What is a Chief of Staff?
The short answer is that a chief of staff is a catch-all role, filled by someone with exceptional organizational and people skills, who handles all manner of tasks not covered by an existing member of an executive’s leadership team or administrative staff. Before I provide you a more comprehensive, and useful, answer, it’s worth noting why the role is not well understood or self-explanatory.
Nearly everyone I talked to agreed that the chief of staff role is poorly understood in business. For starters, every instance of the role in business is unique, depending on a number of factors ranging from the size, complexity and geographic dispersion of the company to the executive’s temperament, leadership style and specific business needs. I cover these dynamics in some detail in my book and also cover three “pivots” that you can use to think about the role. People often perform the role without the words “chief of staff” in their title. For example, roles like “business manager,” “manager of strategy and planning,” or “vice president of operations” are essentially chief of staff roles — but not always.
To add to the confusion, the title often, but not always, depends on whether the person in the role serves a c-suite executive, a department or function head, or leaders further from the top. I cover titles in more detail in my book as well. Finally, the chief of staff title is given to people with varying degrees of experience and day-to-day responsibilities, from executive assistants to vice presidents, with a majority falling somewhere in between. Because of this variety, HR executives in my interviews reported having a hard time benchmarking the role. Still, there are some core characteristics that tend to define a chief of staff. A chief of staff is someone who does the following:
- Uses organization skills to manage a portfolio of projects for the CEO.
- Helps the staff and their teams interpret, understand, and carry out the CEO’s vision and strategic intent.
- Helps a CEO prioritize projects and business impacts so that the CEO and his or her direct reports are moving forward with only the most important work.
- Exercises exceptional discretion with confidential information to keep the CEO apprised of what’s going on in the organization and, where needed, to keep the organization informed of what’s going on at the top.
- Manages business rhythms such as recurrent leadership meetings and governance processes on behalf of the CEO.
- Provides analysis, recommendations, and options to the CEO regarding decisions to be made or problems to be solved in internal or external meetings.
- Attends and facilitates complex, cross-departmental discussions to ensure that good decisions are reached (versus so-called yes-people simply agreeing with the CEO) and that decisions are carried out.
- Acts as proxy and information funnel, filter, and facilitator for the CEO, dealing with as many issues as possible before they reach the CEO’s desk, representing the CEO’s point of view, and making decisions, as needed, in the executive’s absence.
- Serves as thought partner, confidant, and coach to the CEO, influencing the overall agenda for the organization, offering the CEO and his or her direct reports perspectives they might not see, uncovering or helping the team uncover new possibilities, and challenging ideas before they are committed to action.
- Manages risk by bridging interdepartmental gaps, by connecting the executive to what is really going on in the organization, by keeping shop while the executive is away, by maintaining continuity during leadership changes, and, in early-stage companies, by being the negative feedback loop for behaviors that don’t meet long-term growth objectives.
- Manages a strategic planning and budgeting process for the executive’s organization.
- Manages or helps manage the executive’s communications, brand, and relationships in the organization.
- Might or might not manage a departmental budget or have direct reports.
- Accomplishes all of the above by using a combination of soft skills, primarily managed-ego or servant leadership, political savvy, exceptional tact and discretion with confidential information, a learning orientation, a balance of organization skills and flexibility, the ability to connect dots between seemingly disparate activities or teams in the organization, and coaching.
Several leaders I interviewed referred to Radar O’Reilly from the classic television show, M*A*S*H. Radar is a character who seems to have a sixth sense about the organization, who can finish his boss’s sentences and who can not only anticipate organizational needs before they happen (he is often the first to hear medevac helicopters approaching the field hospital where the show is set) but also uses a keen resourcefulness to obtain supplies — seemingly out of nowhere — that the camp needs.
About the Author
Tyler Parris is a Hudson-certified executive and career coach, former corporate chief of staff and author of “Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization.” His career has spanned operations management at Intellectual Ventures, program management at Advaiya, Inc., technical editing at Microsoft and computer networking in the United States Marine Corps. While much of Tyler’s time is spent helping organizations successfully use the chief of staff role, his broader focus is creating coaching interactions with senior leaders that create capacity, raise awareness and change behaviors.
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