The Role an Executive Assistant Plays When a Company Goes Public: An Anonymous Interview with an EA Who’s Helped Take Two Companies Public!
Disclaimer: This article is a bit longer than our typical blog post. This was a 45-minute interview and when the content is so rich, it’s hard to trim (especially on a topic like this!). Thanks for bearing with us! 😉
You’ve probably noticed the IPO activity as we’ve had yet another record-breaking year of the number of companies that have gone public! We’re no stranger to the fact that C-Level Executive Assistants play an integral role in the pre-IPO process which is why we thought it was important to cover this topic for our Executive Assistant community.
We’ve interviewed an Executive Assistant who has supported CEOs of two different publicly-traded companies to share their wisdom and advice on this subject. Because there are confidentialities we’d like to protect (insider trading is serious stuff!) we have anonymized any sensitive information, but nevertheless this individual’s advice is valuable, so naturally we wanted to share it with you!
Whether your company has filed an S-1 or you’re already knee deep in the IPO process, we hope this article provides you with the encouragement & practical tips you’ll need to successfully support your executive and your organization throughout this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Having experienced two IPOs (we’ll refer to them as Company A and Company B). I’m curious to know how the two experiences differed from one another. In what ways was did your role as an EA differ?
One of the biggest differences of course was the ringing of the bell! In 2018 we were pre-pandemic, so we were able to celebrate in-person. A few of us actually got to travel to New York! With Company B’s IPO in 2021, everything was virtual so we celebrated socially-distanced at home, but it was still a tremendously proud moment for the company! It was a phenomenal experience both times.
Between the 2018 experience with Company A and the 2021 experience with Company B, there are a couple of things that are important to point out regarding my role as an Executive Assistant in the IPO processes. With Company A, I'd been at the company for several years prior, so I was able to see the whole IPO lifecycle full-term. I like to describe the IPO process like the lifecycle of a butterfly. When a company is private, they're in the caterpillar stage. Then they enter into this chrysalis phase, which is the IPO process itself. And then, you morph into a butterfly as you emerge into a public company. With Company A, I was there for each stage of that lifecycle.
Now with Company B, I joined the company in 2020 and the company went public in early 2021. So as you can imagine, I joined the company while it was in the chrysalis phase, so they were already further along the process. However, I will say that a lot of the learnings I took from my experience at Company A enabled me to hit the ground running at Company B.
I knew what the process looked like so I was able to jump in with a foundation and start asking questions that I knew would be relevant to my job during this particular phase. I asked questions like, “Where are we with drafting the S-1?” “Has the roadshow been mapped out?” “Do we have a target IPO date?” Having the fundamentals enabled me to make the most of my role regardless of where the company was in the process.
Another variance between the two was how I collaborated with our Investor Relations Management Teams. There are two traditional ways that companies manage investor relations. You can either hire in-house talent such as an individual or a team to be employees of the company. At Company A, that’s what we did – we hired a seasoned individual who previously helped take other tech companies public. Having someone like that internally who was the master of everything investor relations made my job a little easier. He was also a great teacher that I could go to and ask questions, and he really shepherded the entire process not just for me, but truly for a lot of folks on the team.
At Company B, we went the other route which is to hire an external agency to come in and manage investor relations. Although there were similar checkmarks that had to happen, the agency managed things differently than I had experienced before. They had an entire team of experts and they parsed different things out. One person handled scheduling, another person handled drafting and reviewing the script, and a third person managed press relationships. In that sense, my role was very different with Company B because I had to understand who all the key owners were and make sure that overall, everyone was communicating and aligned.
Finally, I think we'd be remiss not to mention COVID. Company A prepared to go public in 2017 which was of course pre-COVID, and because of that, they had a more traditional IPO process. Whereas with Company B, most of their preparation happened in 2020 at the height of the pandemic which changed the IPO process dramatically. One of the biggest ways the two processes differed came down to managing the roadshow. (A roadshow is when executives from the company go out and meet with potential investors). In 2017, when our executives did that, they were able to actually go onsite and meet with potential investors. In that way, my focus was on travel & logistics – making sure things were nailed down and that there was a back-up plan in case anything was canceled. I also had to focus on scheduling dinners with bankers and ensure we had allotted enough time for transportation, traffic delays, etc.
Fast-forward to Company B. The road shows still happened, but everything was virtual. Because of that, it certainly eliminated some of those stressors I had previously experienced in regard to travel. Rather than worrying about flight delays, I worried about things like internet connection, camera placement, white noise and my executive’s presentation. However, both Company A & Company B did a great job setting up multiple prep meetings and rehearsals so the executives knew what to expect as much as possible.
On a practical basis, what are some of the additional responsibilities, projects, pressures and demands an Executive Assistant takes on when preparing to go public?
