The Chief of Staff Role:
Know What’s Really Going On In Your Organization
Without a chief of staff, you risk experiencing the negative effects of one of the core truths of executive leadership: It’s lonely at the top You will rarely receive direct, constructive criticism or positive feedback from above or below you—about your performance, about specific decisions that you made or about your strategic direction. Plus, information from the lower levels of the organization tends to get filtered through several layers of management on its way to you. That information is frequently so sanitized by the time it reaches you that it omits pertinent details or trade-offs that would make for better decisions on your part. The result is negative surprises.
In a recent survey of 300 chief executives, Chris Wells of Kapta Systems found that “38% of CEOs were blind-sided by a negative surprise in the past 90 days. According to Harvard business professors Michael Porter, Jay Lorsch and Nitin Nohria, the number three surprise for new CEOs is that it is hard to know what is really going on. Granted, you can’t know everything. But as you climb, the consequences for not knowing are more significant and the tolerance of boards, founders and even courts or juries might be lower. As an officer of the company, you might have fail-and-go-to-jail responsibilities for certain aspects of your business. And we all know how well the “we didn’t know” defense worked out for Jeffrey Skilling and his cohort of Enron executives.
Still, not every crisis ends up with someone in jail. You might simply think everything is moving along just fine when costs suddenly jump or revenue falls short for the quarter. Or you go into a board meeting thinking your key leaders are aligned and moving forward, when all of the sudden you find out they’re all over the map and each of you loses face with the board. In many levels of an organization, you can solve your isolation problem through having more, or more focused, information channels, but the higher up the ladder you go, the more filtered the information becomes. You have to challenge it constantly. It’s the chief of staff’s job to know which doors to knock on so that you get what you need and avoid negative outcomes.