How to Answer the Top 10 Executive Secretary Interview Questions

Retro Revival Telephone Secretary.

While some people turn their noses up at the thought of a career as an executive assistant – “I don’t just want to be somebody’s secretary!” – other people realize that executive assistants can be very well-paid and often hold a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes power. Because of that, the job market is very competitive. To give yourself an edge, make sure you can answer these top 10 questions if you’re called for an interview.

1. 'How do you work with your boss?'

The purpose of this question is to find out what kind of working relationship you have with your boss. Do you handle issues on your own, and inform your boss later? Or do you get instructions first, and then carry them out? Since different executives have different preferences, it’s best to just be truthful when answering this question. If you’re used to being self-directed, you’d be miserable working for an executive who didn’t want you to move an inch without being told to do so (and vice versa).

2. 'How would you handle a person who called repeatedly demanding to speak to your boss, when you knew your boss wanted to avoid that person?'

One of the main roles of an executive assistant is that of gatekeeper. Controlling access to the boss is an extremely powerful role, and your potential employer wants to know that you can handle it. A good answer would be something like this, “First, I’d try to understand the situation so I can know why that person is trying to reach you and why you’re trying to avoid it. Then I’d see if there’s any way I could help that person myself. If not, I’d just continue to politely take messages without making any promises on when you’d be available to respond.”

3. 'How would you handle a situation where other executives come to you to find to out what the boss is thinking?'

A lot of people try to get information out of executive assistants so they can be better able to impress the boss. A good answer could be something like this: “I would see my job as helping you do your job. So, first, I’d find out how you wanted me to handle it. If you wanted me to stay out of it, then I’d politely tell people they’d have to talk to you. If you wanted me to work behind the scenes, I could release information that would help steer things the way you wanted them to go.”

4. 'Tell me about the most difficult job you’ve had as an assistant.'

You’ll want to be careful with this one. The recruiter is trying to find out what type of working environment you like and what irritates you when asking about your most difficult job. Give the wrong answer for that particular job, and you could find yourself passed over, even if you’re qualified. The best way to answer this question is to gather as much information as you can about what your prospective employer is like. Pore over the job description for clues. If you know anyone at the company, get their input. And listen closely for hidden clues in what the recruiter says. If you can do that, then you can tailor your answer to be a perfect match. If not, say something that won’t backfire on you, like “I worked at a company that was struggling financially and where everyone was looking for any opportunity to stab someone else in the back. It went far beyond normal office politics; it was vicious. I didn’t like working in that environment.”

5. 'Name five groups of people you have regular contact with as an executive assistant and how you relate to each.'

This question is designed to find out how adaptable you are. The idea is to show that people are different and that you’re most effective if you treat people in a way that’s appropriate for them. Your answer could go something like this: “Well, first is your spouse and anybody else you want me to put through right away. Another important group is your direct reports. They’ll be trying to impress you, so it’s important for me to know who’s who so that I can sort things out. Another group consists of executives at the same level as you. This one is very much about politics. There’s a lot of jostling going on at that level to see who’s next in line for succession. There is also a lot of political maneuvering to see who’s on whose side. Finally, there are the customers. I need to know how you relate to customers so that I’ll know how to handle those calls when you get them.”

6. 'Tell me about how you use a computer each day.'

Executive assistants usually need to have at least basic skills in a broad spectrum of computer programs. Talk about any experience you have using word processing programs, spreadsheet programs, social media, calendars, email, etc.

7. 'Tell me what sort of confidential information you dealt with and how you handled it.'

This question is intended to reveal information both about your discretion and your attention to detail. What you definitely don’t want to do is go into too much detail about the type of confidential information you handled. Even if the person who’s interviewing you asks, it’s not their information to request; nor is it yours to give. Speak in very general terms. “Because of the confidential nature of the information, I really can’t go into a lot of detail about what the information was. It involved everything from business plans to legal matters to employee records. I kept paper files under lock and key. I also had password management software on my computer so that I could have a different password for everything without having to write any of them down.”

8. 'Tell me about the type of financial transactions you conducted on the company’s behalf.'

The purpose of this question is to find out the degree to which your boss trusted you with access to the company’s funds. Be ready to describe every type of transaction you made, including whether you did them autonomously or had to get approval each time. Examples could include using credit cards to book travel, writing checks for expenses, or managing a petty cash fund.

9. 'How do you prioritise your work?'

Executive assistants must handle a variety of tasks of varying importance and scope. This question is designed to find out how you handle the workload. A good answer shows how you used a combination of input from your boss and your own time management skills: “I made a plan each morning based on the tasks I had to do, how important each one was, and how much time I thought they would take. Of course, there were always things that came up unexpectedly. When that happened and I wasn’t sure of the importance or urgency, I would touch base with my boss to find out whether I should drop what I was doing or get to it later.”

10. 'Tell me about the most stressful or awkward situation you had to handle as an executive assistant.'

With this question, your interviewer is trying to find whether – and how well – you can maintain your composure under pressure. This is a good one to plan ahead of time, so you’ll be able to identify a situation and portray your actions in the best light. Possibilities include: a major incident (like an industrial accident), an environmental mishap, criminal charges against a senior executive, a plummeting stock price, or an angry spouse showing up and causing a scene.

Interview questions for an executive assistant can vary widely, but there are a few common themes. Most interviewers will want to know how autonomous you were, how much responsibility you had, and how you handled those responsibilities. If you’re prepared to answer questions about those three areas, you should do just fine.