July 22, 2022

Chief of Staff: A Corporate Game Changer

Shifa Maqba

The modern corporate landscape has become more dynamic than ever before. With changing business environment and new-age strategies to anticipate and adapt to such changes, it becomes imperative to appoint a 'right-hand man' of sorts to C-level executives, chiefly the CEO, of any company. This is where Chiefs of Staff shine. Strategic, autonomous and influential, they're dynamic and ambitious leaders who are the key drivers of business strategy and high performance.

A Strategic POV

Being the result-oriented individuals that they are, Chiefs of Staff direct the engagement, values, and culture of an organization. They ensure excellence in execution in terms of setting, tracking, and achieving organizational goals —making them integral decision-makers and advisors in a company. Their role becomes even more essential, nay, mandatory, when we assume a CEO's point of view. Since Chiefs of Staff play a supervisory cum supporting role, CEOs can make the most of their time while the former handles administrative responsibilities. However, using the term 'administrative' may lead to certain misconceptions. It is important to note that a CoS not only formulates, implements and oversees short-term goals, but evaluates the firm's long-term growth trajectory and supervises corporate development as well. Needless to say, every decision made by them has to be data-driven, whether quantitative or qualitative. Hence, terms like 'OKRs', 'CSFs' and 'KPIs' are more than just buzzwords for these visionary leaders.

Ujjwal Relan, the Chief of Staff at Samagra, sums up the strategic importance of the position through her experience in a very articulate manner-

"From conceptualizing a new brand for a vertical, setting short-term goals at a firm level, evaluating the firm's growth trajectory over the next 10 years to thinking deeply about organizational culture — understanding the founder's lens has been an insightful experience to say the least."

And don't be confused. A CoS isn't just an assistant to the higher-ups. It's an executive role in itself. As Harvard Business Review puts it, "A good CoS knows which relationships are most important to the leader’s agenda."

Today, this role is one of the most sought-after career options, especially for those who belong to a consulting or a managerial background. But is the appeal restricted solely to bridging the gap between formulation strategies and ensuring effective execution?

Empathetic Leadership & Community Building

As mentioned above, a CoS, like any other C-level executive, is a leader. As even large corporates, who once viewed employees as mere cogs in the machine, are preferring informal channels of communication to create a sense of belonging among their employees, empathetic leadership has become mandatory in today's times. Chief of Staff, besides being an administrative function, has elements of Human Resources as well. Patrick Aylward, the Vice President and Chief of Staff at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, breaks the job down into five roles:

  1. An air traffic controller for the leader and the senior team;  
  2. An integrator, connecting work streams that would otherwise be siloed, thus ensuring company-wide coordination;
  3. A communicator, acting as a liaison between the leadership team and the broader organization;
  4. An honest broker and truth teller for strategic counsel and policy recommendations;
  5. And finally, a confidant without an organizational agenda.

Apart from leading multiple teams, cross-functional or otherwise, to achieve organizational goals, a CoS is big on community-building, since they recognize that team performance shapes organizational performance and culture as a whole. Shouldering the responsibility to harness the best out of employees, they play a key role in creating new channels of communication to help eradicate noise, brainstorm new ideas and foster a natural feedback loop between the leadership and employees, thus ensuring employee loyalty and retention.

To sum up, a CoS is instrumental in developing diverse high-potential talent, strengthening leadership and developing a thorough succession plan at various layers in the organization.

Ambiguity & Risk

It is not a stretch to say that the need for and the rise of this role is a product of the ever-evolving business environment. That's the reason why nearly every job description mentions the need for adaptable individuals who can think on their feet. Directly working in tandem with and reporting to the Chief Risk Officer (if applicable), a Cos helps the CEO and senior executives navigate through uncertainty and risk. They are also expected to anticipate and avert problems before they materialize through their organizational intelligence and business acumen.

The position is prestigious for a reason. It may not be a cakewalk, but it is these ambiguities that make it so worthwhile! An ideal CoS must have a futuristic outlook and the ability to deal with ad-hocism. These defining traits ensure that they are equipped to deal with special projects and initiatives that do not involve a great deal of clarity from the get-go.

You Need to Be a Jack of All Trades to Successfully Bag a Chief of Staff Role

Time for some career advice!

Given that a CoS role is meant to thrive in uncertain conditions, it's still evolving, and its scope is ever-growing. So much so that you have to don multiple hats to operate reasonably well. It's only fair since a founder/CEO, while building an organization, does the same. Several people use the term 'generalist' to describe a CoS. However, it doesn't properly reflect the kind and nature of aspirants. Generally speaking, this role is meant for those who have previously held a managerial or a leadership position in a dynamic environment (e.g. consulting).

Coming to what is expected from you as a CoS.

First and foremost, you must have a thorough understanding of how the business works. We're talking mission, vision, value proposition, and the ability to align short and long-term goals with them to ensure successful execution, especially since a CoS assumes the responsibility for organizational growth and branding. With great power comes great responsibility, and as you get the opportunity to create an exponential impact on the effectiveness of the CEO, you have to be both detail-oriented and a big-picture person. (Tips: Studying economic trends and applying the same to your organization goes a long way!)

Second, network, network, network. As one of the faces of the organization, you must not only network and negotiate with business leaders and stakeholders but also earn their trust. Consistent, clear and candid communication is key. Being privy to confidential data involves being actively engaged in conversations with various parties.  

Third, efficient planning and organizing skills go far beyond coordination and making timely decisions. To select the right course of action, it is important to direct attention to and solve business-critical issues. This is what keeps the business propelling forward.   

Fourth, let's talk operations. It is fairly clear by now that a CoS is a Strategy & Operations role. Due to its administrative function, you gotta be a ‘force multiplier’ across all areas of the business, to help your organization run smoothly like a well-oiled machine. Solving complex problems across domains, coming up with short-term engagement strategies, supporting specific needs of the organization are just a few aspects in the operational front that you, as a CoS, would be expected to handle. To be a successful CoS, mental and physical agility is of utmost importance.

Last but not least (given that we'd be here for hours if we were to list every single detail), this is a people-centric role, a fact especially evident in startups. The right culture is intrinsic to the success of a firm, as it is people that make or break an organization. But the role of a CoS doesn't end with intra-organizational events or initiatives. In fact, that's just the beginning. There's continuous learning, training and upskilling of employees; employee grievances and suggestions; and proactive 1:1 support to ensure their physical and mental well-being to be taken care of as well. This is the reason why companies look for candidates with high emotional intelligence, openness to experiences and agreeability.

Even though the scope of a CoS has evolved from a mere buzzword to a cream-of-the-crop role, it is still a relatively new position in the corporate world. Every organization, based on their size and nature have different needs, which is why the job description of the same varies from one firm to another. But it is this diversity in duties and responsibilities that not only keeps the role so fresh and exciting but also attracts a crowd of all-rounders.

No set of words can ever form a better conclusion than this quote by Winston Huang, the Chief of Staff at Cityblock Health-

"Your superpower often revolves around being both a really great strategist as well as a process-driven executioner."

Credits: Tarun Singh for illustrations.