You’ll be shifting and navigating conditions all while needing to remain poised and professional. I hope I don’t break anyone’s heart by saying this, but what I’ve found is that there is no secret sauce to being an outstanding Executive Assistant during the IPO process. If you’re a “baddie EA” in your day-to-day, then that will translate as you go through the IPO process because it’s really the same skillset that’s needed. It’ll just be at an accelerated intensity.
For example, you’ll need to be highly responsive as there are multiple threads of communication happening all at once. You have to stay on top of those and respond & react as necessary. You have to stay organized; again, that goes back to all those different project workflows that are being added to your plate, and simultaneously a lot of things stack on top of each other. So, if one project is falling behind, that’s going to impact quite a few things down the road. In short, the ability to stay on top of things is absolutely critical.
Anticipating needs, threading things together and connecting the dots are essential to the EA role. There are a lot of workflows in the IPO process and there are highly sensitive deadlines that need to come to fruition on time. Utilizing all the skills that make you a great EA in your day-to-day is going to be really helpful during the IPO process itself. It’s all the same elements, components and expertise, but you’ve basically taken your EA role and put it on steroids, so the opportunity for things to become strained or fall apart is real. It’s all about leveraging those core abilities. Sometimes, you’re just going to have to step up and be the Project Manager for your executive because there may not be enough resources or time for someone else to do that.
An example of where I had to do this was the roadshow video (which is a short video the company compiles to explain what the company does and why it’s such an exciting opportunity for investors). There are a lot of last-minute details that need to fall into place for that to come together -- think creating, drafting and amending a script for the people participating in the video, setting up rehearsals with internal and external folks, confirming customers who are willing to participate and provide testimonials, and making sure they’re prepared. And of course, you’re going to be working with studio production teams who have very limited time. This is an example of an additional project that EAs often have to manage during the IPO process in addition to everything else. Don’t forget, the company still has to run! The company doesn’t hit pause during this process. Nothing gets taken off of your plate, your plate just turns into a platter. 😉
What does the planning process look like for the Executive Assistant? How far in advance does that start? Is there a typical timeframe that defines that planning?
No two companies are going to have the same IPO experience because it's so unique to the company. Companies will vary on their IPO roadmap just based on what they’ve done prior to deciding to go public. First and foremost, you should know that IPO processes can take anywhere from four-to-six months or a couple of years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
It’s important for people to be excited, but also recognize that it can be a lengthy process. With that in mind, there are particular milestones required of companies to meet. The company needs to assemble what I call their A-Team. This involves investment bankers (who are also referred to as underwriters), the Head of Investor Relations, Corporate Counsel – and these are just a few of the additional teams that companies have to pull together. Companies need to do their due diligence and essentially report how the company operates, and this can be backlogged for years (and is quite a heavy lift on the team internally).
Then they formulate their S-1, a formal regulation statement to announce they are positioned to go public. This is a super sensitive document because it alludes to a lot of information that needs to be kept confidential until the S-1 is published. It includes things like financials, strategy, etc. This is a BIG stage in the life-cycle of a company going public. Once the S-1 is submitted, the Executives hit the road for the road show.
Once a company goes public, that is a huge milestone; however, it’s not the end-game. After you go public, your company’s responsibilities change. You can no longer make decisions in a vacuum. You can’t be as nimble as you were in the past. You have to adhere to new regulations. You are now responsible for managing a whole host of new projects such as board meetings, earnings calls, etc. End of quarter is a critical time for the company because you need to make sure you’ve hit the numbers you’ve projected to the public because all of these things influence the stock price.
As an Executive Assistant, these are focus areas for your executive which become focus areas for you! As all EAs know, pulling a meeting together isn’t all that easy. There’s a ton of behind-the-scenes work in terms of reporting and processes that need to happen to make sure all these different focus areas come together in a way that’s harmonious and meets the requirements that the company now faces as a public entity. Even before a company decides to go public, you are setting yourself up to be in that room just by supporting your executives and making sure that you're standardizing ways to best communicate & how best to prepare them.
Confidentiality is always paramount for a C-level EA, whether we're talking about an IPO process or not, but there are specific sensitivities that become even more pertinent when we're talking about the context of a company going public. As an EA to CEO, you’re privy to this information, so what does that mean for you in terms of how you navigate your role? How do you communicate and conduct yourself? How do you relate to your colleagues and respond to their questions?
When a company decides to engage to go public, the legal ramifications dramatically change, and everyone is responsible to uphold and to follow federal regulations. Penalties for not following those regulations could potentially even land you in jail. We make light about insider trading and Martha Stewart – but it is a very serious felony and something that can happen to anybody.
It goes beyond just not being able to talk to your coworkers about it. It spills into all aspects of your life. You can't talk about it with your friends. You can't talk about it with your family. It's something that you just need to manage. You’re on an island a little bit because again there are so many potential mishaps that could happen throughout the entire process.
