Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Updating The Role of Chief of Staff - A Growing Trend

In light of the fact the I have undertaken to begin a search for the Chief of Staff in support of the CEO of a client company - a growing tech company in San Francisco - it makes sense to republish an article first posted a few years ago. Anyone wishing to be considered as a candidate for this role would be well served to read or re-read this description of the Chief of Staff role. The strategic approach to the COS role described below is precisely the vision that my client's CEO has for the role they are creating.

One of my earliest Blog postings addressed the role of Chief of Staff in the private sector.  At the time that I wrote the White Paper that I shared in that Blog posting, it was rare to find a corporation that was employing a Chief of Staff in support of a CEO or Chairman of the Board.  In the intervening few years, I have become aware of a significant increase in the awareness of the effectiveness of a Chief of Staff in optimizing the performance of a C-level executive.  

As a result of the Blog post and the White Paper being available on line, I have received countless inquires regarding the Chief of Staff role.  Companies have hired me to help them to define and create such a role, to search for and to hire a Chief of Staff.  Women and men working in the role of Chief of Staff have reached out to me to ask for advice and for help in networking with others operating in similar roles.  One result of these interactions has been the creation of a LinkedIn Group for Corporate Chiefs of Staff.

With the increased awareness of this role and its importance, I have been asked to re-address the issue.  So, I have updated and revised the White Paper, and share it with you today.

It is my desire that in reading this comprehensive treatment of the role of Chief of Staff, you may be motivated to think about creating such a role within your organization or sharing this information with those in your network who may also have a need for someone to serve in this role.  I look forward to working with you in creating and filling the role of Chief of Staff to make you an even more effective leader.

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Chief of Staff – A Force Multiplier!


Dr. Al Chase
White Rhino Partners

A few years ago, I attended a symposium sponsored by the Boston University School of Management.  The two keynote speakers were Lee Iacocca and James Quigley, CEO of Deloitte & Touche.  In preparation for hearing Mr. Quigley speak, I read his bio printed in the conference program.  What jumped out at me immediately was the fact that early in his career with D&T Quigley has served in the role of Chief of Staff in the Office of the Chairman.

I had already begun to be intrigued with the role of Chief of Staff – a role I am convinced is under-utilized in the business world.  Since many of the candidates I place are military veterans, through learning of their careers, I have become familiar with the military functional role of the XO – Executive Officer.  The Navy’s Command Leadership School in Newport, RI devotes an entire course to training XO’s to function in their role as “Second in Command.”  A friend of mine, a West Point graduate and Desert Storm combat veteran, recently spent several years as Chief of Staff supporting the Chairman of the Board of a Fortune 100 Company.  My friend calls the role of the Chief of Staff a “force multiplier.”  Properly deployed, a good Chief of Staff can magnify the effective of the C-level executive he or she is supporting.  Yet I find that it is the rare company that employs a Chief of Staff.  Even rarer is the corporation that has a Chief of Staff and utilizes that person and that role to full effect.

During the course of the BU Symposium, I had several opportunities to have one-on-one conversations with Mr. Quigley, and to query him on his background as a former Chief of Staff.  In answer to my question about his retrospective look at his early role as Chief of Staff, the gist of his answer could best be summarized as follows:

“I am not sure I would be where I am today if I had not been given that extraordinary opportunity early in my career.  I was rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with all of the strategic decision makers in the company.  I was exposed to ideas, challenges, responsibilities and opportunities that most people at my age and at my stage of career never dreaming about.  In addition, I was mentored, coached and stretched by visual leaders who gave me opportunities to prove what I was capable of doing.”

I was interested in testing out whether, in his current role as CEO at Deloitte & Touche, Quigley still held as high a view of the role of Chief of Staff as he had early in his career.  In my last meeting with him that day, I asked: “Do you currently have someone serving in the capacity of Chief of Staff in support of you?”

Quigley answered: “No; I have three different persons in that role, each one providing invaluable support in a specific area of supportive strategic initiatives.”

