Chapter six

Preparing for an Assistant Interview

We will share all of tips and tricks on how to best prepare for an Assisant interview, including tried and tested interview questions and answers for a PA or EA interview.

These days employers are inundated with job applications therefore you have to be prepared to sell yourself and stand out from the crowd. So what happens when you do land that all important first interview?

In this chapter, you will find a list of 20 standard questions that are asked at most interviews for Assistants.

We will then look at specific questions around career development and competency / scenario based questions. The answers are here to help you think about your responses. Remember to make them personal to your career and your experiences.

There are also different interview formats so we will include how to conduct yourself during a video interview.

In this chapter we will cover:

Preparing for a Personal or Executive Assistant interview

In this video session from Margaret Young Founder of TrainMyAdmin, we look to increase your current interview skills, by using proven strategies and interview preparation. Learn to increase your interview success and land those opportunities and promotions.

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20 questions and answers for Personal and Executive Assistant interviews

The best way to prepare for an interview is to think about the subjects you will cover.

Let’s face it, there are always going to be a set of standard questions you will be asked, so you should prepare the answer before you go into the interview.

Why do you want to leave your current job?

Unless you have been made redundant, this question can result in quite a negative answer. There is the temptation to have a bit of a moan about your current /previous employee, but try to find a positive answer to this. There is nothing worse than hearing someone complain about their last job, it just sounds unprofessional.

“For a long time I really enjoyed working for my current employee and I have felt that I learnt a lot from the role and also from my manager. However, the job is limited and doesn’t provide me with much room to grow (you can expand this for whatever reason fits your circumstances). I feel that this position will give me the opportunity to expand my skill set and also move forward in my career.”

What are your strengths?

You should refer back to your core PA/ EA skills for this one. Also think about the environment you will be working in, if it is a fast paced commercial company mention that you are not easily flustered, if it is a traditional company with methodical and precise working methods state that you are organised and have a real eye for detail.

“I’m very organised, I don’t get stressed out easily and can deal with most situations. I’m also very intuitive and can juggle lots of different tasks”.

What are your weaknesses?

This is a tricky question because you should try to sell yourself in an interview not dwell on your bad points. Turn this question from a negative answer into a positive, note that you have a flaw, but tell the interviewers what you have done to overcome it.

“In my previous role I had to work with a lot of strong-minded and opinionated consultants and found that I lacked the ability to be assertive with them and sometimes I felt they were able to get me to do work that I was uncomfortable with. After discussing this with my Manager I attended an assertiveness course and gained the training I needed to deal with them. I find it hard to say no. It is a work in progress, but I am getting there”.

What are the most satisfying and the most frustrating aspects of your present job?

Again, try to remain diplomatic with this question. For the “satisfying” part of the question refer back to aspects of your role that will benefit your potential employee and for the “frustrating” part think about the new role and how it will improve your career and working environment. Don’t make the frustrating aspect personal to anyone, make it about the company environment.

“The most satisfying aspect of my role is being able to help the Executives make informed decisions that affect the rest of the Company. I enjoy working with and supporting successful people at the top-level of their career. The most frustrating aspect is the slow pace in the office and it can be difficult to get things done on occasions.”

What do you think you can contribute to this company?

This is the question that allows you to really sell yourself. Look through the job description and pick out the key attributes required for the role, this should form your answer.

“I’m incredibly hard-working, focussed and organised so I am able to get through a lot of work quickly. I also have advanced IT skills so I can support senior members of staff with their work while also managing a range of other tasks. I am proactive, so I am good at finding ways of delivering better services and anticipating any problems that might come up. I can be very flexible, so happy to help others in my team. I’m also quite sociable and like to organise nights out and other team building activities.”

Why should we employ you rather than one of the other candidates?

Use this question to really sell yourself. You do want the interviewer to pick you, so really emphasise your strong points, your unique attributes and why you would be a brilliant person to employ. Remember to link your answer back to the job description, but also add other skills you have that the other candidates might not.

“I do think that I would be a great asset to the company as I have the skill set that I know you are looking for in the right candidate. I am also a brilliant event organiser, I can write marketing material and can really help with other creative projects. I know that I will be able to support you in your work and ensure that you can concentrate on high level projects while I take care of the day to day tasks. I’m not sure that the other candidates will have my full set of skills and my unique experience.”

Have you done anything or taken any courses to further your experience?

If you have completed any courses at a previous employer, then here is your time to shine. Let the employer know what you have achieved and do take pride in what you have done, it will make you look like you really care about your career and take it seriously. If you are new to the profession or haven’t had the chance, emphasise the skills you already have by saying:

“I am constantly looking to improve my skills. My IT skills have improved greatly and are now very strong and over the years my interpersonal skills have grown as I work with different people at all levels of the company. I haven’t had the opportunity to complete any formal training, but I do keep up to date with the industry by reading lots of articles on LinkedIn and other publications for assistants. I am very open to additional training and would love the opportunity to develop myself further.”