Some of the things you can do to prevent potential downfalls include using code names. Be mindful when you schedule things in the calendar. Do NOT label something as “IPO discussion.” You have to be discreet and have a very clear understanding of who is supposed to be on that invite and who is not. Then, you just follow basic standard guidelines for privacy. If you’re leaving your computer at the office, you have to go grab a cup of coffee or whatever, make sure to close and lock it. If you are going to be printing items, especially at home during COVID, make sure you leave those documents in a secure place. Don't just leave them on the counter. Again, it's all about managing risk because the implications of failing to comply with security during the IPO process can have a dramatic impact on whether the company even goes public. That in itself is why confidentiality is paramount in the IPO process, and as the Executive Assistant, we’re the ones spearheading that.
I’ll give you an example: I had an executive who sent out an email notification to a group of internal folks about the IPO process. It was a small group, but they had included someone who had not been informed that this process was happening. I caught it and I made them aware of it by saying, “Hey, I want to point out that this person is not aware of what’s going on.” So that was something I could do as an EA to make sure confidentiality was being adhered to. Thankfully there weren’t any serious ramifications for that, but that’s just one example.
What can you do as an Executive Assistant to help support your Executive through this?
When a CEO is going through the IPO process, their main goal is to achieve the highest sustainable stock price. In order to do that, they need to hit specific milestones. This alone will put them in a high-stress state. Things they used to be able to control have been wiped clean. They are also exposing themselves to mass scrutiny – all of their leadership decisions, how they manage the business, all of it is going to be under a microscope. Now, that’s an intense place to be for multiple months, sometimes even a year or longer.
As the Executive Assistant, there are things you can do to support them through that. Certainly, one of them is to simply manage their time well by understanding what the priority is. You have to know exactly what needs to be addressed today and what can wait until later. They have a personal life too, so that in itself is a big way we can help manage them. You know what it takes for your executive to come in and be 100%. Whether you need to provide them with briefing documents or print out their daily agenda, showing up, being present and making sure they have what they need to be successful can make a world of difference.
Another big part of it is the emotional support. It’s a highly stressful time. They are burning the candle at both ends and they don’t have any time to rest. Timeframes and deadlines are so tight and critical. One thing you can do as an EA say is say, “Hey, what can I do to help you?” “Can I get you a coffee?” “Have you eaten today?” You have to help them both mentally and physically during this marathon.
And finally, we need to recognize that yes, this is a stressful time for anybody, but certainly for the CEO or the CFO of the company. They are still human. Give them runway. They may be a little short-tempered or not as cheerful as they typically are, but be empathetic and don’t take it personally.
As an EA, what do you need from your Executive Team in order to be effective in your role?
There has to be constant communication and transparency. Your executive’s time is so limited that it comes down to every minute during the IPO process. Often times, you don’t have as much access to them as you once did. Make sure there’s a way for you two to be in constant communication or have regular check-ins throughout the process. You have to establish that from the beginning! There are so many moving parts and so many last-minute changes you need to be clear on in order to do your job.
If you give your executive empathy, hopefully in return, he/she does the same for you. You’re also under a lot of stress by default. If you're not clear on how something is supposed to be done or what they're expecting of you, you need to be able to raise your hand and ask for clarity. If you can’t ask your exec, think about who else you can ask to get the vital information you need. If you’re not getting responses, you’re not able to do your job.
For example, one of the individuals from the external team would not respond to my emails. They would wait two to three days to respond. If I called them, they wouldn't call me back. It started to become a bottleneck throughout the process. I could sense that it was going to be a problem if this behavior continued, especially as things began to ramp up. I needed to raise my hand and go to my executive. I had a conversation with him and he said, “No problem, I got it.” He sent an email saying, “If my EA is asking for something, it’s me asking for it.” Having that support really enabled me to do my job well the rest of the process.
What final words of advice or encouragement do you have for EAs whose companies have filed an S-1?
First off, congratulations! It's such an exciting time and experience. Take a moment to recognize that and congratulate yourself. You’re in the position you are in because you have proven you already have the skills that will carry the company through this.
Focus on being reliable, responsive and organized in order to make the process go smoothly. And recognize you’re not alone – there will be a subset of internal people who are there to support you as well as a subset of external people who are paid to come in and help manage this process – utilize them! Ask questions. Raise your hand. Reach out to those in your network who have gone through this experience already. Or if you’re someone who works with the board, ask one of their EAs for guidance. You are going to be the secret sauce that carries this project through for your executive!
Prefer podcasts over blogs? We interviewed Tanya Benvenuto who played a significant role in Okta's IPO back in 2017. Listen to her perspective on this topic here.
December 23, 2021
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