What Melba J. Duncan knows about being a world-class executive assistant has enabled her to grow a one-of-a-kind business. She may even help you learn what it takes to find a superstar aide-de-camp of your own

One day," Melba J. Duncan recalls, "I woke up, and I knew: this is a business!" That entrepreneurial flash hit in 1984, when she was the virtuosa executive assistant to a high-powered Wall Street CEO. During her ascendant 15-year career, she'd seen people pull every snarky trick in the book to wangle their way past her and into her boss's inner sanctum, maneuvers she deflected with trademark grace and the perfect degree of toughness. Duncan's smarts and style attracted attention; even people she'd bounced thought the world of her. Which explains why people kept coming back, casual-like, to ask for one more little thing: could she help them find a great assistant, pretty please, somebody sharp--with nerves of iron and unshakable poise--somebody just like Duncan herself? Because she's such a complete pro, she'd promise to see what she could do, nothing fancy, and was tickled to death when her "matchmaking," as Duncan quaintly thought of it, clicked. More often than not, it did. Which brings us to Duncan's entrepreneurial epiphany.

A smidgen of background first: In North America today, there are nearly 1,500 retained search firms, companies that recruit high-level executives for their clients on a contract basis. It's a volatile list topped by the so-called Big Five-- Heidrick & Struggles International, Korn/Ferry International, Spencer Stuart and Associates, Russell Reynolds Associates, and LAI Worldwide. "There's a low barrier to entry," says Joseph Daniel McCool, editor of The Executive Recruiter News, an independent monthly newsletter aimed at search executives. "All you need is a phone, a computer, and a list of contacts, that last being the most important."

In 1985, Melba Duncan's company, the New York City-based Duncan Group Inc., made its debut. Fourteen years later hers is still the only retained search firm in the country that deals exclusively in the special world of administrative-support professionals. Duncan gained a competitive foothold from the start by going way beyond phones and contact lists; she invented a whole new species of search practice. Her singular niche and competitive edge took shape around an innovation that melded her exhaustive knowledge of assistantship with her observation that this was an overlooked region of the business landscape, one that hovered beneath the notice of big executive-search firms.

If you're like me, you had no idea that the Duncan Group has been quietly placing cream-of-the-crop executive assistants in topflight positions since Reagan was in the White House. Duncan's placements are people of such caliber that they command salaries starting at $55,000 and climbing to $130,000, not counting bonuses and benefits. By word-of-mouth referral only, Duncan has assembled an equally eye-popping client roster, one that includes such big names as IBM, Home Depot, Bankers Trust, the Boston Consulting Group, and former senator Bill Bradley. Last year the Duncan Group's "matchmaking" racked up close to $1 million in revenues.

Consider, too, that in the hotsy-totsy executive-search business, top candidates leave a contrail of their upward progress from job to job and are, more or less, known commodities in their industries. The executive-assistant market, in stark contrast, is notoriously hush-hush, quasi-Victorian in its corseted restraint. Pre-Duncan Group, if you'd wanted to find a superb assistant, you had to steal one, under deep cover, on the q.t. Duncan has amassed, over the years, an enormous private database of superqualified candidates that is a daunting and powerful barrier that keeps other executive-assistant-recruiter wanna-bes at bay. "The successful executive assistant is not a subordinate," she says, "but a business ally of the first order: you get executive attitude in a support role."

These days Duncan has a coterie of converts to her notion of what an executive assistant can be. One of them, Bill Uhrig, a partner in a boutique investment firm, reports that "Melba recruited my assistant, and I was the only happy person here! Now she does all our placements. She has a knack for matching people up. You don't know what a multiplying effect it has until you've got a really good assistant." For presidential contender Bill Bradley, the essential characteristics were "competence, zest, loyalty, a sense of humor, strong organizational skills, and meticulous attention to detail."

There are a million little ways Melba Duncan can tell if somebody's cut out to be a great assistant--in the all-important details of temperament and maturity, in the way a confident person knows how to work a room or settle an argument, and in mind-blowing organizational skills. That combination evolved for Duncan early in her career, which began in 1968 with an eight-year stretch as assistant to Sanford C. Bernstein, who then headed the eponymous New York investment-research-and-management firm. "I learned from Bernstein that everything you do starts from who you are," Duncan says, "and what's right for you. Knowing yourself. And I knew I really loved business. Businesspeople make such very difficult decisions and go on--I loved that kind of talent. And I loved the sound of the language they used. So I chose business."

