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What is a chief of staff?

31 Jul 13:00 by Anastasia Kelly

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What is a chief of staff? 

A chief of staff acts as the CEO’s sounding board, strategic partner and overseer. Put simply, the chief of staff acts as a go-between for the CEO and important stakeholders. The chief of staff keeps a track of the broader picture, acts as the eyes and ears for the CEO and is a sounding board for decision making. By managing stakeholders, following up on deliverables and triaging problems, the chief of staff empowers and supports the CEO in the delivery of their KPIs. 

 

It’s a bit like a high-level strategic EA role, without the meeting preparation, calendar management and administrative duties. 

 

Where did the chief of staff position originate? 

The term originated in the US military and government and is now increasingly popular in the American corporate landscape. 

 

Here in Australia, the position is relatively rare (beyond government). But as reports of the benefits of hiring a chief of staff circulate online, more Australian CEOs are considering the opportunity. 

 

What are the responsibilities of a chief of staff? 

A typical chief of staff position description may include: 

  • guide the day-to-day operations of the office
  • keep the CEO accountable to their KPIs and on-track in deliverables by ensuring time is allocated to the most important priorities 
  • act as a member of the senior leadership team 
  • communicate on behalf of the CEO and following up on action items agreed in meetings 
  • facilitate fair and equitable access to the CEO so stakeholders can get timely feedback, support and tw0-way communication
  • support and guide the company culture and values 
  • support the CEO in decision making, by facilitating the decision-making process
  • promote agility by ensuring projects are not stalled waiting for the CEO’s attention 
  • focus on the broader organisational goals, as well as the particular KPIs of the CEO
  • attend meetings and functions on behalf of the CEO 

 

Please note that while I’ve referred to the chief of staff as supporting the CEO, they can also be employed to support other c-suite executives, such CIO, CFO or COO. 

 

What are the benefits of having a chief of staff? 

The Harvard Business Review recently covered this in detail in its May-June 2020 issue. The article ‘The case for a chief of staff’, outlines the many benefits of hiring a chief of staff.

 

Essentially, the chief of staff is a champion in the CEO’s corner. A bit like a star having a manager or an athlete with a coach, they support, guide and encourage the CEO to deliver. 

 

The benefits of hiring a chief of staff include:  

  • keeping the CEO on track 
  • acting as a sounding board for the CEO 
  • empowering the CEO to get more done 
  • ensuring clarity of communications both from and to the CEO 
  • ensuring more job satisfaction and less stress for the CEO 

 

Better onboarding for new CEOs

An incoming CEO can also enjoy valuable support from an internal team member who can share plenty of organisational insights. This can facilitate a faster and more successful integration of the new CEO into the company culture. 

 

What makes a good chief of staff? 

When it comes to personal qualities of the chief of staff, the desirables are very similar to that of a high-performing executive assistant. These may include: 

  • highly organised
  • excellent time management 
  • great attention to detail 
  • comprehensive communication skills 
  • strategic mindset 
  • able to question, challenge and present other points of view 
  • good at facilitating decision-making 
  • understanding corporate culture 
  • good understanding of project management 
  • confident in liaising with senior executives 
  • previous experience as a high-performing EA or senior counsel to company leaders 

 

It’s a good idea for an aspiring executive to take on the chief of staff role. This can give valuable exposure to a top-level position in the organisation, as a stepping-stone into a leadership role within the company. Ideally, they’d stay in this role for two-four years before being ready to step into an executive role elsewhere in the leadership team. 

 

Can the EA be the chief of staff? 

While many EAs already provide that top-level strategic support, chiefs of staff traditionally are not responsible for the administrative support. Having said that many EAs can and do provide that top-level support. So, it really depends on the nature of support required. 

 

Your CEO could have a chief of staff for strategic support and an executive assistant for transactional support. Plus, it could be suitable to have both full time, both part time, or a combination. 

 

When creating the support network for a CEO, I will take these elements into consideration to suggest the best support framework for the needs of the CEO and the budget. 

 

Are you considering hiring a chief of staff? 

Contact Anastasia on  0421 16 55 96 to discuss your needs and get expert advice on the best way to proceed according to your requirements.