The Value of a Chief of Staff

A good CoS helps a leader achieve their potential in a sustainable way that delivers long term success when managing complex organisations.

A CEO faces a daunting array of challenges, even when they have been at the helm for many years, because it is impossible in a large organisation to be in every key meeting or to follow up on every key decision. If they are new to the organisation or role, their mandate for change presents even more formidable challenges — such as reshaping strategy and aligning organisational culture and behaviour. Yet a CEO, whether veteran or new, is accountable for it all.

In tackling this challenge, CEOs invariably look at the headline problems. What is the current strategy, and does it need changing? Who are the Senior Leaders, and do they need replacing? What is the organisational culture, and does it need amending? Yet in surveying the forest, it is easy to lose sight of the trees. Which in the case of the Office of the CEO are the administrative staff who manage the work du jour.

It is often remarked that the most valuable resource is time — because it is truly finite. Great leaders are successful not because they have access to more resources, but because they make better use of their time. The administrative staff and systems in the Office of the CEO can make or break the effectiveness of where and how a CEO spends their time.

Despite this, it is not uncommon for CEOs to leave their staffing and routine unchanged for years, or — in the case of a new CEO — simply stick with the system they inherited from their predecessor. Even if it is ill suited to their strategic style or preferences in organisation behaviour.

A good EA is worth their weight in gold, yet their skill set and daily duties means they are perhaps not best placed to tackle some of the key challenges that arise. Examples of this might be ensuring the CEO can make the most of their time by having someone manage the information flow resulting in the right information getting to them at the right time in their decision making process, or that follow-ups happen post a decision without the CEO having to personally check. This is where a Chief of Staff (CoS) can perform an essential role in helping a CEO lead at scale.

Do You Need a CoS?

The role of Chief of Staff is far from new. From ancient times to the present day, successful leaders have had people around them who are close advisers and capable of handling particularly delicate or complex strategic issues. Examples of this were the roles Louis-Alexandre Berthier or Alexander Hamilton played respectively to Napoleon or George Washington. Far from personal secretaries, the CoS role encompasses a wide range of responsibilities from communicator or facilitator — ensuring in the business context that key departments or Executives do not remain siloed in the execution of company strategy — to teller of hard truths when the CEO needs information that has not gone through the filter of an alignment process to protect vested interests.

This last point is a critical one because a CEO’s direct reports can be guilty of emphasising their own agenda by providing a consistent narrative that supports their department, but which may not consider the needs of the organisation as a whole. A good CoS can assist in this space by helping the CEO to think through key policy decisions in a politically neutral way which focusses on the organisation rather than the manager or department in question, and then take accountability for ensuring the CEO’s decisions are implemented. A process which provides clarity and can free up the CEO’s time so they can focus on the next strategic objective.

In this key enabler role, a CoS needs to be able to anticipate problems, manage difficult and politically sensitive relationships, and function as the eyes and ears of the CEO. In acting on behalf of the CEO, the capabilities outlined in last week’s column, Leading Psychological Safety in Teams, of open dialogue, situational humility, and sponsoring success, are vital lest the CoS simply becomes yet another faction with which the CEO needs to deal. A situation that would completely defeat the purpose of the role.

As is perhaps becoming clear, the CoS role will not suit some CEOs or organisations. Begging the question, “how do you know if you need a CoS?” There are seven questions which can help to answer that:

  1. Do you have enough time? This is the key challenge faced by all leaders as time is the one immutable which cannot be increased. Successful leaders are generally the ones making the most productive use of their 24-hours. If you are struggling to make the time to address key strategic challenges, a CoS may help.
  2. What does your calendar look like? For those applying the principles from Running Effective Meetings, and who have successfully engaged with Dov Frohman’s injunction that half of a leader’s time should be unscheduled, there will be the space in the working week to bounce forward from decision making. If you lack this unscheduled time because your calendar is jammed with reacting to the fallout from your decisions or chasing progress, a CoS can be the resource that puts time back in your week.
  3. Do you feel unprepared? If board meetings or sessions with the Executive team leave you feeling unprepared, it is a clear sign a CoS is needed. This is because they can work to ensure information is provided at the right time to give you the space to prepare for strategic meetings more thoroughly. They can also run to ground any action items which need following up, preventing you from preparing for your next key meeting.
  4. Do you have the best possible information? It is more common than it should be for CEOs and Executives to revisit strategic decisions because new information surfaces which could have been known at the time, but which was not made available. A CoS can play a pivotal role in these situations by ensuring deeper, apolitical dives are made into various areas of the business ahead of the decision-making process.
  5. Do you hear about problems in advance or only after a team or initiative has failed? If senior leaders are fully aligned and giving a strong vote of confidence, yet strategic goals remain unmet, a CoS can help. This is because their apolitical position means they will surface the detail of blockers before they create damage — though this will involve difficult conversations for departmental heads. While potentially uncomfortable, a diplomatic and adept CoS can defuse challenges and help to scaffold senior leaders so that difficult conversations are had at the right time instead of “please explain” meetings when objectives are not met.
  6. Do you lead a team or a confederation of warring tribes? Relationship issues between executives or competitions for power between teams can derail strategic plans and block organisational progress. A CoS can assist in undertaking a root cause analysis (RCA) of the situation, saving the CEO vital time and energy ahead of taking the decisions to effect necessary change.
  7. Do you ask for action and then loose the threads of the decision? If your confidence that managers will follow through on the action items needed to fulfil your strategic objectives is low, a CoS can assist by taking on the responsibility for chasing outcomes.

