Whenever you hear the mention of a “Chief of Staff,” John Kelly and Caroline Pugh’s images come to mind. They’re often seen as adept individuals accompanying presidents and high profile politicians. But these people are not constrained to politics or the military. Chief of Staff or CoS are increasingly getting popular in the corporate setting, accompanying CEOs in many of their decision-making processes.
This article aims to explain the concept of Chief of Staff and why they matter to businesses and CEOs.
What CEOs Get Wrong (Even the Seasoned Ones)
A Chief Executive Officer is no ordinary job role. The list of duties for them runs endlessly. It’s safe to say they’re responsible for literally everything that a company goes through. The bigger the company, the more complicated are the responsibilities.
The complication increases multifold for a new CEO who takes over an existing organization. He is responsible for envisioning a future for the company, shaping the current strategy, and creating a culture that enables the organization to move in that direction.
The choices he makes every day at his office guide other executives, senior managers, and team leaders.
But what most miss out on is inspecting their own administrative system. The system that will guide him on his day-to-day operations at the office. It’s the system that determines how efficient the CEO will be at his desk.
Even the seasoned CEOs make the mistake of adopting their existing routine and system even if it’s inefficient to their lifestyle. They seemingly inherit it into the new company without rethinking if the system can be improved.
Rethinking and reassessing seldom helps because it’s something the CEOs are less concerned about.
Therefore, you need someone to take care of this personal administrative system. And more often than not, it’s the Chief of Staff or CoS who is best suited for this role.
It’s not uncommon for CEOs to reject the concept of a CoS. Over their successful career years, they’d have come to believe that their existing administrative system is why they’re successful and shouldn’t be tweaked. While that might be true to some extent, a CoS can enhance the current system and make it more efficient.
Therefore, it’s often the higher management’s responsibility to hire and assign a Chief of Staff who will work alongside the CEO.
Roles and Responsibilities of a Chief of Staff
The CoS will be handling several essential principal duties. However, there should be the flexibility that allows the executive to tailor the position to suit his needs.
The duties often revolve around the efficiency of the CEO. In other words, his job is to help maximize the CEO’s time and resources.
Understanding the roles better would help learn about it from two CoS serving their respective roles.
First is Patrick Aylward of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. He breaks down his job role, metaphorically into five different roles, which are:
- An air traffic controller
- An integrator
- A communicator
- A confidant
- A truth-teller and an honest broker
What he means by air traffic controller is he guides the CEO and the rest of the senior team through some of the processes. They seek guidance from him to get the job done.
He integrates various workstreams into unified streams, which is why he’s an integrator. Without this integration, the CEO will be left with an unorganized workflow that’s hard to process.
Patrick’s a communicator since integrating multiple work streams requires cross-functional communication with managers and team members. In general, he links the leadership team with the broader organization.
Patrick’s also a confidant to the leadership who subtracts the different organizational agendas as and when required.
Finally, he sees himself as a broker and truth-teller who brings a different perspective to the table. This is often conflicting in nature, which the leadership group might not want to listen. But it’s necessary and paints the complete picture.
Another renowned CoS is Brian Rumao, who described his job role in a LinkedIn post. He was the CoS to LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, and served in the position for five years.
He described it as the role where the title remains the same, but the responsibilities don’t. His official role fell into two categories, which were:
- Program management
- Strategic initiatives
In the program management area, he was tasked with weekly, quarterly, and annual duties to provide information and deliverables to Jeff Weiner. He then got the inputs on moving forward with the project and served as a bridge for Jeff and other senior managers.
For the strategic initiatives, he often co-led various projects on behalf of the CEO and other executive teams. He also recalled being involved in multiple cross-functional team meetings and initiatives of high importance to the executive team and the company.
The most experienced and sophisticated CoSs will tell you how they assisted CEOs in formulating company-wide policies. Then it was upon them to ensure the policies got implemented as they were supposed to be.
Other than that, the Chief of Staff can be required to handle diplomacy within the organization or within the higher management.
They would be asked to function as extra eyes and ears to spot threatening potholes that CEOs might miss. This is especially crucial when the CEO is new to the company.
Lastly, the CoS uses humility, sensitivity, and maturity to help CEO navigate through the maze and create the best possible future for the company.
CoS vs. Executive Assistant
Given the close resemblance in the job duties, you might easily confuse CoS with an Executive Assistant. Both work closely with the higher executives and help them to maximize their time and productivity.
In fact, for the most part, they share some common grounds. They’re required to be organized, diplomatic, mature, resourceful, and meticulous. But only when you deep-dive would you realize the differences.