Despite blinkered advice from a high school guidance counselor to stuff her ambition and straight-A average and become a nurse's aide ("so I'd have something to fall back on"), it was always Duncan's intention to accomplish things on a larger scale. "Enough was never enough," Duncan says of her upbringing. "My two sisters and I didn't always have to be first, but you know--we'd better be first. That's the attitude that propelled us." Both sibs grew up to become psychiatrists, but Duncan had other plans. "I'm the middle child," she explains. "So I was always independent. I didn't want to be in a career that's all about finding the downside in people and trying to correct it."

Duncan's first big break came at Lehman Brothers, the investment-banking firm, where in 1976 she signed on as the executive assistant to then-chairman and CEO Peter G. Peterson, who had been secretary of commerce during the Nixon administration. As Peterson's right arm, no matter what kind of hell broke loose, Duncan was responsible for turning a mosh pit into an oasis of order, and somehow doing it while maintaining an eloquent example in the way she handled things. It suited her down to the ground. To her role she brought concentration and determination. She excelled at sniffing out problems and zapping them into oblivion, something an executive assistant has to do with grotesque frequency.

While at Lehman, Duncan made up her mind to become even more skilled and thus increase her value as an executive assistant. Possessed of an early and total commitment to being prepared and an almost ascetic focus, she hit the books on weekends, taking management and economics classes at NYU and finishing two years of law school on her own time. By then she had already taken and passed the not-for-the-faint-hearted stockbroker's exam. (Good night, nurse!) She never actually traded anything, but she was utterly hooked on the intrinsic value of learning and on the high of achievement. The point of the exercise, as Duncan sees it, was that she "finally understood how business works and how money moves in this country. It was so, so much easier to communicate. I made better decisions." Looking back on it now, she says she thought about finishing law school but decided against it because "it's the practical knowledge that gives you the real strength in business. Books are wonderful," she says, "but I think I made the right choice."

By the time Peterson was closing in on nine years with Lehman, his own entrepreneurial streak was starting to assert itself. In 1985 he let Duncan know that he planned to kick off his own private investment-banking firm, the Blackstone Group, a business that he's chairman of today. Duncan up and flew the corporate coop with him. "I watched Pete begin that company from a yellow pad," she says. "It was a great lesson, that transition from Lehman."

Although Duncan was raised to be polished and polite, there's enough gamble in her that she could feel the stirrings so familiar to anybody who's ever had an entrepreneurial itch: she was in the throes of a new-business idea. "Just moving to a small-company environment made me think about it," Duncan says. "I had to take more control of my own life and my economic well-being. No one was going to do that for me, and I shouldn't expect it. If I stayed with Pete for another two or three years, I'd just be coasting, and there was still more I wanted to do."

She'd already taken her idea for a search firm for a test-drive with a few colleagues whose judgment she trusted (the feeling was mutual), a gilded cluster of movers and shakers that included the chairmen of Goldman Sachs and General Foods; the president of the Economic Club of New York; and the executive assistants to Henry Kissinger, to James E. Burke, Johnson & Johnson's fabled chairman and CEO during the Tylenol crisis, and to literary agent Morton L. Janklow. They all loved it.

But it was Peterson's opinion that mattered most. Over lunch with her boss at the Four Seasons, Duncan floated her plan for a special kind of search practice. "Pete always wrote things down on a napkin," she says, "so now he wrote, 'Find a location, tell me about the cost structure.' And I told him, 'Pete, I've already done that'--because you never want to go to someone like him with any idea unless you go armed. So I knew how many square feet. And the cost. The location. I'd spoken to lawyers about forming a company and I'd spoken to accountants."

"She said she wanted to be an entrepreneur," Peterson recalls, "and I was simply delighted to help her. I thought this market for executive assistants was an interesting niche. So I helped her in two ways: I lent her $30,000 to start, and I introduced her to Russell Reynolds." Yes, $30K, and yes, the Russell Reynolds, who in 1969 founded what grew into a $190-million international executive-search firm of premier rank.