How do you work under pressure?

When this question comes up it try to inject a bit of humour at this point and show that you don’t take yourself too seriously.

I’ve had jobs in the past that have been highly pressurised and I’ve found that I cope well with that and actually don’t mind working to tight deadlines because at least I know what has to be done each day! I always find that chocolate and a nice glass of red wine helps to alleviate any pressure at the end of a long day!”

What motivates you at work?

Think about the aspects of the job that excited you when you first read the job description. These are the tasks that you should reference in this question, but also talk about how you like to use these tasks to motivate yourself along with the actual working environment.

“I really like to have a mixture of tasks that allow me to use my varied skill set. For example, I like to be creative, but also I am quite detailed driven so can happily work away on a PowerPoint presentation or an excel report. I like to know that I am contributing to a team and that my work makes a difference, which is one of the reasons I do enjoy being a PA because I know I am supporting people that make the big company-wide decisions. I also like to have fun at work and enjoy the time I spend there so I like to be involved socially and know my colleagues personally. I find that helps to also keep me motivated.”

How do you work with two or more Executives?

If you are applying for a role that requires you to work with two or more Executives, then you will need to demonstrate that you can do this without a hitch. Use specific examples of how you have juggled both workloads and that you are happy to continue this. If this is the first time you have worked with more than one Executive stress that you are a good organiser and can prioritise your work well.

“I like the challenge that working for two directors can bring and it does help keep me motivated as the work can be quite varied. To work effectively for both Executives, I ensure that my work is well organised, that I am aware of any deadlines and understand each of their priorities. I also stress to the Executives that I need to stay in touch with them throughout the day in case their work becomes more urgent than the others and I also make sure we have regular catch ups so that I am fully informed of their schedule. It can be a juggling act, but one that I enjoy.”

How do you handle a demanding Executive?

It is undoubtedly the case that the demands on Executives are higher than they have ever been, which means that they can become pretty demanding and put a lot of pressure on their Assistant to shoulder some of the burdens. That is part of our role. This question is becoming more common in interviews, and it is worth asking yourself, firstly, if you want to work for a demanding Executive? There are other options and other roles. If you feel that you can handle the demands, here is a great answer to showcase your skills.

“I always say that I work with my Executive, so if they are demanding, I like to find out why. If they are under a lot of pressure, I can help to reduce that pressure by working with them in a calm and professional manner and, getting through the work and meeting deadlines. If it is in their nature to think everything is urgent and needs to be done straight away, I make sure I communicate so that I am not on the backfoot. I find that once I am working well with my Executive, we both understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we frequently communicate the difficult aspects of their character become less abrasive.”

What are you looking for in your career development?

This question is always difficult for assistants to answer because firstly you don’t want to answer in a way that suggests you are using the job as a stepping stone to something better and secondly that you are lacking ambition. Your answer wants to land somewhere in the middle of ‘just an assistant’ territory and world domination.

“I want to progressively earn more responsibility and participate in more projects and activities over time. I would like to manage a team at some point and lead projects. I would like my career development to reflect the new challenges I am setting myself. So ideally I’d like to attend courses or have some time for self-study so that I can learn new skills which will progress my career and benefit the organisation as a whole.”

What has been your biggest professional disappointment?

Oh, this is a horrible question! It is, however, fairly common, so don’t let this question get the better of you. Don’t whatever you do give an example of something that was completely your fault and caused a lot of problems – like that time you forgot to organise your manager’s Visa to Russia and they ended up in prison. Yes, it is a funny story but not one to share with your new employer! Instead, describe something that was not in your control, that had an impact on you personally, how you got over it and what positive outcomes you have taken from the experience.

Do you consider yourself to be successful?

Yes, should be the only answer to this question, but a little humour will help you answer without sounding like an egomaniac. Think of an example that shows you have achieved more than your role required, such as that great event you managed or the extremely complex trip you organised for your Executive. With any example that you use demonstrate that you set yourself objective and goals, which you worked really hard to achieve and that you are proud of your successes. If you are applying for your first assistant role refer back to your studies, this would be my example:

“During University I worked part time while completing my course. I had to balance my studies with a part time role that ultimately paid for my education. I learnt very quickly how to manage my time so that I didn’t neglect my job or my studies. I am proud that I managed to achieve my results while gaining work experiences that will help me in my chosen career. I feel like my time at university has given me the confidence to be successful in the future.”

Give me an example of a goal that you set yourself and how you went about achieving it?

