Business Today

Shadow Leaders

Manasi Mithel | Print Edition: April 14, 2013

To most people, an executive assistant to a CEO is a person who sends e-mail and fixes appointments. But when Debashish Vanikar began working as executive assistant to the Aditya Birla Group Chairman, Kumar Mangalam Birla, about 10 years ago, he certainly wasn't sharpening pencils or making hotel bookings.

Vanikar had a high-profile management job which involved planning long-term business strategies and representing Birla at key business meetings. "I was handling textiles, chemicals, cement, BPO and retail," says Vanikar, then a 32-year-old management graduate from Berkeley with four years of experience in sales and marketing. "I represented Kumar Mangalam Birla at business and capital expenditure reviews, and handled key projects."

Today, Vanikar is the Vice-President of Marketing at Ultratech Cement, an Aditya Birla Group company. The title 'executive assistant to the CEO's office' is often mistaken for an executive secretary's job, but it is far from being a simple administrative job. An executive assistant is often the eyes and ears of the CEO. He has a job that involves everything from overseeing key projects such as mergers and acquisitions to understanding new businesses for investment. Most importantly, being an executive assistant to a top boss is often a stepping stone to bigger things.

"An EA might at times have to make decisions on behalf of the chairman," says Preety Kumar, founding partner at Amrop India, an executive search company. "The people I interview for this job are hungry to walk the corridors of power. It's the impact you can have on decision-making along with the big names you can work with which attract most."

Traditionally, an executive assistant required at least 15 years of work experience and was picked from within a company. But in recent years, CEOs, chairmen and vice-chairmen have started giving the job to young marketing and finance MBAs with just a few years of experience.

Some CEOs even appoint fresh campus hires as executive assistants. "There is no longer any confusion about the distinction between an executive assistant and an executive secretary," says James Agrawal, Managing Director of BTI Consultants India, an executive search firm. The exact designation can be either Executive Assistant to the Chairman or General Manager of the Vice Chairman's Office, but it is always a high-profile job. Not surprisingly, many management graduates want to start their careers as executive assistants to CEOs. In March, two students from the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore's graduating batch were hired as executive assistants in a strategic group in Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani's office. Nearly 170 students applied for the role.

Last year, BTI Consultants India placed two graduates as executive assistants to the group managing director of a chemical manufacturing company and the chief operating officer of a lighting company. They got annual packages of Rs 45 to Rs 50 lakh.

"We have started getting enquiries from students graduating from management schools looking to take on such functions. Students want to work in close proximity to a company's top leadership," says Agrawal.

They have several role models both in India and globally. Some former executive assistants to big names in Indian industry who have risen high include Rajiv Dube, Director of Group Corporate Services at Aditya Birla Management Corporation, who was once executive assistant to Ratan Tata when he was Tata Group Chairman, and Natarajan Chandrasekaran, CEO and Managing Director of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), who was executive assistant to Subramanian Ramadorai when he was CEO of TCS.

One of the most high-profile examples is Rajan Anandan, Head of Google India, who was executive assistant to Dell Inc CEO Michael Dell in 2003. He was in the job for a year before he became the head of a Dell global office. "As vice-president and executive assistant I was working on strategic issues for the long-term growth of the company," he says.

An executive assistant can also play a key role in human resources. Sandeep Gandhi, Aircel's Head of Human Resources, had two executive assistants whose responsibilities included overseeing management information systems and providing analytical inputs. "My current EA has 33 per cent administrative responsibilities and the rest is all analytics and hard core HR," says Gandhi.

An executive assistant's role is defined by the size and complexity of the business. For most medium and small family-run businesses, it is not a priority. Fast-growing family businesses with new investments and strategic expansion may assign this role to the next generation. But whether it is a family business or a big company, the job is often a training ground for future leaders. "A lot of young people have been drafted into this role in the last decade. But it's only in the last couple of years that students are being hired directly into the role without the six to 12-month training period," says Professor Sankarshan Basu, Chairperson, Office of Career Development Services, IIM Bangalore.

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