Right-hand man or woman. The one always beside the CEO, the president, or the military general. This person is none other than the Chief of Staff (COS) of an organization. In a complex organization, the Chief of Staff serves as the bridge between the chief executive and its direct-report team. The COS serves as a buffer, working behind the scenes making sure that the chief executive’s time is spent where it is most needed – in leading the company towards its goals.
The chief of staff responsibilities vary from organization to organization, but they almost always involve linking the chief executive and the leadership team to the rest of the organization. They also serve as advisors, confidants, and truth-tellers, giving unbiased opinions when the chief executive needs wide-ranging views from someone who has no organizational agenda.
In popular culture, the COS is the legendary mover and shaker behind the scenes. Many television series and movies are dedicated to the “legend” that is the Chief of Staff.
But why is there a need for a COS? When can an organization say that it’s time to hire a COS? What are the Chief of Staff duties and responsibilities? How does a Chief of Staff fit within an organization? What are the skills and qualifications needed to become a Chief of Staff? How does a Chief of Staff differ from an Executive Assistant?
Why Is There A Need For A Chief Of Staff?
Picture this: you are a CEO of a growing company at a rapid pace with the expansion in another region in the last three months. You noticed that you have had difficulty keeping up with the daily demands since the growth. You have been working long hours and not spending enough time on the most important things. This is an example of a situation where hiring a Chief of Staff will help you as a CEO.
The Harvard Business Review cites Patrick Aylward (Vice President and COS at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey), who broke the job down into five roles:
- “air traffic controller” for the leader and the senior team;
- integrator who connects workflows that would otherwise remain isolated;
- a communicator who links the leadership team to the rest of the organization;
- unbiased broker and truth-teller who counsels the leader when he needs a comprehensive view without consideration for factions within the organization
- a trustworthy confidant without a hidden agenda.
In large (and complex) organizations and institutions – such as governments, public and large private corporations, and the military – the role of COS is built-in as it is clear that such complexity warrants it.
The Chief Of Staff Within The Organization
Whether it is a built-in role, a newly created position or an evolution of an existing function, the role of the COS is a critical hire. Given the position’s crucial role in enabling the success of the leadership, the COS is often highly educated, with advanced degrees and extensive leadership experience. If we delve deeper into how the COS fits within the organization; we can identify the following key elements:
As a trusted confidant and advisor, a COS is always ready to lend support when called for the chief executive. This strategic partnership includes the following tasks:
- Communications to both internal and external stakeholders
- Supporting operations
- Engaging with the Board of Directors
Serves To Expand The Team’s Capacity and Resources
Think of the COS as an extra pair of hands and an extra set of the brain at the chief executive’s disposal. The COS with the right skills and experience will know right away what needs to be done to increase efficiency and address barriers. They will immediately gain the trust of the leaders and the rest of the organization as they can expand the team’s bandwidth and provide extra resources. These daily tasks may include:
- Management of the team
- Preparing for meetings
- Taking the strategic lead on important projects
- The hiring of key personnel
As a buffer between the chief executive and the rest of the organization, the COS must connect well with those who report to the leader and others across the organization. They can influence outcomes. This cross-functional position facilitates gaining support for the leadership team and cultivates long-term partnerships crucial to the organization’s success.
The Chief Of Staff Duties And Responsibilities
Virtual Chief of Staff breaks down the chief of staff duties and responsibilities into five groups:
Lending Direct Support To The CEO
- Helping the chief executive identify the strategic areas to focus on and identifying measures for success. The COS support end in identifying these strategic goals; they must also help the chief executive revisit these goals regularly to evaluate progress.
- Time is a finite resource that every chief executive must use wisely. The COS helps strategically manage time by collaborating closely with executive assistants or secretaries – planning the travel calendar long-term and assessing travel opportunities if they fit with priorities.
- Again, time is of the essence for chief executives, and the COS ensures the chief executives attend meetings that are only necessary to their function. On top of this, the COS ensures that the chief executive has all the information needed to be productive by planning agendas and sending out documents to meeting attendees as required.
- Communicating with both internal and external parties is usually in the purview of the COS tasks. This includes drafting company newsletters, reviewing reports, pitch decks and even speeches or presentations for the chief executive.
- Monitoring the flow of information – acting as an “air traffic controller”, ensuring that the chief executive’s participation in a project or decision-making process happens at the appropriate moment.
