When a STAR is born

As a recruiter, my first go-to candidate is someone who has depth, personality and has navigated some real-life experiences. Many times though, they have little-to-no college experience. This begs the question: 

Should a job requirement for an executive assistant be a college degree?   

It’s crazy to me that so many job descriptions read like this: “Bachelor’s degree plus 5+ years of experience as an executive assistant” or “Experience: Bachelor’s degree; Organizational skills: 1 year (Required).”   

What is this madness?! Should a college degree really be mandatory, or required for an EA? Is it a red flag that causes a candidate’s resume to end up in the black hole? I’m asking a very serious question here: Do you truly believe that a college degree “guarantees” an exemplary, well-rounded, high-caliber administrative professional?  

To me, an amazing administrative professional is one who: seamlessly embodies intellect, curiosity, hospitality and humility; has life experiences, wisdom, top-notch organizational skills and above-average EQ; and is resourceful and a quick study. Is there anyone else in your organization who is EXPECTED to have all these qualities? Likely not. This power package is generally wrapped up by an underdog.  

 Reflecting on my own four years of college, I can honestly say that my GPA and major did not get me where I am today. My life experience of growing up in the Hamptons and witnessing, firsthand, the white glove service industry, is where my servant-leader learning stage was set. Hospitality runs through my veins. At 14, I was making reservations at a country club tennis court calendar and docking boats at a marina. I’d return to the club on summer breaks but, this time, I’d find myself on a yacht savoring hors d’oeuvres and sipping pinot grigio, and mingling with members, and guests, who expected excellent service—folks who read the room and were ultra-attentive to the details that were met (or not being met). I observed and listened. Suffice to say, I know good service because I was immersed in a culture that demanded it and that’s where my passion for service in the people industry was born. Although I have a Bachelor’s, the life and street-smarts degree I earned has turned out to be way more valuable and relevant. 

 I have no intentions of pitting the degreed vs. non-degreed…there’s space for all. I am here to shine a spotlight on this discussion and help you expand your thinking. I don’t think, for a minute, that not having a college degree is a deal breaker for an administrative professional or executive assistant. When you run with outdated crowd think, you risk missing out on an incredible pool of talent, allies and assets.  

 Authentic hospitality can’t be taught in a classroom. You don’t need a degree to be gracious, accommodating and make impeccable travel arrangements. Organizations are hiring from the hospitality industry because there is a built-in, innate, mechanism that’s in play with the likes of the Ritz-Carlton “A+” players. I would much rather place someone who attended the Disney College Program, has been a chief stew ard on a yacht nine months out of the year, was accepted to the highly accredited Hershey Hospitality Internship Program, a nanny or personal concierge from Nordstrom because they get people and they get people right, which benefits your customers and, ultimately, benefits the executive, the team and the organization overall. 

 Not everyone’s life journey is linear. Sure, some of us may have been blessed with a straight, negotiated line from birth to wherever they currently sit. But, there are a TON of people, for one reason or another, who have had plans and dreams derailed, made choices that didn’t necessarily pan out or simply decided that the traditional classroom experience just wasn’t their cup of tea. Whatever the reason, it’s all OK. 

 When you think of a STAR, does this come to mind: “Skilled Through Alternative Routes?” These are people who have been shaped through a blend of life and professional experiences but have little-to-no college education. These “STARs” are the MacGyvers in the room who crack a safe with a feather, a piece of gum and a popsicle stick, or get you scheduled for your Global Entry interview with CBP on a day that fits your calendar with a phone call. STAR candidates have achieved their success and business chops non-traditionally. They are worth a look and deserve a spot in your interview schedule. 

 EAs who have arrived on the scene via STAR are built differently. They draw on their own power source to shine and illuminate a room by who they are not what’s stamped on a piece of paper. They’re robust learners, oftentimes surprisingly well-read, resourceful and in a constant state of learning. They look for opportunities to self-develop because they know they must constantly prove themselves. A college degree does not guarantee success nor does it convey aptitude, intellect and emotional intelligence. At the end of the day, you hire a candidate—a person—for how they complement you and the team with their skillset, not their alma mater. 

 Lead the charge and change in mindset at your organization. Don’t automatically discount a candidate because they don’t check the academic boxes. Instead, step outside the confines of your current hiring box. Don’t limit your talent pool by installing unnecessarily rigid guidelines. There are PLENTY of ways I vet candidates to ensure that you’re receiving top-tier talent. Tear down the paper ceiling. At the end of the day, you want someone who has grit, grace and gumption. 

Joelle Paban is a former executive assistant. She stepped out on her own and created Joelle Paban & Associates, a niche recruiting firm, in 2014. Joelle Paban & Associates offers immediate, permanent placement of well-qualified, highly coveted, executive/administrative candidates. You can reach Paban at joelle@joellepaban.

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