The example could be something personal like completing your first marathon or it could be work related – either way make sure you pick something that really gives you a chance to shine. If you do decide to use an example from your career, make sure you mention the impact on your career development and what you have learnt as a result.

“After a few years working as a Personal Assistant I really wanted to take the next step and move up to an Executive Assistant working with board level directors. I felt this was the best way for me to move forward in my career so I set myself a challenge to achieve the promotion within two years. Firstly, I made sure that I was getting all of the basic functions of my role right and that I was able to complete every fundamental task easily and quickly. Once I had procedures in place to deal with my administrative tasks, I started to ask for more challenging tasks. My manager knew that I was capable of taking on more work so asked me to help out on various business-wide projects. I worked really hard to ensure that on each of these projects people knew who I was, what I was capable of and that I was willing to work really hard. Just after a year and a half I was headhunted by a board level Director to work as their Executive Assistant. I was really pleased with my success. Setting that goal not only meant I received a promotion, but I picked up many new skills along the way.”

Can you give me an example of a positive change that you have made in an organisation?

The thing to remember with scenario based questions is that you don’t have to give a really complicated answer and you don’t have to pick examples that make you sound amazing. Obviously you have to give an example that shows you in the best light, but don’t spend half an hour describing the scenario. Keep your answers short and more importantly structured.

“I was working with a Director that was not the most organised person when it came to paperwork. He would often turn up to meetings without the correct supporting papers or they would have doodles all over them, which didn’t help his reputation. He was very self-reliant so he didn’t want me to touch his unique filing system. I knew that I could help him so in the first few months of working together, I started to print out his email attachments and anything that he might need for an upcoming meeting. Before I went home every evening I would print out his calendar and attach the correct paperwork for his meetings the next day. I would pop the file on his desk so that he had everything he needed for the following morning. He loved the idea and became more reliant on my help. It was a really positive change, and his colleagues were pleased he was arriving at meetings with the right paperwork.”

Can you give me an example of a time you have worked with a difficult person and how you dealt with the situation?

During every competency based interview you will be asked about your people management skills. It is always worth having a story or two in the back of your mind as this is such a common question. In your answer do show that you dealt with the situation yourself (rather than referring it to HR), if you have had a horrendous experience either tone it down or use another example. Again, don’t spend too long answering questions that provoke negative answers, you want to move on to questions that allow you to shine. Do remember with any negative question make your answer as positive as possible and inject some humour to show that this person has not affected your self-esteem.

“I did work with a manager a few years ago that I struggled to get on with. I thought at the time his position in the company was under threat and to compensate he would try to exert power over me by giving me very menial tasks, for example, he would ask me to fill his stapler with staples, which could be quite disrespectful. I put up with his behaviour for a while because I wanted to understand why he was acting in that way. I did have to push back and in the end, I think he respected me because I stuck up for myself.”

Can you give me an example of great customer service?

This question could come in a few different forms, but it ultimately relates to you doing something above and beyond your usual duties. Have a few examples ready because you will probably be asked this type of question a number of times throughout the interview. Remember your answer doesn’t have to be related to your experiences as an assistant it could be a job you had a University or a volunteer role you have outside of work.

Can you give me an example of a complex task you have worked on and how you ensured its success?

This is a great question and deserves an answer that really makes you stand out from the crowd. Assistants have to deal with complex tasks all the time, so use something that will relate to the role you are applying for. For example:

“I once organised a trip for a boss that was touring our offices in Asia and Australasia. It was difficult to organise because of the time difference and distances between each location. There was also the issue that my manager had not been to a few of the destinations and was worried they wouldn’t be able to navigate public transport as they would usually do in say New York or other locations they had been to numerous times before. I initially worked on the travel plans myself, but ultimately decided to contact a fellow PA in each office and ask for their help. I needed to have local knowledge and they were able to put me in touch with the best hotels and car hire companies. Another issue was the different temperatures in each country. Australia was still experiencing warm weather, but it had started to turn cold in Japan, so I made sure my manager was aware of what to pack. During her trip, I kept in touch with her every day, despite the time difference and made sure everything was running smoothly.”

Can you give me an example of how you have handled multiple priorities?

This is another common question asked at interviews for assistant roles, particularly if the role is assisting more than one Executive. The answer to this question should include the competencies required to handle multiple priorities such as flexibility, dealing with tight deadlines, working with multiple personalities, time management and coping with pressure. Again, it is well worth having one or two examples that you use to demonstrate these abilities because they will certainly come up in an interview for an assistant position.

Preparing for an Assistant video interview

The vast majority of recruitment agencies and employers now use video as part of their interview process, because it saves time and money on the early stages of the interview process.