An executive assistant is responsible for handling all administrative tasks that a CEO passes through to him or her. The assistant must carry out the duties responsibly and reliably. Besides the administrative tasks, another set of tasks that’s common for all EAs is to maintain complex calendars, plan for travel, and budget expenses. The level of professionalism is such that it’s often hard to find any complexity involved in all of these. But the tasks are mainly concerned with keeping the CEO organized in his day-to-day activities.
Chief of Staffs, on the other hand, do not have to keep the CEO organized. Instead, they focus on finding ways in which he can maximize his time and resources. They work autonomously and receive little to no inputs from the CEO for doing their work.
There can be multiple levels of CoSs (as you’ll find later), and the highest level CoS are an integral part of the senior leadership team. Thus, they work along with the CEO and under the CEO.
But since the Chief of Staff does not receive a C-suite officer’s recognition, they are viewed closer to the EAs rather than the senior team.
Irrespective of the responsibilities assigned, a CoS has to increase the CEO’s productivity and impact in unprecedented ways.
To understand how, let’s consider an example. Say, Sam has been promoted to the role of President from his previous role of Chief Product Manager.
Now he suddenly feels the heat and finds himself low on efficiency. Sam has an EA working under him who is adept at his work. But Sam is working longer hours and not getting enough done.
The Board of Directors was visibly anxious and worried that they might have made a mistake promoting Sam. But unanimously, they appoint a Chief of Staff to assist Sam in his day to day responsibilities. For the sake of this article, let’s name her Sarah.
Sarah will not be asking for inputs from Sam on how to handle his work. Instead, she’d be observing and analyzing Sam’s everyday schedule and point out flaws in them. She’d also suggest improvements that can potentially increase Sam’s efficiency.
Within a couple of months, Sam could see the result for himself. He got more work done; he was never late to a meeting, he was more confident in delegating work, and so on.
All of this advancement because Sam was just too busy to look into these things. He was preoccupied with his own duties that the company has assigned to him. Sarah was the one who made the changes to Sam’s schedule, which increased his efficiency and impact within the organization. Now the Board of Directors are satisfied and looking forward to another great quarter.
Notice how Sam didn’t assign any responsibilities to Sarah. It was Sarah who was looking after Sam’s work schedule.
That’s what basically Chief of Staffs do. They help CEOs improve at what they do, which the CEO himself is not completely capable of doing.
But as mentioned above, they might also be engaged in certain administrative duties. But these are often deliberately to get into the shoes of a CEO and not necessarily get his tasks done to reduce his workload. That’s the EA’s job.
How to Know if a Chief of Staff is Right for You?
The role of Chief of Staff is often associated with the military and government. You can trace the origins of it to the ancient Roman empire. The Roman politician Cicero employed a slave named Tiro, as per Zach Bankston, the author who documented Cicero’s biography. He further states that Tiro was the political strategist and secretary of the Roman politician.
Similarly, historians claim Alexander Hamilton served a role for George Washington that is more or less that of a Chief of Staff.
Because of this political and military background, most businesses are unsure if a Chief of Staff would suit their domain. Large businesses are already too bureaucratic, and adding up to it can slow down growth.
But the CoS positions are getting popular among corporations. In the book, “Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization,” the author Tyler Parris reported that a total of 68,000 people identified themselves as a Chief of Staff. The majority of them worked in a corporate environment and not at a military headquarters or government organization. This number is expected to grow in the coming years across all sectors.
So How Do You Decide If A Cos Is Something You Should Invest In?
Not every CEO or senior manager would require a CoS. Likewise, not every corporate culture would allow a CoS to exist and operate.
To decide if the CEO or the executive would benefit from the appointment of a Chief of Staff, here are the things to consider:
- Is productivity a concern?
- Is the decision making process slower than expected?
- Is too much time wasted on ongoing back-and-forth between work processes and follow-ups?
If the answer is yes to at least two of the questions, then it’s a green signal that the CEO might benefit from the appointment of a CoS.
But if it’s the CEO who’s deciding for himself, then here are the questions he needs to ask:
- Do you feel like spending enough time on essential tasks or frustrated at spending more time on repetitive, administrative tasks?
- Is your time spent on anticipating and working on future agendas, or does it gets sucked up in handing past consequences?
- Do you have all the information you need on the table when you’re making the most critical decisions? Does it feel like you’re adding new information to the sheets after every email or a phone conversation?
- Do you feel unprepared for the meetings or when making important calls during the meeting?
