Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Chief of Staff - A Force Multiplier (Part III)

In my last posting describing my views of the Chief of Staff role, I offered the following observation:

"It would take a pretty extraordinary individual to be able to juggle all of these balls, satisfy all of the key stake holders, massage sensitive egos and do it all with efficiency and grace. And such an extraordinary individual would have to be content and fulfilled serving in a ‘support role.'”

In today’s discussion of the Chief of Staff, I would like to address the professional characteristics, functional skills and personal traits that are required of a stellar Chief of Staff.

A Chief of Staff must possess in abundance a well-balanced arsenal of what are often called “hard skills” and “soft skills.”


· Project management – Each strategic initiative being tracked on behalf of the C-level executive whom the Chief of Staff supports is a project to be managed. Inherent in the oversight of these initiatives are the sub-skills of:
o Multi-tasking
o Time management
o Prioritization
o Benchmarking
o Trouble shooting
o Reporting

· Information gathering and analysis – The COS needs to be able to create and to utilize systems (both formal and informal) for gathering on behalf of his/her boss reliable information on what is happening throughout the enterprise with regard to the strategic initiatives being tracked.
o This aspect of the job can be a challenge, since those charged with providing timely updates are not direct reports to the COS. This requires a high level of sophistication in communications, interpersonal relations and diplomacy on the part of the COS. (See soft skills below)

· A keen mind and multi-focal intelligence – The COS will be juggling many balls in support of the boss. She/he must have a quick but thorough grasp of the salient issues and details of each initiative to be able to make evaluations and recommendations to the C-level executive. This is tantamount to being a “jack of all trades” and “master of all”!

· Poise and grace under pressure – The pressure to perform at the highest level will be relentless, since by definition, each strategic initiative is mission-critical and crucial to the well being of the organization. No unimportant matters float up to the C-level to be addressed.

· Finely honed communication skills – The COS will need to be able to communicate in writing and verbally with great precision and effectiveness:

o Upwards to the C-level executive
o Laterally to others on the executive team
o Downwards throughout the organizational chart


· Unimpeachable integrity – By reputation and by consistent performance, the COS must be viewed by the C-level executive as utterly trustworthy. Each stakeholder must also be confident that the COS is operating on a solid ethical foundation of personal values that are transparent.

· Selflessness – The COS must gain satisfaction from serving in a support role, and not feel the need to be in the limelight or receive public acclaim for victories and successes.

· Emotional stability and resilience– Because of the high stakes attached to each strategic initiative that is being tracked, and by virtue of the high level of accountability that is expected of each player, the atmosphere in which the COS works is one of high pressure and high expectations. Thin-skinned and easily bruised egos need not apply!

· The ability to give and receive constructive criticism – Human nature and the nature of organizational behavior almost guarantee that the COS will often be operating in an environment when one or more initiatives are off-track, over-budget and behind-schedule. Supporting the boss in holding individuals accountable, coaching and correcting their performance is a crucial skill.

· Diplomacy skills – The COS will often be expected to represent the boss in dealing with individuals whose teams may have missed deadlines or benchmarks. Careers, bonuses and promotions may be on the line, so the COS often operates in a volatile environment in which the wrong word or the wrong tone of voice could derail a delicate situation.

· Keen judgment – The COS must often make instantaneous choices about:

o What to bring to the attention of the boss and what to shield her/him from;
o When to speak and when to remain silent;
o When to intervene and when to let things run their course;
o What information is reliable and what needs to be questioned and challenged;
o How to respond to unanticipated developments;
o How to best keep the boss focused on the top priorities;
o How to help the boss see clearly through the “fog of war.”

Wow! We just described Superman or Wonder Woman. Do such paragons of virtue exist in the real world?

My friend, John Byington, reminded me the other day of a terrific and apt quotation. The line comes from the Korean War era film, “The Bridges of Toko Ri” and has been oft repeated: "Where do we find such men?"

I will address this question in my next COS segment.

Al Chase

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