Yet even if a CEO or Executive is answering yes to more than one of these questions, they many still baulk at appointing a CoS. Often this is because of optics — will a CoS make a leader look like they need an entourage, or does it come across as though they cannot handle the job. At other times, it may be that they have never seen a skilled individual at work in the role of a CoS and therefore the value is not clear.

To address this it is necessary to setup the position for the work needed.

Getting a CoS Right

While establishing the duties of a CoS is important, of greater relevance in determining if the role will be a successful addition, or merely a distraction, is getting the right candidate and scaffolding their appointment to the role. In government and military circles, there is a reason that a Chief of Staff is often chosen from a close circle of advisers and officers. This is because the role involves high levels of trust and capabilities as varied as research, analysis, program management, self-discipline, relationship management, and communication. Elements which are not easily discernible from an interview process. Rather, they are things which usually only surface over time. Elevation from within also carries the benefit of appointing someone who is awake and aware to the challenges of the political and interpersonal landscape.

If the leader is new, the success of the CoS will also hinge on their ability to envision the change the leader is seeking to deliver. Bringing the necessary political acumen, diplomacy, emotional intelligence, judgement, and discretion to move freely with powerful executives to get the job done rather than creating a separate power base.

While some leaders have appointed relatively junior individuals to a CoS role, for example an ambitious Executive Assistant, newly minted MBA graduate, or postdoctoral researcher, arguably the greatest value is in appointing seasoned professionals. Individuals with a mix of people management, project management, and academic capabilities — research and report writing is a large part of the role — who are equipped to take on the diverse responsibilities that will come their way.

Yet success or failure of the appointment of a CoS does not rest solely with the individual. Preparing the Senior Leadership Team and organisation at large is also essential. As a first step, any executive assistants need to understand the whats, whys, and wherefores of the CoS role. This is because the executive assistants will continue to be responsible for the routine duties and daily flow of information and personal office management. Management of these activities can either buttress the CoS or militate against their work and block necessary access.

Other executives also need to understand the purpose of the role, how the company and they personally — not forgetting the warring tribes’ analogy of earlier — will benefit from the appointment. This is perhaps the most delicate part of the appointment as in many organisations it is not uncommon for executives to be almost the sole source of truth for the CEO. The arrival of someone who may have a different assessment of the situation is something that can easily upset an already precarious balance and even be seen as threatening to an executive if an organisation is failing to achieve its objectives or suffering from a lack of Responsibility, Ownership, Accountability. Failure to calibrate for this balance can result in a dearth of cooperation with the CoS as executives vie for the ear of the CEO or seek to undermine efforts which they see as contradicting their own narrative.

The last two factors in getting a CoS right are down to the CEO. The first is dependent on the effectiveness of the feedback loop between CEO and CoS. Ironically, CEOs most in need of a CoS often lack the confidence to engage in the robust giving and receiving of feedback necessary to challenge the paradigms that are checking progress. For a CoS to be effective, there needs to be a pact with them that if they attenuate their feedback abilities the CEO for their part will work on being a more careful listener.

The second element, though closely linked to the first, is the willingness of the CEO to make personal and professional changes based on the feedback of the CoS. In instances where a CEO is highly independent, keeps their own counsel and is, in short, use to being their own CoS, the process will do nothing but add to the organisation’s salary costs.

If the myriad challenges listed above can be surmounted, and a CEO makes the necessary changes to their routine, a good CoS helps a leader achieve their potential in a sustainable way that delivers long term success when managing complex organisations.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash.

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