Reynolds, for his part, had built a business powerhouse on his eye for talent, and he was so sure that Duncan was worth betting on that he shrewdly put his money where his confidence was and promptly became the Duncan Group's majority shareholder. Nobody's fool, Reynolds acted to protect his investment by coaching Duncan in what she didn't yet know, such as how a successful search business should be set up. "Russ helped with everything," Duncan says. "Should we buy or lease a copier? What about technology? And stationery? I didn't have a clue!"

Following a model used by Reynolds and most other retained search firms, Duncan now charges clients from 28% to 35% of the new assistant's annual salary, plus expenses. "For nonprofits, I'll drop it to 28%," she says, "and of course, you have to consider fairness if it's repeat business. But I never go below 27%."

For the first few months, Duncan worked out of Peterson's offices in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Her first real search assignment--after replacing herself as Peterson's assistant, that is--was, in a word, terrifying. "I had an informal partner then, Janice Brian--she was a friend, a schoolteacher who had great presence, great style, and a strong administrative background," Duncan says. "Together we stepped out to meet our first client. We knew the interview should be about listening, and getting that person to tell us what his problems were and what he needed. Well, we were so into listening that the client was the one who finally had to say, 'Aren't you going to ask for the business?' Janice and I laughed all the way down in the elevator. My back was soaked with perspiration and her hands were shaking, but we got it, the search and the lesson: Never leave until you ask for the business!"

The Duncan Group really took off when it got a boost out of the blue from the Today show. Recall that Duncan's first search assignment was to replace herself in Peterson's office; she knew she'd need a candidate who "liked the phone, who liked the PR side of things. Somebody who liked talking to people. So I thought maybe I'd get someone out of the media." One of Duncan's first calls was to the woman who was then Bryant Gumbel's assistant, whom she'd known for a while, with the idea that a few media-savvy candidates would surface in their conversation.

As it happened, to Duncan's total surprise, Gumbel's assistant was much more interested in talking about the fledgling business venture. She thought it sounded like a perfect Today story. Jump-cut to the summer of 1985: bright and early one morning, there was Bryant Gumbel interviewing Duncan, Reynolds, and Peterson. "By the time Gumbel wrapped it up and said, 'For more information, call the number on your screen,' well, the floodgates had opened," Duncan says. Among the callers was Barbara Werber, fresh from a seven-year tenure as director of placement in New York City with the famous Katharine Gibbs School. "There on my television set were Melba and Pete and Russ, talking about the need for the placement of administrative assistants," Werber says. "So I called." She joined the Duncan Group as a recruiter, and happily contributed loads of hard-won practical experience along with her giant Rolodex that was crammed to the gills with the coin of the search biz: contacts, the people she'd met and placed and worked with over the years. She's been with Duncan ever since.

"This business was built to respond to the needs of the CEOs who call us," Duncan says. "What we offer that's special is a really good understanding of the psyche of the hiring executive. We're set up to accommodate how a CEO thinks." It is, in the end, chemistry that makes the difference between a match made in heaven and one that heads south.

David Banks, executive chairman of Toronto's Newcourt Credit Group, would agree. Banks first met Duncan nearly 15 years ago, soon after she'd launched her practice. He needed an assistant, and Duncan found him one. Here's how he describes the experience. "I'd thought deeply about what I wanted in an assistant--the skill mix, the personality, the ideal candidate--and I wrote it all up. Finally, I honed it down to a two-page document, which I gave to Melba. A couple of days later, Melba came over with an associate to observe and deepen their understanding of how I operated. The day after, Melba came back; she said, 'Here's your list of things you want, and here's our list--it's what you need.' I was astonished: there had been a dimension missing from my list, and it was my own curious habits and idiosyncrasies. I'm a pedantic bureaucrat, and that could drive somebody nuts." Duncan, he says, "helped me shape my thinking to compare candidates, and she taught me an awful lot about how to work with an assistant in a productive way."

To deliver 3 solid finalists to a client, Duncan knows she needs to start out with a pool of 100. Recruiters work the phones like air-traffic controllers, muscling through Rolodexes and otherwise tapping into their network of contacts. That initial screening cuts the original number of possibilities in half, to 50, which, after completion of a written questionnaire, is narrowed to 15.