There is the proof of the pudding!

Chief of Staff - A Force Multiplier
Part II – Functional Roles of a Chief of Staff
In this section, I would like to examine some of the specific functional roles a good Chief of Staff should be able to perform on behalf of the C-level being supported.  My observations are based upon a composite of several Fortune 500 companies with whom I have discussed Chief of Staff roles over the course of the past few months.  These companies include leaders in Consumer Packaged Goods, Electronic Trading, Consulting and Telecommunications.  For the purpose of describing these functional roles, we will assume that the Chief of Staff is serving in support of a CEO or Chairman of the Board.
·          The Chief of Staff Role does not replace the role of a good Executive Assistant. The COS and the EA work hand-in-hand to ensure that the CEO’s time is planned and expended with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  In short, the EA functions in an administrative capacity – managing calendar, appointments, travel logistics, etc.  The COS operates at a tactical, strategic and operational level, often handling the oversight of projects that do not neatly fit within the organizational chart or fall between departments or leaders areas of responsibility.

·         The COS is best used in tracking strategic initiatives by monitoring progress towards meeting goals and achieving benchmarks, analyzing data, ensuring follow-through on the part of key players, and sustaining momentum needed to drive these initiatives.

·         The COS reviews action items decided upon at each strategic meeting. He/she prepares a written summary, checks with each attendee to get sign-off on agreed-upon dates of completion and confirms the party responsible for following up on each action item.

·         Between meetings, the COS stays connected with members of the committee, collecting data, alerting the CEO to progress or problems in carrying out the initiatives agreed upon.

·         The COS creates and operates a reporting system that allows for a timely flow of necessary data into the office of the CEO from all relevant departments and direct reports.

·         The COS assists the CEO in developing communication between committee meetings, setting agendas, creating initial drafts of communications to key strategic team members, helping to prioritize plans for addressing issues that are impacting progress towards initiative benchmarks.

·         The COS serves as a first alert system – an extra set of eyes and ears – keeping the CEO aware of unanticipated problems to be addressed or opportunities to be considered.

·         The COS develops and oversees a process for capturing, cataloging, analyzing and disseminating key lessons to be learned from initiatives, with a view towards helping the CEO propagate best practices throughout the enterprise.

·         The COS functions in the role of “ambassador” for the CEO, buffering communication with other members of the strategic team in cases where there are sensitive issues to be addressed.

Here is an example of this role in practice:

COS calls Brand Manager for Brand XYZ:

“Tony, this is Sharon. We agreed that next Tuesday you would meet with Bob to report on progress in changing the packaging. You mentioned in your weekly report that your design team is three weeks behind in agreeing upon a new package. I know that Bob is very concerned that if we can’t deliver the next packaging on schedule, we are going to lose more market share. I know your meeting next Tuesday will go well if you come with a specific plan for how to get this project back on track before the next Board meeting. See you Tuesday at 9:00."

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.
Such an individual would have to have developed a robust set of hard skills and soft skills.  In the next section, we will take a look at these specific skills and intangible traits needed to be an outstanding Chief of Staff.

Chief of Staff - A Force Multiplier

Part III –Specific Skills Needed to Succeed As Chief of Staff

We now turn our attention to examining 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 CEO 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 aspect of the job 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 CEO.  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 CEO 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 CEO
o   Laterally to others on the executive team
o   Downwards throughout the organizational chart
o   Externally to other organizations


·         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;
§  The ability to “triage” information and determine when the boss needs to get it is also important. 
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.”
o   When you’re speaking for the boss and when you’re speaking for yourself.

Wow!  We just described Superman or Wonder Woman.  Do such paragons of virtue exist in the real world?  We will address this crucial issue in our next section.

Chief of Staff - A Force Multiplier

Part IV –Finding the Right Person to Serve As Chief of Staff

The kind of person who meets all of the requirements described above is rare indeed.  And such an extraordinarily gifted individual would also have to be content and fulfilled serving in a “support role.” Where would one find such an individual?