Preparing For Meetings And Events
- To ensure the leadership team’s success, the COS manages the pace and schedule of meetings pace for the board of directors and leadership team. They ensure materials are sent in advance, time is spent well, and meeting objectives are achieved.
- The COS is also the chief executive’s company culture evangelist, spearheading retreats, team building activities, reviews, and other special events like company anniversaries.
- As the role of the COS is cross-functional, they are often tasked to oversee organization-wide projects or initiatives.
- Bring together multiple stakeholders and help arrive at decisions.
- Doing research and benchmarking from them. The COS is also adept at data analysis and drawing recommendations from the results.
- Putting systems and processes in place that streamline operations.
- Planning and leading annual strategic planning of the company.
- Creating & updating metrics for measuring and reviewing KPI’s.
Hiring And Management
- For roles reporting to the chief executive, the COS drafts job descriptions, outline the interview process and screens the candidates.
- The COS is not a one-person team and often works with others in the chief executive’s office. They are therefore in charge of hiring and managing others in the office of the chief executive. This may include executive assistants, advisers, secretaries, press relations officers, speechwriters, among others.
The Chief Of Staff Skills And Qualifications
Like any role in an organization, the chief of staff comes with defined skills and qualifications that organizations tailor according to their needs. According to Monster, an online recruitment platform, here is a list of the skills and qualifications preferred by employers:
- Minimum bachelor’s degree, an advanced degree in business, finance, or engineering
- Experience in the industry
- Leadership skills and proven leadership experience
- Management skills and proven management experience
- Demonstrated strong organizational skills
- Excellent oral and written communication
- Excellent presentation skills that are adaptable to the type of audience
- Exceptional teaching skills,
- Extensive knowledge of the company
- Relevant data analysis experience
The Difference Between A Chief Of Staff And An Executive Assistant
The Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant roles are often confused with each other. Both roles are essential to an organization and require supporting the leadership. But how do they differ from one another? Is there an overlap between the chief of staff responsibilities and that of the executive assistant responsibilities?
First, let us look at the similarities. Both roles support the organization’s leaders. An executive assistant is an assistant to any senior management leaders (CEO, COO, CSO, CTO etc.) and board of directors. On the other hand, the chief of staff is catering specifically to the highest executive leader – the CEO, president or a general in the military. Both are involved in the daily activities and functions of the executive they are serving. They liaise with the team in the executive’s office as well as external stakeholders.
The executive assistant is more of a tactical and operational role, dealing with the daily activities of the executive they are serving. Everyday activities like managing meetings, travel schedule, directing the flow of documents. The role of the executive assistant usually has a shorter time span window – for example, dealing with daily tasks for the next 30 days of the executive’s work. It is less likely to include long-term goals and their planning.
In addition to the operational and tactical, the chief of staff responsibilities has strategic aspects as the most crucial component. The COS helps the chief executive craft long-term goals and puts a system in place to measure the progress of these goals. The time window is more than 30 days. Unlike the executive assistants, who often focus on and around the daily activities of the executive they are serving, the COS leads high-profile cross-functional projects and initiatives. As a trusted advisor, confidant and truth-teller, the COS is often privy to confidential information related to the company’s long-term goals and initiatives. In many cases, the chief of staff’s responsibilities includes leading cross-functional projects that count towards long-term organizational goals.
The Chief Of Staff In Popular Culture
Mention the words chief of staff, and many people would associate it with the Presidency and the White House. The Chief of Staff role attached to the highest office in the government is perhaps the most distinguishable and popular of all COS roles, and rightfully so. This role is highly visible and controversial. It is also popularized and depicted as a central character in hit TV series like The West Wing, Veep, House of Cards and countless Hollywood movies about the US Presidency.
Depictions like these in popular culture help place the COS role in the masses’ consciousness, and it also attaches a sort of “legendary” quality to the role. In reality, the role of the chief of staff is more commonplace and ordinary – just like any other role in an organization. It comes with its set duties and responsibilities adapted to the needs of the executive and organization the COS is serving. In recent times, when tech startups have become more commonplace, we see famous and accomplished tech executives who once held COS roles being highlighted. For example, before Sheryl Sandberg joined Google and Facebook, she was Chief of Staff to US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.
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