Duncan puts those 15 through their paces in a four-hour testing and profiling extravaganza that gets a bead on written communication and clerical skills, problem solving, math, management aptitude, and personality. That also is the point at which candidates sit down for a chat with Lee Shain, a clinical psychologist in private practice who devotes about two days a week to the Duncan Group. Fair warning: Shain misses nothing. Her write-ups, which are kept in a corpulent three-ring binder in Duncan's office, are short, astringent, and dead-on. "The interview is about finding your limits," Shain says. "I know that at the executive-assistant level, it's not a 9-to-5 job. You get there when you're needed, and you leave when you can. The last thing we want to do is to send somebody into a failure situation."

Within five days of the official opening of the search, the first three solid prospects can be presented to a client, along with a complete dossier about each candidate's background and work history, deepened by the addition of a short write-up about his or her potential fit with the organization in question. "It turns out," Duncan says, "that a good personality fit with the executive is the single most important factor in determining the success of the relationship. More important than background. More important than work history."

Seven people make up the Duncan Group as it is today: Duncan; psychologist and part-time recruiter Shain; recruiter Barbara Werber; chief operating officer (and IBM veteran) David Nisbett ("what I do is free Melba from problems"); Max Rodriguez, the systems and database honcho (and Duncan's husband); Duncan's own chief of staff, "major domo" Judith Grayson; and another recruiter, Duncan's 23-year-old daughter, Michelle Devlin. With a book under her belt ( The New Executive Assistant, McGraw-Hill, 1997), Duncan at the moment is designing a newsletter geared toward executive assistants. And next year she's looking forward to launching a "boot camp" for executive assistants, a total-immersion kind of training experience she's been planning and dreaming of for a long time. (Not for nothing does she sit on the board of Outward Bound.) But the real purpose behind the new endeavors is to expose assistants to the best of the best, and maybe to add a little reassurance. "A skilled liaison cannot be replaced by a machine," she says. "If an executive is late to a meeting, can a computer call and say he's late and not offend anybody? Come on."

It's 6 on a Friday evening and Duncan's phone is going berserk. Somebody from Home Depot wants to open a search for an executive assistant. Now. There Duncan goes, cool and collected as ever, but with a hot mind that never stops.

Nancy K. Austin, a contributor to Inc., is the coauthor, with Tom Peters, of A Passion for Excellence.

The five most useful things an executive assistant brings to the party

1. Emotional maturity.
A big share of the talent required in an assistant is emotional; assistants we love are somehow able to keep from getting upset about stuff that might strike you as hard not to get upset about. But a topflight assistant understands and accepts that there is some unfairness you can't control and can't take personally.

2. Flexibility.
No point in getting worked up when somebody is rude, or when your boss misses a meeting and blows your schedule to a fare-thee-well, or when the computer crashes. A really great executive assistant helps the organization learn to cope with change.

3. Political savvy.
A charismatic, personable executive assistant delivers superior results for the boss and the organization far better than any number of dragon ladies (or men).

4. Organization.
There are always phone calls, crises, and people with their hair on fire. The best assistants use at least three filing systems: tickler files, chronological files, and alphabetical files.

5. Sense of humor.
Execs who hire someone without a sense of humor for this job are just out of their minds.

Duncan's five fave questions for applicants

At the Duncan Group candidates are asked to complete a 15-page questionnaire. It's jammed with mind-benders such as "What does service mean to you?" and "What places, people, ideas, or things arouse your curiosity?" The questionnaire doesn't change, but the questions Duncan is inspired to ask during face-to-face interviews always do. Here are her current favorites, culled from the questionnaire and the interviews:

1. Describe your worst boss and best boss.
("I'm partly thinking about discretion," says Duncan. "How much are you telling me that I shouldn't know?")

2. What would a previous employer have to say about you?
("For perspective on flexibility, judgment, and maturity.")

3. What are some of the qualities that enable you to perform successfully in a support role?
("People are more important than technology in this job; of course you need both, but does the answer reveal a technician?")

4. Given the opportunity, what new activities would you try?
("Are you curious, outgoing, strong, confident? Whiners aren't good.")

5. Please write a brief paragraph on the subject of your own choosing. You may want to focus on your life, your family, your aspirations, your goals, or your achievements.
("There's nothing as important as having people's best interests at heart; I want to guide them into the right position and this answer will help me do that. I want to know they have a sense of direction. I want to know what they care about. Also, attention to detail: please, no typos!")

Duncan's five fave questions for clients

Crucial to the Duncan Group's success is knowing how to get inside a CEO's head. In a face-to-face meeting, Duncan will probe for answers to these and a slew of other questions designed to lead to the perfect match.

