What is a Chief of Staff?
Well, unfortunately there isn’t a single answer to that question.
The role is having a renaissance, with hundreds of Chief of Staff roles advertised on job sites, such as Indeed and LinkedIn. Many hiring managers have reached out to me to ask more about my role and in doing so helping them clarify their thinking about the type of role they might need for their own organisation.
Having been in the role for a couple of years, I thought it would be good to share my own thoughts and experiences. I didn’t intend to become Chief of Staff. As a consultant with Airbnb for over 4 years I was already heavily embedded with the leadership team. I regularly facilitated strategic sessions, managed special projects and worked to support the leader and their direct reports. Becoming Chief of Staff was a natural progression.
My current employer has multiple job titles that share the same or similar remit. In other companies, a Chief of Staff’s duties can range from diary management through to strategy development and everything in between.
I’ve been lucky enough to craft and develop the role over time. In this post I’d like to share my top thoughts on what a Chief of Staff role is and isn’t. I’ll also give some tips on where you can find more information and networking opportunities.
A Chief of Staff is…
A strategic thinker — someone who has experience of crafting and developing strategy. A Chief of Staff is typically the one that helps to develop the organization’s vision, multi year strategy, objectives and horizons of delivery. A good Chief of Staff will have a natural ability to craft a strong narrative for the team, one that is compelling, accessible, inspiring and easy to understand. It’s their job to support the leader in setting out the future direction of the team and providing clarity and a sense of purpose.
A broker that connects the dots — bringing different teams together to collaborate in delivering joint initiatives or projects where there are known interdependencies. There are inevitable siloes in any organization and the Chief of Staff can help bring leaders and teams together to solve problems. Sometimes the Chief of Staff will also have to act as broker in circumstances where there might be disagreement or conflict.
A lead on special projects — delivering projects that require expertise but don’t necessarily have an obvious owner. As an individual contributor without direct reports, the Chief of Staff will inevitably have more bandwidth to support the delivery of special projects from time to time. A Chief of Staff is also a generalist with expertise across multiple disciplines. This breadth of expertise allows for a Chief of Staff to cover a variety of projects that require attention, from running an RFP, to supporting an organizational design project.
A Devil’s Advocate — the person who asks awkward questions. A Chief of Staff’s role is to ask clarifying questions that others in the room might be interested in, but unwilling to surface. Difficult questions aren’t there to trip people up, but more to safeguard against gaps or blind spots. All ideas sound good but it’s important to challenge, gauge feasibility and at times to push boundaries where necessary.
A proxy for the leader — there to be the leader’s voice in the room when they are absent. The Chief of Staff is there to support the leader by providing their viewpoint and direction. A leader can’t be in every meeting given their span of control, so it’s the Chief of Staff’s responsibility to speak on their behalf in those meetings or forums where their voice is necessary to keep things moving forward or to get things back on track.
A partner — sometimes you’ll hear people talk about being a thought partner in terms of strategy but it’s a lot more than that. As a partner, a Chief of Staff exists to advise as much as brainstorm. Sometimes that means providing insight on how the wider team is feeling, warning against a course of action or simply offering a listening ear after a difficult meeting or stressful situation. It goes without saying that confidentiality is essential. There are things a Chief of Staff will need to know that others may not be aware of. Like any partnership, it only works when there is trust between the leader and the Chief of Staff.
A Chief of Staff isn’t…
Someone who makes decisions — some will disagree with this sentiment but most Chief of Staff’s don’t make that many decisions. It’s their job to help others come to the best decision they can make. They work to ensure their leader has considered all the options, reflected on unintended consequences and has plans to follow through and land the decision successfully. Sometimes a Chief of Staff will have to support the implementation of a decision they might disagree with. Sometimes it is the job of a Chief of Staff to disagree and commit.
In summary, the role is varied and exciting. In most companies, the Chief of Staff role suits an individual that has generalist knowledge combined with a high degree of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Becoming a strong Chief of Staff takes time and is reliant on being able to develop relationships and nurture trust across the leadership and wider team.
If you want to explore more about becoming a Chief of Staff I would recommend connecting with others already in the role. It’s also worth checking out the McChrystal Group who run regular training courses and have plenty of resources available on their website. There are also a number of groups that have been established to help existing and aspiring Chiefs of Staff network. A good one to try is the Chief of Staff Network.