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 [and women]?"

From my experience as an executive recruiter, I can point to three primary sources where I have been able to discover individuals who possess the panoply of skills, traits and characteristics that are the hallmark of a great Chief of Staff:

2)      Junior military officers who have 5-10 years of leadership experience leavened with a top-tier MBA to add business sense and analytical tools to their arsenal.
3)      Mature veterans of the “corporate battlefield” who have amassed knowledge, judgment, diplomacy and project management skills over the course of a broad-based business career.

Before describing in detail these three pools of potential Chiefs of Staff, let me offer the observation that the role of COS can be structured in two primary ways:
a)      As a role that the candidate would fill on a long-term basis – 5-10 years or more.  In this scenario, the COS sees himself/herself as a “Career XO” – a person who is content to remain in a strategically important behind the scenes role in support of a C-level executive.

b)      As a transitional role that is part of an overall approach to succession planning.  In this scenario, the COS serves for 2-3 years in a strategic support role with the understanding that at the end of that term of service, she/he will be given a general management role with P&L responsibility – Division President, Brand Manager, etc.  During the final year in the COS role, there would be a period of overlap – selecting, training and transitioning in a new COS to carry on seamlessly the support functions.   

Now, back to the three pools of candidates . . .

1)      Military officers who have retired after a full career

This type of candidate fits best in the long term COS role.  For many men and women who have served our nation for 20 years or more, they still desire to make a contribution and build a fulfilling second career that will leverage the depth of experiences and breadth of skills they have acquired in leading troops and running programs.  For the officer who is temperamentally fitted for the COS role, fancy job titles and an opportunity for climbing up the corporate ladder are not priorities.  Having succeeded in being promoted consistently over the course of a distinguished military career, this candidate possess finely honed project management skills, communication skills, sophisticated diplomatic sensibilities and the ability to fully utilize to the company’s advantage both the formal and the informal power structures.

2)      Junior military officers who have 5-10 years of leadership experience leavened with a top-tier MBA to add business sense and analytical tools to their arsenal.  Let me offer a composite description of a typical candidate in this category.  This person is best-suited for the transition role – serving 2-3 years as COS before ascending to a GM role:

·         Graduate of United State Naval Academy, US Marine Corps military intelligence officer whose assignments included a stint supporting Gen. Wesley Clark in his role as Commander of NATO and US forces in Europe.  MBA from MIT Sloan School of business, summer internship and two-year stint as a strategy consultant in the Boston office of Bain & Co.

This “young Turk” is just the kind of leader that a visionary company would want to attract, develop and “fast track” into a senior position.  This extraordinarily gifted and precocious top-achiever will not be attracted to or sufficiently challenged by most rotational training programs designed to groom future leaders, but would thrive in a properly conceived COS role in support of a mentoring C-level executive.

3)      Mature veterans of the “corporate battlefield” who have amassed knowledge, judgment, diplomacy and project management skills over the course of a broad-based business career.

Once again, let me offer a description of a composite candidate from this pool:

BA from Columbia, MBA or continuing education programs from Stern School of Business at NYU.  Over the years, functional roles have includes Director of Sales and Marketing, Director of Business development, Program Manager/Project Manager for mission-critical initiatives, Managing Director Client services.

Because of lifestyle choices, family situation, travel restrictions, etc., this gifted administrator and manager is happy to climb off of the treadmill leading to the top of the organizational chart, and spend the next 10+ years of her/his career leveraging a wealth of experience in support of a CEO, COB, CIO, COO, etc.

In the final section dedicated to the role of the Chief of Staff, we will add some final thoughts and nuances, sum up salient points, and make recommendations on ways to implement the creation of this role.