1. Has there been turnover in this position?
("I want to see if there's ever been a right fit here. This question points to what may have gone wrong in the hiring process.")

2. Tell me about the best person who ever worked with you. What worked? What would you want to have happen again? What would you want to avoid?
("Everybody's had a successful relationship at some time or other, but first we have to find that person's limits.")

3. Describe someone you know who's been effective in this job.
("Here people will always tell you about their best friend, who had the best assistant ever because she paid attention; inside they're asking, 'Why can't I have the same thing?' Unmet expectations are key here.")

4. Have you hired someone at this level before?
("If not, then we can do a little education so the client begins to understand they can turn over a lot to an assistant if it's the right person.")

5. What is the most important thing an assistant should know about working with you?
("You have to understand who you're working with and find a candidate who really fits that mold. If an assistant is looking for a mentor and wants to learn, the boss needs to be interested in teaching.")

Duncan's favorite tools of the trade

1. The 15-page Duncan Group candidate questionnaire.

2. An old-fashioned, handwritten incoming/outgoing telephone-call register.
(No voice mail, except on weekends, because it's "too impersonal".)

3. A two-inch binder stuffed with a prioritized to-do list, client notes, status reports, and candidate write-ups.

4. Her Rolodex.
("What if the battery in my PalmPilot dies?")

5. Personal, handwritten thank-you notes.
Crane note cards, ivory with a red border, with "Melba J. Duncan" engraved in red. Duncan uses them all the time, and that personal touch makes a huge impression.

What you can expect to pay an executive assistant
To pin down what an assistant costs these days, I talked to OfficeTeam, in Menlo Park, Calif., one of the world's largest temporary-staffing services. For the two linchpin positions--administrative assistant (whose duties include office support, word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, Internet research, and communications skills) and executive assistant (does all the above for the most-senior executives; also makes travel and meeting arrangements, and supervises support staff)--here's what salaries look like in a few U.S. cities. None, you'll note, match the elite placements made by the Duncan Group.

Administrative Assistant Executive Assistant
Albuquerque $22,000-$25,000 $28,000-$30,000
Atlanta $29,000-$36,000 $36,000-$47,000
Boise, ID $22,000-$25,000 $28,000-$35,000
Los Angeles $25,000-$33,000 $32,000-$42,000
New York $30,000-$42,000 $42,000-$60,000
Salt Lake City $28,000-$30,000 $31,000-$34,000
St. Louis $24,000-$30,000 $30,000-$38,000

No assistant required

Indispensable as great assistants are, it turns out that not every honcho needs a sidekick. At least, that's how Inc. 500 CEO Randy Schilling sees it. At Solutech, a provider of Internet professional services based near St. Louis, in St. Charles, Mo., Schilling is not the only one who's writing his own letters and answering his own phone. None of Solutech's 230 employees has (or is) an assistant because, as Schilling explains, "we're living a Web workstyle and life-style, and we're ingraining self-service into our employees." Just about everything a Solutech employee has to know--Which expense reports are late? Whose birthday is it? What classes am I scheduled to teach next month? How are sales looking in the Kansas City office? When's that meeting scheduled?--is right there at his or her very own fingertips, thanks to Solutech's "Digital Nervous System," the company's ultracompetent intranet, a sophisticated, easy-to-navigate system Solutech created for its own use and now builds for customers. "I run the whole company off this," Schilling explains, as he dexterously touch-types his name and password. In seconds, the Solutech Digital Nervous System home page pops up, offering a bunch of pull-down menus that let you go straight to News or Marketing or Human Resources or Operations. "Our 401(k) is on-line. So are our time sheets, class schedules, employee handbook, address book, expense reports, sales figures, E-mail--everything's here."

But what about those rocky encounters that human assistants are so famously good at smoothing out? Say Schilling's running late for an important meeting with a client or--horrors--for a briefing to financial analysts? Wouldn't an assistant come in mighty handy then? "Nope, I'd just call and say I'm going to be late," he says. Schilling does fret that if the company keeps growing like mad, he'll be "really tough to get ahold of, worse than I am now, and then I might have to think about hiring someone. But here, E-mail gets a better response anyway," so he's not that concerned. "I always have my cell phone, a pager, and of course E-mail," he reminds me. "But sometimes I think it's personal communication that's missing." Personal, exactly. Now there's a job that's pure analog.