, private work, and personal lives)
  • shared cultural/professional norms (e.g. very clear, info-dense, honest communication; being highly goal-oriented; using Bayesian thinking)
  • EA domain knowledge (landscape, concepts, jargon, history etc) and network

Some of these aspects can be developed about as quickly as an EA can develop PA-specific expertise, but some take much longer and are not guaranteed. For example, we can imagine that being value-aligned is not necessarily something you develop on the job, while domain knowledge can be acquired relatively easily.

Of course, it won’t always be the right call to hire an EA over a non-EA. But we think that PA work at least deserves to be on the table for many of you. You can make your own decision about how best to spend your working hours in your own individual case in terms of skill-building, networking, immediate impact, enjoyment etc and we try to provide some relevant info below.

Impact

In our experience performing these roles ourselves for 7 EAs (and being an accountability partner for 7 others), we estimate that a good full-time fit generally boosts the client’s productivity by ~10-100%.

It’s high-variance - depending on factors such as how skilled the client is at delegating, how much relevant experience the PA has etc - but we thought it would be useful to give at least a rough estimate of what can be achieved with a good fit.

If you’re sceptical, it may be that you haven’t considered some of the most valuable tasks that PAs can do like:

  • Providing motivation and perspective by helping the client figure out what and how to prioritise
  • Doing inbox, calendar, and task management, e.g. through triaging incoming emails, scheduling meetings, and providing a summary of the day’s most important tasks
  • Making disruptive or aversive tasks easier by doing it yourself or setting up accountability systems

Pay

For the 5 public ads for full-time PAs that we’ve noticed in EA over the past few months that list starting salaries, the average has been £50,600 (lowest: £30k to £47k; highest: £57k or £77k).

The rate offered for part-time PA support has varied between £0 and £77 per hour, with £20-40/h being common. The amount varies according to factors such as: number of hours needed, amount of disposable income (most part-time work seems to be paid out of personal pockets), and skills required beyond those needed for typical Virtual Assistant tasks (e.g. data entry, basic Googling).

Personal fit

This is not a role for big egos. Without a support mindset - being content and motivated by aiding someone else to achieve their goals - you’ll struggle to perform this role well. It’s important to be realistic about how comfortable you’ll feel in a role that’s centred on saving and managing the time of another person. But if you find directly empowering others fulfilling, it can be a relief to find such an opportunity in EA (where paths to impact are often indirect with long, if any, feedback loops).

We think that other important traits include:

  • being organised (or at least able to keep others organised) and conscientious (driven to do tasks well and take obligations seriously)
  • the ability to see both the small details (e.g. paying attention to deadlines and the important small print) and the big picture (figuring out what the overall end goal is, and focusing on achieving that)
  • communication and social skills - this is important both for communicating well with your client so that they understand and trust your recommendations and that you’re doing the work well, but also when dealing with other stakeholders, e.g. the client’s funders, collaboration partners, or target audience
  • depending on how involved you become in your client’s life and work, being non-judgmental and discreet, as you may have access to e.g. their email and private information

And then depending on the needs of your client and your preferences/skills, these roles can lie anywhere on the spectrum between ‘Lots of chill and unchallenging admin work’ and ‘Lots of creative, proactive, flexible, generalist work.’ In some roles, perfectionism is a virtue; in others, while an urge to bring order to mess is important, an 80-20 level of order is generally what’s called for and you need to feel comfortable with some amount of untidiness and uncertainty. Either way, the work is normally pretty varied.

We don’t generally find prior experience to be as useful as the traits listed above, but we think that experience in the following can serve as good practice and as indications of personal fit: operations; management/coaching/teaching; research assistance; community-building.

Career progression

Some of you will be happy in your initial role(s) for a long time, honing your craft in a way that’s tailored to a particular individual(s) over many years. Some will soon be keen to move on to other PA/operations roles. And some will see their first role as an entry-level, cause-neutral stepping-stone to fairly different kinds of work elsewhere in the community.

We encourage you to consider which of these paths seem most likely to you before starting a role. Then you can communicate this with your client and design things such that working with you is net useful to them even if you leave after a short while (don’t focus the first 3 months on onboarding if you think there’s a good chance you’ll move on after 6 months).

Questions for readers

  1. What else excites or worries you about these roles?
  2. If you’ve worked with or as an EA PA, can you share (publicly/privately/anonymously) a sense of how productive that working relationship has been? Or how long it took to become net useful for the client? Any advice on getting better results?
  3. Can you share any experiences with using non-EA PA agencies?
  4. Do you have questions for us based on our experiences so far?

Next steps

Further reading

Add yourself to a public PA directory

Add a profile to this public directory by completing this form if you would like people to contact you about potentially working with them as a PA.

Add yourself to a private PA directory

If you don’t want to list yourself publicly or you want to submit additional information privately, complete this Expression of Interest form; your response will then be taken into consideration when people contact Pineapple Operations for support with hiring a PA.

Apply to open positions

We are grateful to Chana Messinger for feedback on this post. All remaining errors are typos.