Chief of Staff - A Force Multiplier

Part V - Final Thoughts

USN Captain Mike Abrashoff (Ret.), former skipper of the USS Benfold, a.k.a. “The Best Damn Ship in the Navy,” has written an insightful first book that is relevant to our examination of the role of the Chief of Staff.  His book is entitled: “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.”  Early in his career, Abrashoff served as an Admiral’s aide in Subic Bay, Philippines.  One of his statements from page 22 jumped out at me:

“I was twenty-five years old at the time, and most twenty-five-year-olds don’t get the opportunity to see how the organization runs at a senior level.  It was good training, which businesses could give their up-and-coming young people by making them executive assistants to the top officers.”

Capt. Abrashoff uses the term “executive assistants,” but in context, it is clear that he is really talking about the Chief of Staff role as we have discussed in this paper.  His comments almost exactly echo the words of James Quigley, CEO of Deloitte & Touche – words that I quoted above:

“I am not sure I would be where I am today if I had not been given that extraordinary opportunity early in my career.  I was rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with all of the strategic decision makers in the company.  I was exposed to ideas, challenges, responsibilities and opportunities that most people at my age and at my stage of career never dreaming about.  In addition, I was mentored, coached and stretched by visual leaders who gave me opportunities to prove what I was capable of doing.”

The message is pretty clear. A number of young leaders with extraordinary leadership potential have been encouraged in the development and deployment of these leadership gifts by being given the opportunity to function in the role of Chief of Staff, XO, or whatever term that organization may choose to put on a role that services as a ”force multiplier” in support of a C-level executive.  When structured correctly, a Chief of Staff role provides a triple win:

  • The CEO wins because he is freed up to be able to concentrate his time, effort and priorities of strategic initiatives.  He is empowered to “keep the main thing the main thing”!
  • The organization wins because its leader is leading more effectively and the COS role is adding to succession planning by attracting, grooming and retaining an unusually gifted up-and-coming leader.
  • The Chief of Staff wins because his/her career trajectory is raised and he/she is able to make a major contribution while being mentored and groomed by a seasoned leader.

Ed Cusati, a corporate consultant specializing in improving the effective of Board of Directors, has been kind enough to share with me a flow diagram that points out the complex interactions among all of the stakeholders that must be taken into consideration in creating within an organization a Chief of Staff role.  The CEO, potential Chief of Staff, and Direct Reports must all – from their own vantage point - wrestle with the potential objections and benefits of creating a Chief of Staff role.

Through the amazing network of relationship I have been blessed to develop with some extraordinary men and women, I have access to an unmatched pool of potential Chiefs of Staff.  It occurs to me that because of this rare access to a unique talent pool, and because of my awareness of the effectiveness of a properly deployed Chief of Staff, the role of evangelist for the COS role has been thrust upon me.

So, how can we help each other to move things forward?

I would welcome an opportunity to enter into conversations with companies that you know could use a Chief of Staff.  In the situation in which the role has already been utilized in the company, I would like to be in a position to help that company to identify and to hire the next person to fill the role.  In the case of a company that is just beginning to consider creating such a role, I would welcome a chance to come in and consult with the strategic leaders to define then role, and then to help the company to fill that role with their first COS.

I would appreciate your efforts in joining me to evangelize for the expansion of the role of the COS within corporate America.


Brad B said...

Great update, Dr. Chase. I have been in the Chief of Staff role for a public company for about two years now. In that time, I have discovered that this is indeed an "up-and-coming" role in Corporate America. You hit the nail on the head with the types of strengths needed to be effective in this role. You've got to be able to move seamlessly between the lowest levels of the organization all the way to the top. Superior communication and negotiating skills are key. When properly positioned, a good Chief of Staff can move the ball forward where others can not. Thank you for this insightful piece.

Queencdj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Queencdj said...

Thank you so much for revealing the breadth and depth of the COS role. Sometimes it is so difficult to articulate what we do, given that much of our role is contingent upon projects or responsibilities that don't fit anywhere else in the corporation. Therefore every COS role can look unique when compared to another. This really helps me further define the role and I will look to get your permission to quote VERY soon!