The roles of Chief of Staff (CoS), Business Manager and/or Executive Assistant (EA) are still evolving in modern organisations. They have the potential to be valuable to both the executive being assisted and the individual performing the role. The executive is looking for support to become more productive, get more done and have a broader impact i.e. to optimise their use of time, energy and attention.
To achieve exclusively this objective, their choice of CoS would need to be an experienced business generalist who can thrive in almost any business area, seeing critical projects through to completion. Seasoned consultants engaged in this way can provide a sounding board to the executive and help remove delivery challenges and improve visibility and communication across the business. Such a role can be rewarding and satisfying professionally for the individual.
Often though, the executive has an additional reason for the role: to develop future talent in the organisation by giving them exposure to senior challenges and decision-making. In this case, the individual is doing the role to learn, and hence wants to maximise the insight they can gain from the executive (and time spent with them). This extra commitment for the leader can add to the pressure they face i.e. may not achieve the objective of making them more effective.
Where development of the individual is a major reason for the role, we find that having another independent mentor/coach as a support for the high-potential employee can help. This gives them a further source of professional insight who believes in their ability, talks through potential issues with them, and helps them rise to new challenges, while also freeing up the executive’s time.
Regular readers will know that the Chief of Staff role is a topic we’ve written about before. Our first article on this (Executive Assistant roles – a worthwhile seat at the executive table?) shared insights from people who’ve done the role. In it, we also highlighted the two main types of individuals who these roles appeal to: (i) ambitious individuals seeing the role as a stepping stone, and (ii) people committed to supporting executives for the longer term. Roles for the first category are rotational ones, lasting roughly a year or two. These are often springboards to bigger jobs because sitting in the board meetings allows the individual to build relationships and credibility with the leader’s direct reports. In contrast, people in the second category often remain Chief of Staff for five years or more as a career choice. Our second article Shadowing Executives: Top 10 Lessons discussed what the Executive Assistants, Business Managers and Chiefs of Staff learnt while working with their executive teams.
In this post, we expand on our previous work by exploring Dan Ciampa’s Harvard Business Review article called ‘The Case for a Chief of Staff’. We agree that the role has had a fluid definition, and that article helps by providing a framework for the principal duties of a CoS, three different levels of the role, the skills needed to perform them well. Read more to explore Dan’s insights, as well as see Harriet Green’s reflections on what makes a great CoS / CEO relationship.
Inspired by ‘The Case for a Chief of Staff’, Harriet Green shared her insights on LinkedIn on what makes a great CoS / CEO relationship from the CEO perspective. A very experienced executive, Harriet has been CEO a number of times in her career so far, including as Chairman and CEO of IBM Asia Pacific, CEO of the Thomas Cook Group and CEO of Premier Farnell, a global electronics distribution business. She says: “The CoS helps the CEO lead well [by the CEO] prioritising daily the key work needed, really delegating well, involving the CoS in the critical issues of the firm and giving feedback in the moment”. It also requires “learning from the insights brought to the party” and “never shooting the messenger”. She explains that “the greatest CoS’s are very creative, value adding and usually own a ‘bet the company’ initiative too”. We agree that if the CoS has their own portfolio of responsibility (rather than being a ‘minister without portfolio’), the broader organisation will be able to see their competence, in addition to the authority gained from the endorsement of the executive themselves.
Comments on Harriet’s post highlighted that the role can be great for supporting succession planning, training and offering individuals a view of what is necessary for C-suite roles i.e. consistent with our earlier points on developing future talent. It was also noted that a good CoS can provide a touch of reality where employees don’t speak truth to power.
The HBR article’s author, Dan Ciampa, is himself a former CEO and an advisor to boards and chief executives. His direct experience of having a CoS and recommending (as an advisor and board member) to executives that they add the role, as well as sometimes helping them structure it and hire someone, lends weight to his article.
While his audience is CEOs considering appointing a Chief of Staff, parts of the article are relevant to those considering performing such a role themselves. We focus on those here. It’s clear his insights are born of practical experience, and his full article is worth reading, including his examples and his seven questions to help a senior executive decide whether a CoS might be needed. As he says: “Not every executive needs a CoS, and the role is not right for every corporate culture”.
Dan tends to concentrate on system and process, starting by referring to the “administrative system that guides day-to-day operations” as a “key factor that will help determine [a CEO’s] effectiveness”. He argues that the “system ensures that leaders make the most of their limited time, that information arrives at the right point in their decision-making process, and that follow-up happens without their having to check”. And, he says that the role of CoS is invaluable in “handling the information flow necessary for a CEO to succeed”. His natural emphasis on structure is no doubt part of how Dan can distil this nebulous role into a helpful framework for all of us.
The principal duties of a Chief of Staff
All of a CoS’s principal duties are focused on “making time, information, and decision processes more effective”, says Dan. He references five roles that Patrick Aylward, a vice president and CoS at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, breaks the job down into:
Dan adds that “the most sophisticated chiefs of staff also assist CEOs in thinking through and setting policies, and making sure they are implemented. They anticipate problems and are especially sensitive to issues that require diplomacy.” This can include acting as a sounding board and helping the leader be better prepared for meetings and more confident delegating (because the leader knows the CoS will follow up). He says that humility, maturity and situational sensitivity are needed as the CoS acts on behalf of the CEO.
Dan highlights that the CoS works autonomously and does not handle routine correspondence or manage the leader’s day-to-day schedule, which he says is the realm of the ‘executive assistant’. This is likely to be different terminology in different markets: that role can be referred to elsewhere as a personal assistant (PA) or personal secretary. As another terminology-related example, one commenter on Harriet’s LinkedIn post explained that the CoS role can also be referred to as a Technical Assistant (TA) at some companies. Hence, the specifics of the role itself are important.
Different levels of the role
Dan describes three levels of responsibility of a CoS role:
The level of responsibility will also be affected by the skills and ambition of the individual hired for the position and the trust and chemistry that develop between them and the leader. For example, a Level 2 CoS may evolve to Level 3 responsibilities over time as they grow and the relationship strengthens.
A further distinguishing factor between the levels, Dan explains, is where each role is likely to lead. For example, the next step for a Level 1 CoS could be a managerial position in the benefits team or financial planning department. The Level 2 CoS could move to a district manager’s job to gain experience in the field and later head up business development or strategy. The Level 3 CoS could move through senior operations or marketing positions and ultimately become Chief Operating Officer (COO).
The “foundational abilities” required by all the levels are:
The right Chief of Staff can be an important source of assistance to leaders who are pushing their organisations and themselves to ever better performance.”
Do you agree with the three levels of responsibility that Chief of Staff roles could have, and do they roughly align with titles like Business Manager, Executive (or Technical) Assistant, and full-fledged Chief of Staff? Have you seen any of these levels in practice in your organisations? And, any other key skills that you’ve found helpful in performing Chief of Staff roles well?