- Are you finding it hard to spot problems early? Is it always too late that issues come up unexpectedly and you find yourself ill-prepared to deal with them?
- Are there too many cultural, political, and agenda-driven factors that are blocking your and the company’s growth? This can be between two separate departments of the same company or between third-party vendors. Is the currency company culture encouraging resistance?
- Does it happen that you request data and information on a particular topic and always get it later than expected? Do you have to remind teams 2-3 times for the same? Is there a lot of following up involved in getting the data?
If you answer “Yes” for most of the questions, it might be fruitful to hire a CoS. But even then, some businesses are reluctant to go ahead with a Chief of Staff.
One reason to cite here is Unfamiliarity. CoS is still a relatively newer concept in the corporate setting. Therefore, most CEOs, Board of Directors, Presidents, and C-Suite execs have never seen a CoS in action.
Another reason companies hesitate to appoint a CoS is they’re concerned doing so will make the CEO imperious. He/she would have greater control over the company, and things could get out of hand.
But if handled correctly, appointing a CoS can improve the metrics for a business by enhancing the CEO and other senior executives.
Different Levels of Chief of Staff
Just like in the corporate ladder, the CoSs follow a hierarchy. So you have, at one extreme, CoSs with less experience and fewer responsibilities. And at the other, you have the complete opposite, most experienced CoSs with more complex responsibilities on their shoulder. Basically, there are three levels.
In the first level, the CoS is considered the apprentices. They are promoted from an EA role and will be serving as the CoS, usually within the same organization.
Therefore, even in Level 1, the Chief of Staff comes with years of experience working closely with a CEO or senior executive. They will primarily be tasked with dealing with their replacements as Executive Assistants. Along with that, the CoSs at Level 1 will be collaborating with the C-suite executives on various projects. The objective will be to channelize communication and facilitate relevant and timely information sharing.
But that not all. The Level 1 CoSs will be tasked with traveling with the CEO, attending meetings, conducting interviews, and handling all necessary follow-ups.
So the majority of the work for the CoS is still administrative in nature. If you’re hiring a Level 1 Chief of State, then the primary objective should be to maximize the efficiency of the CEO with minimal change to his work routine and style.
By helping the CEO get better organized, the company can expect better decision making within the organization.
In the second level, the Chief of Staff has gained some level of experience working as a CoS. Many of them have also served in senior management or the Board of Directors. Academically, they might even hold PhDs, MBAs, Doctorates, etc.
A Level 2 CoS is often tasked with helping the CEO create and manage relationships with other executives in the organization. So at one day, the CoS might be sitting down with the project management team. The next day, they will be interviewing potential candidates with the HR team.
The focus here is to find the right talent to delegate the task so that the CEO can free up some of his time. The freed time can then be utilized for creating future growth rather than managing the current scenario at the company.
You’ll hire a Level 2 Chief of Staff for a CEO if your objective is to implement the current strategy and make moderate changes to the CEO’s style of working. He might be at his near-perfect efficiency, but perfection is less of a concern.
Level 3 is at the top of the hierarchy. Chief of Staff at this level are the gurus. They know how to maximize the CEO’s resources while driving growth for the company. They usually work at large, multi-national corporations and directly with the CEO. They are called in when the CEO is newly appointed, when there’s a major cultural or strategic change within the company, or the company is undergoing a crisis.
Therefore, there’s a lot of turbulence. It can get quite overwhelming for the CEO and his EAs to manage the business efficiently. A Chief of Staff can bring in decades of experience working as a consultant to CEOs and top executives. This guidance is, in fact, necessary to get the company through the tough times.
You’ll hire a Level 3 Chief of Staff if the CEO is new to the role or there’s a company-wide strategic change.
Whether to appoint a Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3 CoS will also depend on other factors. Is the corporate environment stable, and the CEO is experienced enough for the size of the company? Then a Level 2 Chief of Staff might be a better fit than a Level 3. Does the current situation require someone who is familiar with the ins of the business? Then promoting an existing Executive Assistant to a CoS position is a risk worth taking. This may also lead to faster growth for the company.
But there can be considerations beyond the regular context too. Is the person taking up the CoS position trustworthy? Can he develop a chemistry with the CEO and the executives to work as a team? Do his ambition and skills align with what the expectations are and what the job demands?
You can only get an answer to these if you consult with a reputed talent firm. Basically, you should have people involved in the hiring process who know how to interview a candidate for the Chief of Staff role. Since this is top-level hiring, there’s minimum room for error. With a right-fit CoS by your side, the CEO and the company can expect the highest level of success.