It’s not exactly like an Indiana Jones movie…
When Haven turns to gaze out her window, she is not met with a view of desert sands and long lost tombs. Instead, her eyes rest on lush rainforests that cover the Ko’olau mountains.
Still, she is employed at an archaeology firm and is the executive assistant to the president of that firm. She may not be digging up dinosaur bones or escaping from a Pharaoh’s wrath, but the work she and her coworkers do is very important to Hawai’i.
After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Anthropology, Haven found her place working and exploring the culture and land of the Hawaiian islands. We took some time to talk with her about what it’s like being the right-hand gal to the president of an archaeology firm and what you need to know about being an executive assistant and executive assistant supervisor.
What does an archaeology firm do in Hawai’i?
The company that Haven works for specializes in archaeological studies and reports as well as cultural studies and reports. There are a lot of construction projects happening in Hawai’i. Because of the history, culture, as well as the untouched land that is a part of the islands, this requires the expertise of archaeologists (as well as many others) to make sure the site is an appropriate place to build upon.
What does this entail? It can be as simple as doing a literature review of previous research that has already been compiled for a specific property—looking over older studies and seeing what has been documented. It can also mean doing archaeological inventory surveys, testing to see what historic properties are a part of the land, and even subsurface excavations with a backhoe to observe the stratigraphy of the soil.
The firm also needs to conduct cultural impact assessments. This means that they’ll interview people who have a strong connection and/or knowledge of the land to see what effects the project may have on cultural resources and practices. Most of the time these are Native Hawaiians but sometimes it may just be someone who has deep ties to the property and is knowledgeable about it.
Haven’s background in anthropology is useful in this position because archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. Not only does she have the necessary administrative skills for the job, but also an understanding of the reasonings behind certain state regulations as well as the importance of cultural beliefs in these projects.
How Haven became the executive assistant/executive assistant supervisor:
While attending the University of British Columbia (UBC), Haven spent two of her four summers interning at the archaeology firm. During that time, she built strong relationships with the staff, including the president of the firm. She really enjoyed the time she spent with the company and during her senior year, she reached out to him to inquire about any available work opportunities post-graduation.
Unfortunately at that time, the department she’d interned in did not have any openings, but he let her know that he’d keep in touch.
Between her last exam and the date of her graduation, Haven had a month free and she chose to spend it at home in Hawai’i. While there, the president contacted her and asked if she could come into the office to discuss work opportunities.
Fifteen minutes later, Haven was at the archaeology firm and he was asking her if she’d be interested in being his executive assistant. Neither of them were completely sure what the job would entail—he’d never had an assistant before—but based on her positive intern experience, Haven was ready to accept ten minutes into the discussion.
What is a typical day like for an executive assistant/executive assistant supervisor at an archaeology firm?
As an executive assistant to a company president and project manager, you are tasked with taking on a wide variety of jobs because you’re shadowing the person who is running the company.
This means that every day, Haven is reading and responding to emails from clients and coworkers, scheduling in appointments and meetings for the president, and communicating with him to make sure he is aware of and prepared for those meetings or action items.
Her job can also be very clerical at times—scanning, filing, saving, and distributing various documents, as well as updating the company database, etc.
Sometimes, there are project management related tasks like budget tracking, managing any change order preparations, and attending meetings whether they take place on her island of Oahu or a neighbor island.
She is also involved in report editing (content, copy, and formatting) as well as submitting those reports to clients and the state historic preservation division (the government agency responsible for reviewing and approving many of her firm’s reports). This means Haven will need to prepare the report, a cover letter, submittal form, as well as track the entire process within her company’s files and database.
Finally, as the executive assistant supervisor, she is involved in the hiring process of other executive assistants—advertising the positions, interviewing, and actually hiring candidates who are a good fit. Subsequently, she is responsible for their initial training and providing them with any help or guidance they may need.
What are some essential skills a person needs to be in this position?
Necessary skills for executive assistants:
- Excellent communication skills, both in speech and writing
- Knowledge of the basics of computer-based databases (Microsoft Office, Outlook, Access)
- Organizational skills and the ability to focus on the tasks at hand
- Adaptability when it comes to changing tasks and priorities
- Ability to meet deadlines and respond to tasks in a timely manner
- Independent problem-solving skills and the ability to follow directions well
- Leadership skills and ability to give clear directions
Necessary skills at an archaeology firm in Hawai’i:
- High level of emotional intelligence; cultural sensitivity in meetings and consultations. You’ll be interacting with many different people and personalities and must treat them all professionally and respectfully.
- You don’t have to have a background in archaeology or a related field, but it is helpful.
- Having an understanding of Hawaiian history, culture, and/or language as well as of historic preservation in general is really useful.
- General experience researching and writing reports is a definite plus!
What are Haven’s favorite parts about her job?
Haven really enjoys the project management aspects of her job—being involved in specific projects and getting to know every aspect of them. This involves building relationships with clients and any other parties who are involved like State agencies, cultural stakeholders/descendants, cultural monitors, etc.
She also believes that happiness at a job relies upon work environment and coworkers. Her office is located in a non-urban area where she can look out her window and see the beautiful greenery and mountains of Hawai’i. It is an easy and short commute from her home, her coworkers are all friendly and caring, and her boss is incredibly interesting and has an amazing life and work history. She feels that the work she does is valued and that she is positively contributing to the company. Overall, she is grateful to have a family-style work environment filled with great people.
What are the challenges Haven faces in her work?
Some of the biggest challenges she’s encountered are related to justifying project budget overruns to clients through change order requests. Costs can go up for a number of reasons.
For example, there might be a change in the project scope—a new portion of land that has never been surveyed before might be added to the overall project area and this results in the need for more documentation and research and raises the cost of the project.
Or there might be unexpected archaeological finds within the project area. If historic properties are discovered during a survey, further documentation is required that was not budgeted for initially.
A lot of the time you’re planning projects years before you actually do them, so it’s not too surprising that costs might change. Whenever the costs are justifiable, she’ll work to communicate the reasoning behind those costs to clients.
It’s a tough part of the job—you’re asking for more than the contracted payment while staying in the client’s good graces. Though it’s challenging, it can also be a fun part of the job. Haven gets to play detective and dig in to figure out why certain things went over budget.
Advice Haven has for someone interested in working in her field:
As an executive assistant, you can’t expect your job to be one short list of duties. You’re going to be wearing many hats, so be ready to take on new tasks that you may never have done before. Be able to adapt to new situations and learn not to get flustered. Also, a lot of the job is organizing and coordinating, so if you’re not a fan of either, this may not be the right job for you.
Food for thought: Interested in a certain industry? Consider getting your foot in the door as an executive assistant or administrative assistant. Like Haven, you could end up being much more involved in the actual field work than you might think. Also, it will allow you to get a closer look at all sides of the industry from the paperwork to the day-to-day tasks of the person/people you’re assisting.