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Note to a Visionary CEO re: Chief of Staff

The Chief of Staff role is exceptional in corporate America. It is an executive support role and stands at a level of complexity above the Executive Assistant position. In my experience, the Executive Assistant role is understood inadequately by senior managers and top executives. The Chief of Staff position is hardly even considered. And yet, the Chief of Staff role, conducted well, offers the potential to facilitate the implementation of many strategic priorities and increases the probability of a culture of sustainable brilliance becoming a reality.

As the CEO, you are regarded for your authority ⎯ but generally feared among executive team members for the threat your authority implies. Consequently, you are too often ignorant of the truths withheld by your team and others who would like to speak honestly with you but are more concerned about reprisals. If you doubt this, study the data published by the Gallup organization about organizational effectiveness, creativity, and productivity, which ranks companies and countries in terms of the engagement or disengagement of the workforce culture.

Naturally, the most effective and productive are engaged organizational cultures. Gallup, Inc. has the most significant comparative database in the world. So, when it says that the United States is the best globally with a rating of only 30% engagement in the workplace, you can guess the magnitude of the problem globally. C-Suites and executive teams are comprised of those most prominently emulated – the heart of leadership development in organizations. The C-Suites of disengaged organizations are probably mediocre in impactful ways.

There are two principal reasons for workplace disengagement:

(1) Fear and anxiety for the possibility of reprisals by those in high authority (regardless of whether the fear or anxiety is well-founded),

(2) Lack of a soul-stirring, inspiring higher purpose in the workplace.

So, in executive environments where political correctness appraises higher (or more safely) than accurate alignment with the corporate mission, then articulate, mission-oriented arguments are discounted, and well-conceived strategic and tactical growth plans are often ignored. This cultural division at the top of the house can become the norm, manifesting in a less brilliant executive team and unproductive friction in the organizational culture.

The pressure for financial performance can disturb the potential of executive teams and promulgates disengagement enterprise-wide.

Does this sound familiar? If so, perhaps it is time to try something new. Consider employing a mission-oriented evangelist, an itinerant curator of over-achievers and powerful personalities, sporting super-powers and coordinating, supporting, and enabling the executive team’s mission-based collaboration, as the CEO may be unable to do sufficiently well.

Perhaps what is needed is an ambassador for organizational engagement, operating with a universal passport in the top circles of authority, who is magnificently respected, splendidly influential, and sincerely trusted and trustworthy.

The Context for Hiring & On-Boarding The Chief of Staff

Both the Executive Assistant (EA) and the Chief of Staff (CoS) roles should intend to advance their executives’ effectiveness essentially. Growing the effectiveness of senior executive leaders and managers goes much further than doing traditional secretarial tasks well. We learn leadership and complex social perspectives and skills from emulation. It stands to reason that the emulation of excellence is far more productive than the emulation of mediocrity. The CoS can influence and facilitate the mission-focus of executive leadership and the development of team greatness where it previously did not exist.

Both executive support roles are primarily concerned with their executives’ effectiveness in the context of the corporate mission, vision, goals, values, and culture. The primary (structural) logic is the time/place/purpose of events and deadlines on the executives’ calendars.

The EA takes responsibility to support one or more corporate executives individually. However, the CoS is responsible for the effectiveness of group events (e.g., executive team meetings) ⎯ anticipating, predisposing, and taking action to support each of the event participants, which raises the possibility of the group being high performing. The CoS can think broadly when considering the event participants. The broader scope of CoS influence includes executive participants, executives’ direct reports, and various stakeholders, including employees, customers, and shareholders.

To illustrate: For a Board of Directors meeting, the design and management attention of the CoS might include the time, place, agenda, recommended attire, AV, handouts, food/refreshments, support staff, and each meeting participant (present or absent), transportation requirements, meeting facility set-up and shut-down, predisposing and post-meeting communications (e.g., reserve-the-date, announcements, communications, courtesy notes) and updating of appropriate project and meeting files. Being dependably mission-focused and free of personal conflict of interest, the CoS sensitively embraces the personalities and priorities of the meeting participants and support staff.

The constituents and scope of concern of the EA and the CoS differ. Both roles are essential. The opportunity is to elevate your vision of both functions. Optimally, I recommend that the Chief of Staff also serves as the CEO’s Executive Assistant.

The common denominator is anticipating and taking the initiative to enable leadership and management excellence aligned with the corporate strategic plan for the organization (Mission, Vision, Strategic Goals, Values, Culture, Guiding Strategies, and the Tactical Program).

Special Talent Considerations

Upon contemplation of this unique role, the person qualified to serve as Chief of Staff is a uniquely intuitive individual. The maturity level is adult, not adolescent. This person demonstrates exceptional knowledge and insight about leadership, organizational (including team) effectiveness, and strategic & tactical planning and implementation. A fundamental characteristic is a creativity revealed in their remarkable appetite for thinking to the extreme of achievement.

Courage, insight, and bravery characterize this individual. Even in the most challenging moments, the CoS persists with the “CEO’s perspective,” ⎯ courageously doing the right, mission-oriented thing. They are risk-takers ⎯ acting with heart, not ego, for good reasons, even when stock valuations drop and divisiveness rises. The CoS seeks closure that may reflect greater idealism than the executives’ consensus view. They can appropriately pivot or stand firm on principle without violating core values.

Among their particular talent themes [utilizing nomenclature from Gallup’s CliftonStrengths® Assessment] are Activator, Achiever, Arranger, Belief, Communication, Context, Deliberative, Discipline, Focus, Harmony, Maximizer, Positivity, Self-assurance, Significance, Strategic, Woo. The CoS also demonstrates competence in diplomacy, project management, aesthetics, resilience, humor, confidence, wise discernment, and persuasion.

The super-powers rocked by the CoS can be seen in the blend of Wags (portrayed by David Costible in “Billions”) and Radar (performed by Gary Burghoff in “M.A.S.H.”).

Are you just getting by with an Executive Assistant role, someone you may employ as a tasker & scheduler when you can change the game by engaging and collaborating with a CoS? If you want to raise executive performance capacity, bring a CoS into daily influence at the organization’s top, and support them well. A buffer and executive effectiveness facilitator; one who de-stresses the lines between political risk, leadership effectiveness, and mission-oriented collaboration.

In the sum of all moments for the organization, the Chief of Staff can increase the probability that the Strategic Plan will be implemented more effectively and thoroughly. The organizational culture ⎯ as the engine of corporate performance ⎯ will become a durable and remarkable asset for the organization. As Peter Drucker is credited with teaching, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The CoS may impact your organization’s coherence, performance capacity, and appetite for engagement nearly as much as you!

– BWF

[See also the Harvard Business Review (May-June 2020) article by Dan Ciampa, “The Case for a Chief of Staff.”]