What does the chief of staff (COS) do? It depends on the needs of the organization. The short answer is that the best COS’s complement the skills of their leaders. Visionary leaders will need chiefs of staff with strategic focus and operational efficiency to ensure they make the most of a limited and valuable resource: their time.
Primarily, they act as leaders’ right hands and trusted advisers. They work directly with CEOs and build strong relationships with team members across the organization to influence outcomes and maintain momentum. Chiefs of staff often have a bird’s-eye view across teams and departments, giving them the ability to connect the dots in ways that others cannot.
What does a chief of staff do in a company?
Typically, the chief of staff manages the day-to-day affairs of an organization, handles office disputes, and solves problems to lessen the burden on the Chief Executive. As an integral part to productivity and effectiveness, they are multi-talented professionals who wear many hats with varied responsibilities. They encapsulate the direction that drives teams forward while also acting as the glue to ease communications and unite people. They are often the right hand to executives — most commonly presidents, heads of departments, and chief executive officers (CEOs). The Chief of Staff may also act as a consultant to the Chief Executive, offering recommendations on staffing and how to measure progress. Someone in this role can hold several different responsibilities, many of which might vary depending on the organization’s current needs. Despite the many responsibilities associated with the position, the primary role of a Chief of Staff generally lies in leading and supporting the entire staff.
When do you need one?
Chiefs of staff play a vital role, especially in large and complex corporations. They provide the communication framework for customers, employees and executives. Visionary CEOs lean on their chiefs of staff to troubleshoot and handle the daily needs of the company. This frees the time of the CEO to then focus their efforts more on developing strategies to grow the company. So, when do you need a chief of staff? Here are some indicators that a company should hire a chief of staff:
Leaders that are always short on time often will miss critical opportunities and deadlines. A chief of staff doing or delegating work on behalf of a CEO can give this time back. They can also look out for essential deadlines, ensuring that only leaders can do well and on time.
Unsatisfied with how time is spent
The familiar feeling among leaders is that their time is too limited and too easily wasted. There is always too much to do and too little time to do it! A chief of staff can help redirect leaders’ focus to areas where they’ll have the most significant impact, so leaders do not dwell on the mundane and activities with less impact on the company.
The leadership team is not operating at peak performance
High talent attrition rates, vacancies, underdeveloped talent, conflicting viewpoints, or work that doesn’t fall cleanly to a C-suite leader impact the leadership team’s performance. Chiefs of staff can act like glue amongst leaders, rallying them around a common goal. Being closely aligned with CEOs, they can often serve as proxies to facilitate meetings and ensure momentum and clarity around the next steps.
Need for more efficient systems and processes
Outdated and inefficient processes hamper leaders’ and organizations’ ability to run efficiently and meet meaningful goals. Chiefs of staff work with leaders to build structure and improve efficiency.
Implementing new strategic plans
Any other strategic vision requires a focused leadership team and a supportive broader staff to be fully effective. Chiefs of staff can provide essential assistance to leaders on team engagement and serve as change ambassadors during periods of change. Without proper implementation, new strategic plans can quickly fall on the wayside, but chiefs of staff can be key players in keeping employees aligned and engaged throughout the process.
What are the characteristics of a great chief of staff?
They get things done
Results-driven and tenacious, they are also excellent organizers and project planners. They consistently look ahead and anticipate needs before they arise.
They are natural problem solvers who are analytical and structured in their thinking. A COS identifies systems and processes in need of adjustment and bring order out of chaos. They deeply understand business operations and can synthesize information to recommend a plan of action.
Chiefs of staff should be both highly self-aware and perceptive toward the CEO and other key relationships. They should serve as connectors that are aware of every critical project. Successful chiefs of staff are cheerful, empathetic, flexible, and curious. Their colleagues respect them.
Loyal and selfless
Leaders must implicitly trust their chiefs of staff, and loyal chiefs of staff are constantly looking for ways to offer support. They must have the confidence to be candid when required and humble enough to work behind the scenes.
What are the typical responsibilities of a chief of staff?
As the gatekeeper or point of contact between the top executive and the rest of the company, the COS organizes and prioritizes critical issues and required information for the CEO to facilitate efficient decision making. The chief of staff plans and directs all administrative, financial and operational activities for the CEO. Here is what a chief of staff typically does daily:
- Attending meetings and calls on behalf of the CEO if he/she couldn’t make it.
- Helping their CEO prioritize their time and appointments.
- Writing first drafts of proposals, emails, letters etc. for their CEOs
- Taking notes during the CEO’s meetings and making sure that the action items from the meeting are executed.
- Acting as the communication arm for their CEOs with other executives in the organization, clients or major stakeholders.
- Acting as the sounding board to their CEOs for new ideas and initiatives.
- Acting as the facilitator for their CEOs colleagues or employees (department heads or other VPs that report to him/her). This means communicating wants, needs, concerns, ideas from an employee effectively and efficiently.
What other functions can be assigned to a COS?
Recently the role of chief of staff has been regarded as a crucial component to the success of the CEO. Prominent CEOs like Tesla’s Elon Musk and Zappos Tony Shieh are known to have chiefs of staff by their side. Being privy to the decision-making of CEOs has also been recognized as a springboard role towards an executive position. Examples of chiefs of staff who are not executives themselves are Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, was Larry Summers’ COS when he was U.S. Treasury Secretary and Aileen Lee, now head of Cowboy Ventures, a VC firm in Palo Alto, California, filled the same position for Mickey Drexler when he ran The Gap. And Aretae Wyler, former COS to Atlantic Media founder David Bradley, is now general counsel and chief administrative officer.
This highly evolutive role does hold a lot of potential for the chief of staff. Aside from the typical duties and responsibilities, chiefs of staffs may also be given a focus area. Some examples of this are making the chief of staff lead culture and community, being a happiness officer, innovator, and forward thinker. These focus areas may sound unofficial, but they are always aligned with chiefs’ general responsibilities.
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