Skip to main content

What makes a great Chief of Staff?

Blog March 20, 2024

In my experience advising CEOs and C-suite executives on scaling their companies from 50 team members towards the 250 mark, I’ve witnessed first-hand the transformative impact a Chief of Staff can have.

Historically associated with the military or politics, the role of a Chief of Staff is popular today, even in businesses. You will see the Chief of Staff accompanying a CEO to critical meetings or working on strategic projects on behalf of the CEO.

A Chief of Staff often comes with a strong background in business management, which is crucial for navigating the complexities of their role in supporting CEOs and executive teams.

The role of Chief of Staff (CoS) is no longer confined to larger organisations. Now, even startups recognise the immense value that a Chief of Staff brings in enhancing the effectiveness of CEO leadership.

What exactly does a Chief of Staff do within an executive team?

CoSs wear many hats. Ask them about their role, and you might hear descriptions like ‘managing the chaos,’ ‘overseeing daily operations,’ ‘ensuring smooth processes’, and ‘mastering the art of spreadsheets and concise reports.

In “Chief of Staff”, Tyler Parris does a great job at the basic description: “a chief of staff is a catch-all role, filled by someone with exceptional organisational and people skills, who handles all manner of tasks not covered by an existing member of an executive’s leadership team or administrative staff.”

They are an extension of the CEO, acting as a bridge between the CEO and the rest of the senior leadership team to ensure strategic alignment and effective communication. Part of the Chief of Staff’s role involves assisting in the implementation of operational strategies designed by the senior leadership, ensuring that the primary strategy of the organisation is executed efficiently. The execution and the communication of the strategy can be fully or partly handled by a Chief of Staff.

The job of the Chief of Staff is to make the company’s CEO more effective. However, let’s not confuse this role with that of an Executive Assistant (here I have explained why). They help optimise workflows, prioritise time, and even help with strategy. It is an executive-level role that directly supports the CEO or another C Suite leader. Their responsibilities intertwine so that you may come across a Chief of Staff making decisions usually made by a CEO. It’s not a job to be taken lightly.

Previously, I wrote about why successful CEOs need a chief of staff. In this blog, I will talk about what makes a great Chief of Staff.

The Chief of Staff job description and profile

A skilled CoS acts as the organisation’s central hub, connecting people across departments. They balance a strategic perspective with hands-on execution, spotting potential synergies and streamlining processes. With access to information across the company, they keep a finger on the pulse of the organisation’s overall mood. Additionally, they enhance organisational efficiency by overseeing program management and streamlining strategic initiatives across departments.

They operate with a quiet efficiency. In the client meetings I attend CoS observe from the sidelines, meticulously taking notes and intently listening to everything said. Though incredibly influential, their focus was on the task, not on themselves. They understand the opportunity for growth and embrace it. Afterwards, they worked to ensure the CEO’s directives were handled quickly and without the need for his or her ongoing intervention.

From my experience in coaching CEOs, I can attest that being a Chief of Staff means checking your ego at the door. This is about serving your organisation, not yourself. If you’re in it for personal glory or control, do yourself and everyone else a favour – find another line of work

What makes a great Chief of Staff

Are you already a Chief of Staff and wondering how to make yourself indispensable? Are you contemplating a switch from a traditional management role to a Chief of Staff position? Perhaps you want to hire a Chief of Staff for yourself, and you want to know what qualities and experiential traits to look for.

Let’s start with a quick look at why this non-traditional role can be tough.

Patience in the face of resistance: Change is difficult, and implementing new processes often comes with pushback. A key part of the CoS role is staying patient and navigating this resistance, even when it feels personally exhausting.

The relentless demand on your time: This isn’t a 9-to-5 job. The CoS role is intrinsically linked to supporting the CEO, who often work silly hours. Maintaining that pace requires careful management of your own time and a constant struggle to protect your personal life.

Mastering communication (it’s harder than it looks): Effective communication as a CoS is a high-stakes game. You must tailor messages to diverse audiences, convey accurate senses of urgency, and avoid overplaying your hand. It’s a delicate act that takes time and experience to perfect.

Building a foundation of trust: CoS success hinges on trust – trust between you the CEO and between you and the rest of the executive leadership team. Building this trust can feel painstakingly slow in a role where time is precious. It’s a true chicken-and-egg situation, as your CEO likely needs that trust to delegate fully.

Developing a thick skin (criticism is part of the job): Expect “”meticulous” feedback, even on work you’ve put in significant effort on. It is essential to detach from critique, avoid taking it personally, and continue making progress.

Embracing constant change: The CoS role is inherently fluid. Priorities shift quickly, requiring you to uncover problems, understand them, and propose solutions under tight deadlines. The first six months can be especially overwhelming due to this constant state of discovery.

Letting go of frustrations: To truly thrive, a CoS must shake off the inevitable disappointments and daily conflicts. Maintaining resilience and a positive outlook, even as obstacles mount, is crucial for long-term success in the role.

You have already read above about the responsibilities of a Chief of Staff and why this role can be demanding. These will help you define this role’s basic profile, but what helps you stand out? What gives you an edge? Here are a few things you can do:

Set a strategic course for business initiatives success

Have you obtained a profound understanding of the organisation’s goals and objectives? Then, you should be able to chart a strategic roadmap to navigate towards them. As a great Chief of Staff, you will be the architect of your organisation’s journey, along with your CEO. You need to align your individual steps with the overarching goals and objectives. How do you achieve that?

See yourself as the owner of the strategic process, identifying and prioritising strategic initiatives during the planning process with the CEO. Schedule the quarterly reviews and the annual planning process. Working with the CEO, develop a strategic roadmap that outlines specific goals, objectives, and action plans (OKRs) to move your organisation forward, ensuring that strategic initiatives are streamlined, communicated effectively to departments, and integrated into the overall business strategy. Ensure that the objectives and key results process (OKRs) is adopted by the leadership team and cascaded through the rest of the organisation.

Ensure smooth and efficient operations management in the organisation

At the end of the day, this is why you have been hired. Your ability to make sure that the plan of action unfolds as desired is vital for sustaining organisational momentum and achieving strategic objectives. This operational efficiency is a key component of the Chief of Staff job description, underscoring the role’s critical importance in maintaining the organization’s momentum towards achieving strategic objectives.

Be the architect of the executive team dashboard. Take the target operating model (TOM) and use it to craft a daily update. Define the health key performance indicators (KPIs) for the quarter. Having a single source of truth can be immensely powerful in an organisation. Ensure that functions are no longer marking their own homework, and create an objective, accurate and fair reporting system.

As an effective Chief of Staff, it is your priority that your organisation’s employees, time, and financial resources are utilised effectively to maximise productivity and minimise waste. This may further involve streamlining processes, adopting automation tools, and reallocating resources based on fluid priorities. I see this often show up as being the arbitrator on hiring priorities. Demand is constantly higher than the available budget. As you have visibility across the organisation, you are well-placed to make these decisions.

A Chief of Staff has enough authority to foster a culture of accountability. Use that authority. Expect performance excellence and provide support and guidance to team members to help them succeed. Ensure executive team members are clear in their commitments to each other. Assist them in crafting meaningful OKRs and assist in the reporting of leading rather than lagging KPIs.

Remember that there is a reason you are directly answerable to the CEO: you often act as a linchpin that keeps the organisation’s operations running like a well-oiled machine. By leveraging your strategic insights, communication abilities, leadership skills, proactive approach, and direct access to all the influential stakeholders within the organisation, you can lead your organisation to the success it deserves and aspires for.

    Fantastic! Give us your details and we'll call you back

      Enquiry | Scaling Up Master Business Course