Do CEOs Need a Chief of Staff?

Leveraged properly, a chief of staff can make a CEO‘s life easier and free up time for big-picture strategy. Here are the pros and cons of hiring a chief of staff, plus seven tips for maximizing the CEO/COS relationship.

By Brian O'Connell December 5, 2022
Do CEOs Need a Chief of Staff?

​As CEO of Symba, a San Francisco-based management firm, Ahva Sadeghi found herself in back-to-back meetings all day, with inadequate time to focus on strategy or key deliverables. So earlier this year, she decided to bring a chief of staff on board.

"It was a transformative decision," said Sadeghi, who credits the move with giving her time to rethink her calendar and take a fresh approach to critical action items. "It also bolstered communication within our startup, and has helped our whole team strengthen our processes and double down on the power of delegation." 

Although Sadeghi is an advocate for CEOs having their own chiefs of staff, she admits it takes a "ton of work to set up and get right."

Leveraged properly, a chief of staff can make a CEO's life easier. Deployed improperly, a chief of staff can simply inject a new layer of bureaucracy or even lead the CEO astray.

Freeing Up Time to Focus

While most CEOs already have talented executive assistants by their sides, an increasing number of CEOs are seeing the value of adding a chief of staff to handle higher-level tasks. The need for an aide-de-camp for senior executives comes at a time when C-suite workloads are running high.

According to a recent Deloitte study, 73 percent of C-suite executives in the United States say they're so busy on the job, they can't get time off to disconnect and recharge their batteries. Additionally, one-quarter of CEOs say they can't afford to take time off because their workloads would be unmanageable when they return. An equal number of CEOs say nobody in the office is qualified to cover or support them when they're away from the office.

The trend toward hiring chiefs of staff is also fueled by the changing nature of support-personnel dynamics. 

"Executive assistants are retiring, and newer generations will not work in the same position for nearly as long," said Catherine Berardi, founder of Denver-based Prime Chief of Staff, a provider of chief-of-staff solutions for executive leadership. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure among older workers is 9.8 years, which is three times longer than the average tenure for workers ages 25 to 34 (2.8 years).

Berardi says a chief of staff is most valuable when leading a CEO support team—rather than taking over all of the support roles. 

"This includes injecting more process and technology into your support operations," Berardi said. "Companies need to know the chief of staff is the de facto leader of the new executive office. Led by the chief of staff, this office can create and lead the executive office strategy to help a CEO continue to be effective while ensuring disaster doesn't strike when there is inevitable turnover."

Pros and Cons of Hiring a Chief of Staff

The most compelling reason to hire a chief of staff is that companies have become increasingly complex to manage.

"The leadership team members each focus on their own horizontal or vertical domain," said Kathryn Montbriand, a former CEO chief of staff and the founder of Montbriand Services, a chief-of-staff consulting firm in Minnesota. "Only the CEO oversees the entire system that spans all business units and functions. A chief of staff ensures the system runs like a well-oiled machine. This frees the executive's time for high-leverage strategic work."

Montbriand lists the following pros and cons involved in adding a chief of staff:

Pros:

  • A chief of staff can free up time for executives to do their best work.
  • A chief of staff is an extra thinker with broad context to deploy against tough strategic questions.
  • Many executives don't get honest feedback from their teams or boards. A chief of staff can offer feedback to help the leader grow and raise awareness of blind spots.
  • The entire leadership team benefits from having someone steering strategic planning. This process creates transparency around expected outcomes and how to communicate progress.

Cons:

  • Bringing in a chief of staff as gatekeeper can change the leadership team dynamic. "The process must be managed to ensure the group continues to operate well," Montbriand said.
  • For leaders, it can be difficult to let go of the things that made them successful in the past. Leaders must rewrite their operating processes to get the most value from a chief of staff.
  • Hiring the wrong chief of staff can be disruptive to the team and a distraction to an already-busy leader.

Choosing the Right Chief of Staff

To invest in a new chief-of-staff position, look for a support-staff superstar who wants a future within the company.

"A good chief of staff is looking to grow with the company," said Amore Philip, chief executive at Apples & Oranges Public Relations in New York City. "They should embody leadership, passion and fit within the culture of the company. A good chief of staff is in sync with the CEO and has the capacity to serve in his or her absence."

CEOs often get stuck doing tasks that don't move the needle. With a chief of staff in place, the goal is to free up the executive's time for big-picture projects and strategy.

"Many important tasks can be executed by the chief of staff, so the CEO can focus on increasing company assets and to the overall value to the company," Philip said.

7 Tips for Maximizing the CEO/COS Relationship 

How should a CEO go about maximizing the function of a chief of staff? Management experts offer these tips:

1. Invest in the relationship first. Chief executives won't give important work to someone they don't trust. "That means getting to know the individual well," said Catherine Berardi, founder of Prime Chief of Staff. "Consider asking a potential chief of staff questions that emphasize vulnerabilities and working in close proximity to a CEO." 

Berardi recommends using this study from the State University of New York as a blueprint for identifying solid chief-of-staff candidates and developing good relationships between CEOs and their support staffs.

2. Be clear on where the CEO's time and attention must go. The chief of staff needs to understand where CEOs must focus to ensure time is optimized around those priority areas. "Without this factor, a chief of staff will only be as good as their guesses," Berardi said.

3. Focus on establishing a system of support. Rely on the chief of staff to help create more sustainability through processes, systems and technology versus solely human capital. 

"Consider contingencies on a regular basis," Berardi advised. "For example, if the chief of staff were to suddenly leave the organization, know what steps to take next."

4. Provide plenty of CEO face time. A chief of staff is often described as the "dot connector" for an organization—breaking down barriers and obstacles to move work forward. To do this effectively, the chief of staff needs ample exposure to the CEO and the organization. 

"Have the chief of staff shadow [the CEO] for the first several weeks on the job," Berardi advised. "Schedule regular (daily or weekly) stand-up meetings so the chief of staff can understand what's important to [the CEO] and why." 

It's also important for a CEO to "think aloud" with his or her chief of staff so the person can learn the CEO's thought processes. Also, debrief regularly after calls and meetings. 

"Don't expedite this listening period with the chief of staff," Berardi said. "Without it, they will not be nearly as effective."

5. Identify the scope of the chief of staff's role. "Do this by journaling out what your chief of staff will remove or add to [the CEO's] workload," said Ahva Sadeghi, CEO of Symba.

6. Create a CEO/COS "operator's manual." It can outline precisely how the CEO likes to work and be supported. 

7. Build in performance metrics. Figure out how you will determine the contributions the chief of staff is making to the company's success and the CEO's success. This can include time saved, revenue earned and improved communication.


Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

 

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