Inside the World of Personal Assistants Used by the Powerful Elite
Did you know that the DMV will open early or close late for certain people? Or that the police are available as an escort during rush hour? All of this is possible when you have a rockstar assistant.
When you’re working as an assistant to very important people, your job often involves moving mountains, oftentimes under heavy time constraints. For 25 years, Bonnie Low-Kramen honed her personal assistant skills by making the impossible happen for Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis.
However, being an assistant doesn’t usually win a person prestige or accolades. The general assumption is that assistants aren’t really engaged in a meaningful occupation, and their work is often dismissed as having little impact to the organization as a whole. According to Low-Kramen, however, those beliefs couldn’t be more wrong.
“The smartest CEOs and executives are understanding that utilizing their assistant as a strategic business partner is a very smart move. The profession is 95% – 98% females. There are some men entering into the profession, but it’s primarily a female dominated profession. More and more women are becoming executives and CEOs. So we’ve got women working for women. So it’s a really interesting landscape right now. I think there has never been a better time to be an assistance than right now. Hiring rate has never been higher. In NYC there are jobs that pay six figures. Certainly in major cities, San Francisco and Chicago. It’s a demanding highly skilled job that pays very very well.”
Billionaire Richard Branson helped back the title when he wrote an article on Linkedin in 2013 revealing the impact his assistant has had on his business. He wrote:
“I couldn’t get through the workday without my assistant, Helen. While gadgets like smartphones and tablets certainly do have a huge positive impact upon my working life, it is the people around me who really make the difference.”
But not all assistants are made equal. Bonnie Low-Kramen is part of a rare breed of personal assistants that are able to perform what seems like miracles for their employers. “It’s always a lot of last minute requests that are very specific,” says Low-Kramen.
Low-Kramen recalls one particular time when Dukakis was already running late for an important speaking engagement when they hit gridlock traffic due to construction. After the limo driver said that only a police escort could get them there in time, Dukakis asked Low-Kramen whether she could get it done.
“I remember feeling sick to my stomach, thinking, ‘How the hell am I gonna do this?’ So I got the phone number to the state police and remember thinking to myself, ‘I have to convince them that I’m not a nut. I have to convince them that I’m real, and I’m really calling for Olympia Dukakis.’ I felt very responsible thinking that I’d be talking to the police and that there might be people dying — I’m asking for a police escort.
I got a hold of a sergeant that had an Italian last name. It turns out that he loved Olympia Dukakis and the movie ‘Moonstruck,’ which is all Italians. He believed me and hooked us up with a police trooper, and the police cars found the limo. They still ended up showing 20 minutes late, but at least she got there. When she showed up and walked through the stage, she got a standing ovation. And I’m sitting at home thinking, ‘Well, I knew it was me. I did that.’
But when I showed up on Monday, there was really no talk about what had happened. The day was saved, it was all good, but we were onto the next thing. There were no flowers for me. The big thing that assistants need to know is that we are expected to do those kind of things, save the day and pull out the miracle thing, and then just go on to the next task.”
Such thankless miracles are routinely executed by top personal assistants, according to Low-Kramen.
“One of my students, her executive was at the Boston airport, running really late for her flight. Everyone can relate to that. He called her and said, ‘I’m gonna miss the flight. Get me on the next one.’ But the security line was just outrageous. She says, ‘Alright, just hang in there for a few minutes, I’ll get back to you.’ She called the Boston airport. She called and asked to open another security line, and they did. And he called her and said, ‘Oh my god, they just opened another line. It looks like I can make it now.’ And she said, ‘I know. I did that.’”
Of course, bending rules is made much easier when repping a high profile individual. For people with less clout, Low-Kramen advises:
“For someone who’s not a household name, what they do have is money. They can get people to do things for them, sometimes with money. Money helps. Everything is negotiable. Everything. You don’t get it if you don’t ask. You can call the airport, you can call DMV, you can call the county clerk, and assistants are the ones who do all that. They can maneuver the bureaucracy to bend the rules.”
Low-Kramen also shares a few personal assistant tips that anyone could potentially utilize in their everyday lives:
“Did you know bankers will make house calls? If you call your bank right now and told them that you need a banker to come to your house to help you file a paper or notary or something like that, do you know that you have the ability?
“Also, say you have an expired passport and you are leaving in 48 hours — there is a website called itseasy.com. It is an expediting service for passports, and you can get it done in 24 hours. You have to pay a premium to get it done. There are services that assistants know that can get stuff done.”
“Another hack: www.gethuman.com It helps you get around those annoying call routers with the phone company, etc.”
Low-Kramen currently owns her own training company that focuses on teaching people to become a professional assistant. She teaches five workshops a year called “Be The Ultimate Assistant,” in which she grooms people to be elite assistants who can work with celebrities, executives and other high profile individuals. She also has a stable of corporate clients includes Starbucks, Dell, Ford, Pandora Jewelry and The National Hockey League.
While such training to become a personal assistant may seem superfluous to some, Low-Kramen contends it’s a necessity because of the close proximity assistants have to their superiors.
“In my classes, I show a clip from the movie called ‘Air Force One,’ which has Harrison Ford as the president. In the scene, the president and his advisors are trying to figure out how to get people off the plane because it’s been hijacked by the Russians. Who comes and saves the day in this sea of men is this little chubby assistant who says, ‘Mr. President, I think they only cut down line 1. I don’t think they cut down line 2. I think that’s a way you can communicate with the White House.’ Of course, she’s right. They end up saving everyone.
Most assistants can relate to that. They are the ones who know better. CEOs are very busy doing what they do, they have very tough jobs too. But if they have assistants who are skilled and empowered to take responsibilities, then they often know better than their manager about certain things. People will say things to assistants that they would never say to their managers.”
The money that comes from taking up a personal assistant gig isn’t bad either. Top-tier assistants who are highly skilled and have at least 10 years experience make a minimum of $90,000 a year. Middle-tier assistants can make up to $75,000 a year, while entry level assistant salaries start at $50,000 plus benefits.
According to Low-Kramen, the most lucrative personal assistant positions are found in the Bay Area and New York, and not in Los Angeles. Low-Kramen said that it’s because the perception is that assistants to employers in the entertainment business see their positions as temporary, so the profession isn’t taken as seriously there.
As Low-Kramen proves, the general belief about what assistants typically do doesn’t always hold water. Beyond simply grabbing coffee or picking up laundry, personal assistants try to make things happen, no matter how seemingly preposterous those things are.