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New Comment
6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:42 AM

I reasonably often get asked about the value of executive assistants and other support staff. My estimate is that me + executive assistant is about 110%-200% of the value of me alone. 

The range is so wide because I feel very unsure about increasing vs diminishing returns. If having an ExA is equivalent to doing (say) 20% more work in a week, does that increase the value of a week by more or less than 20%? My honest guess is that, for many sorts of work we’re doing, the “increasing returns” model is closer to the truth, because so many sorts of work have winner-takes-all or rich-get-richer effects. The most widely-read books or articles get read far more than slightly-worse books or articles; the public perception of an academic position at Oxford is much greater than a position at UCL, even though the difficulty of getting the former is not that much greater than the difficulty of getting the latter. 

(Of course, there are also diminishing returns, which makes figuring this out so hard. E.g. there are only so many podcasts one can go on, and the listenership drops off rapidly.)

I think people normally think of the value of ExAs as just saving you time: doing things like emails, scheduling, and purchasing. In my experience, this is only a small part of the value-add. The bigger value-add comes from: (i) doing things that you just didn’t have capacity to do, or helping you do things to a higher level of quality; (ii) qualitative benefits that aren’t just about saving or gaining time. On (ii): For me that’s (a) meaning that I know that important emails, tasks, etc, won’t get overlooked, which dramatically reduces my stress levels, decreases burnout risk, and means I can do more deep work rather than feeling I need to check my emails and other messages every hour; (b) helping me prioritise (especially advising on when to say no to things, and making it easier to say no to things). Depending on the person, they can also bring skills that I simply lack, like graphic design, facility with spreadsheets, or mathematical knowledge.

Some caveats:

  • It is notable to me, and an argument against my view, that some of the highest-performing people I know don’t use ExAs. I’m not quite sure what’s going on there. My guess is that if you’re a really super-productive person, the benefits I list above aren’t as great for you.
  • It’s definitely an investment. It’s a short-term cost (to hire the person, think about a new structure for your life and workflow, think about what can be delegated, think about information security and data privacy, etc) for a longer-term gain. 
  • You should in general be cautious about hiring, and that applies to this, too: once you’ve hired someone, you now have an ongoing responsibility to them and their wellbeing, you have to think about things like compensation, performance evaluation, feedback, and so on.

One thing that I feel this post underemphasises is just how high impact the top PAs are going to be.

If you believe that impact is extremely heavy tailed, some PAs (like Holden's) are probably going to have a far greater impact than the vast majority of high status EAs, even if you are on the more pessimistic end a PAs value add.

You also might be able to leverage not caring about status, it's plausible to me that some people that would are going to start mediocre organisations should actually try to force-multiply the best people and one reason they don't is beause of motivated reasoning/over-fitting to what the EA community assigns status to. If you care less about status you might be uniquely well positioned.

PAing for Liv/Igor and Daniela/Holden seem especially exciting to me. I am kind of averse to trying to control the status structures of EA but I think PAing for these people 'should' be higher status than running most orgs that OPP funds.

I've only just seen this Forum Question from Sep 2020: Has anyone gone into the 'High-Impact PA' path?

Some highlights:

  • CarolineJ found in her own case that PA work looked more like project management over time, she called it "a tough and high-impact job, that is often undervalued compared to what the person brings", and she said that important skills include organisation, communication, analytical and generalist
  • matthew.vandermerwe talks about his time as a Research Assistant and Project Manager for Toby Ord, estimating that "I think I (very roughly) added 5–25% to the book’s impact, and freed up 10–33% of Toby's time", but notes re career capital of an RA/PA/etc that "while these jobs are relatively highly regarded in EA circles, they can sound a bit baffling to anyone else."
  • Tanya was an Executive Assistant (ExA) to Nick Bostrom and then became Director of Strategy and Operations at the Future of Humanity Institute
  • A couple of PAs/ExAs mentioned saving the person they were supporting around 10 hours a week
  • Someone who has been an ExA to several EAs said that they reckon the most impactful tasks/responsibilities are:
    • inbox management
    • calendar management (more as a gatekeeper than a calendly)
    • deadline management
    • prioritisation support ("a voice of reason when the EA/researcher is led towards spending time on something less important")
    • taking small annoying tasks plus the occasional big project off their plate

Update on Pineapple Operations:

It now includes all operations talent and is run by Vaidehi Agarwalla and Alexandra Malikova. I'm grateful to Ronja Krischke, Jennifer Waldmann, Laura Pomarius, and Alimi Salifou for working with me on an earlier version of the project and I'm happy to receive any questions about it via DM/LinkedIn.

A more recent guide to being/hiring a PA can be found here.

Thanks for this! I agree with other comments that PAing is very important and think that it is one of the several high impact, low status vocations (community building is another) that EA seems to overlook.

Yeah hopefully the "low status" aspect is starting to change, but I think it's a reality of operations work in general that the crew will never get the glory of the cast, no matter how important they are to the final outcome (...which is sometimes a relief to those of us who don't like the pressure of being in the limelight!).