In our recent interview with Hayley Lawrence, PA for the Regional General Manager on Necker Island, she told us that she had to submit a video before the interview rounds for her new role. Here is what she said:

Day in the life: Hayley Lawrence, PA to Regional General Manager and Administration Assistant to Founders Office - The British Virgin Islands

When I saw the job being advertised online and that it had gone viral a friend joked to me that I should apply. Challenge accepted! So I made a short (and pretty cringe-worthy) video and sent it off and didn’t give it a second thought. When I got the email asking me to interview I checked the email a few times to make sure it wasn’t my friend playing a trick.

Never in a million years did I think I would be the one to get the job, mainly when I had found out over 5,000 had applied. One day after I had been through the interview process I got a call from Richard’s assistant advising that he would be calling me shortly as part of the interview process. I couldn’t believe it! I was on a train at Waterloo East at the time, and I remember frantically running around the station trying to find somewhere quiet to take the phone call. After Richard had told me, I got the job, and we said our goodbyes I remember just bursting into tears in the middle of Starbucks and walking around the station in a daze.

Video interviews are not going anywhere, in fact, they are only going to become more popular so if you are looking to find a new position you will have to think about how you want to present yourself on video. Here are a few tips on preparing for an Assistant video interview.

Surroundings

Make sure you are somewhere quiet, so you can be heard clearly and won’t be disturbed. Check what’s behind you and that the background is interview-appropriate. Move anything you don’t want a potential employer to see out of shot. It is probably not a great idea to do the video interview in your current office, but if you have to, make sure it doesn’t look like you are in your current office – put your chair against a plain white wall rather than a glass wall, or anywhere you can see company logos and branding.

Dress the part

First impressions count, so use this opportunity to make a great one! Office dress codes vary from sharp suits to jeans and shirts, but you want to look professional and presentable. Just because you’re not in front of the person conducting the interview, you shouldn’t dress down. Instead, where what you would wear for a physical meeting. It will help you to feel like you are in an interview setting even if you are on the sofa in your home.

Lighting

The easiest way to make sure the lighting’s good is to sit facing a window, with your phone or computer in front of you. If you are going to sit in front of a window, make sure whatever is behind you is neat and tidy.

Practice

Practice with your webcam and your microphone set up. Make sure that everything works well, and you know what you are doing before the interview starts. When you are doing the interview talk naturally and, if you can, without notes. Look at the person interviewing you rather than off into the distance or at yourself on camera. Make sure you rehearse your set up, using Zoom or Skype so that everything is working correctly and you sound and look fantastic. Remember you can record yourself, watch yourself back, and make any changes if you need to.

What questions should Assistants ask at an interview?

So you’ve bagged a job interview, you’ve picked your outfit, you’ve researched the company and planned a few answers. You’ve made your way to the company building and have managed to get through all of the tricky questions. You think you’ve done well and might just have got the job when the interviewer says to you… ‘do you have any questions?’… eeekkk!

We all know this part of the interview will happen and we all know the questions not to ask, but how many of us really ask our potential employer questions that will make them want to hire us and more importantly how many of us ask questions that result in us really wanting to work at that company?

When I go for a job interview I make sure that every aspect of the job has been covered. If the interviewer hasn’t discussed all of the details I need before I make a decision regarding the role I ensure I ask as much as I can during the ‘do you have any questions?’ stage of the process.

Here are a few questions that I think Assistants should ask during an interview if they have not been covered by the interviewer:

The business

What is the company proudest of? What can be improved?

How does the company see itself changing in the near future?

How do the company’s departments work together and how does the management team promote interaction?

What are the key issues facing the organisation at the moment and how does this affect the Assistant role?

Working with the boss

How do you like to work with their Assistant in terms of diary and email management?

How do you like to communicate with their Assistant?

Are you self-sufficient or do you prefer a more hands on approach from your Assistant?

What are the biggest challenges and how can an Assistant help ease the workload?

Prospects

How much empathises is placed on career development within the company? Is there a budget for training?

Is there scope for additional responsibilities once the Assistant is established in the role?

Does the Assistant have a 6 monthly and yearly job review and are objectives set each year?

What have previous Assistants in this role achieved and what are they doing now?

The culture

What advice would you give you to someone starting out in the company?

What is the atmosphere like in the office?

Do you socialise much outside of the office and is the Assistant expected to organise team building occasions?

What do you enjoy about working here?

The role

When you reviewed my CV was there anything in particular you thought would compliment the role?

What do you think are the hardest aspects of the role?

Which software packages are most often used in the role and will the Assistant have to learn any bespoke technology?

What does a typical day / week look like working in this role?

What personality type would be the ideal candidate for this role?

What does success look like within this role?

Next Chapter:

Recruiting your replacement and saying goodbye graciously

Chapter seven