Why You May Need a Chief of Staff

      The chief of staff role is common in the military and government. It’s usually a very prominent role, and the people who fill it act as advisors to top military brass and high-level government officials. 

      The role is not quite as common among civilian organizations, but that may be changing.

      What exactly is a chief of staff? The answer varies across organizations. The position is entirely customizable depending on the needs of the company. Typically a chief of staff organizes the flow of information to the CEO, manages their schedule, and handles special projects. 

      Some organizations hold the chief of staff responsible for even more significant tasks, such as advising the CEO, acting as an implementer of cultural change, and identifying potential problems before they arise.

      The Chief of Staff Is Not an Executive Assistant

      People often mistakenly think the chief of staff role is similar to that of an executive assistant. This isn’t the case. A chief of staff takes on much more responsibility than an administrative assistant and may act as an intermediary between them and the CEO. 

      There are typically three levels of chief of staff roles that an organization can implement, each one varying by the level of expertise and responsibility the individual holds.

      Level I Chief of Staff

      A Level I chief of staff typically has lots of experience within the organization. They may spend several years as an executive assistant to the CEO but over time develop relationships with senior managers across the organization. They have a fundamental understanding of the business and what makes it tick. 

      Individuals in a Level I chief of staff role can oversee special projects, communicate between departments, and ensure CEOs make the best use of their time by managing their calendars. 

      A Level I chief of staff’s prior experience and knowledge comes from the organization itself; they usually don’t have extensive experience in consulting or organizational strategy.

      Level II Chief of Staff

      A Level II chief of staff typically implements an existing organizational strategy. They may oversee specific projects that require specialized knowledge, like compliance or legal affairs. They’ll assist the CEO and work with other department heads like the CFO or CHRO.

      Level II chiefs of staff typically have an extensive educational background or experience that allows them to handle many types of responsibilities and important assignments. 

      They’re strategic thinkers well-versed in problem analysis and resolution. They may take on an advisory role to the CEO, acting as a confidante when they need someone to discuss ideas with.

      Level III Chief of Staff

      A Level III chief of staff possesses highly advanced skills and expertise. They may hold a Ph.D. or several master’s degrees or have extensive consulting experience in sought-after areas. In the government, a Level III chief of staff may assist the president or a similar high-ranking official.

      Level III chiefs of staff are best for CEOs who are new in their role or seeking to implement significant organizational changes in operations or strategy. A Level III chief of staff will help execute the changes and identify potential roadblocks before they become substantial problems. 

      A Level III chief of staff is cognizant of political challenges and handles diplomacy well without giving in to other departmental demands. Usually, a Level III chief of staff will report directly to the CEO.

      Knowing When You Need a Chief of Staff

      Everyone is familiar with the typical executive roles of CEO, CFO, CMO, and CTO. While a chief of staff isn’t an executive, they’ll take a key position in the boardroom to facilitate activities between employees and executives and between the executives themselves.

      Many CEOs never think to envision a chief of staff position, but it can add tremendous value in certain situations. Large companies are the most likely to employ a chief of staff, but mid-size organizations can benefit from the role, too.

      When determining if you need a chief of staff, consider the following questions:

      • Are you making good use of your time on essential projects that are vital to you? or do you spend too much time dealing with less-important matters?
      • Is your calendar constantly full, requiring you to put out the newest corporate fire of the day? Do you have time to consider future opportunities?
      • Are you on top of what’s happening in the organization, or are you continually surprised by new details that crop up?
      • Do you have time to make deliberate decisions, or do you have to make quick calls that often lead to new issues?
      • Are you usually prepared for meetings, or do you arrive with less information than you should have?
      • Do you find that serious problems regularly arise that surprise even your most senior managers?
      • Are there organizational, political, or cultural differences that could use a strong communications facilitator to manage? 
      • Does the company operate in silos, with departments regularly taking on new initiatives that lead to setbacks in other areas?
      • Do you constantly have to follow up with other managers on project status?

      If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, you likely would benefit from a chief of staff. 

      A chief of staff can assist the CEO in managing daily affairs, resolving issues across departments, and facilitating better communication throughout the organization. 

      The best chiefs of staff have the expertise to advise the CEO on strategy. Of course, they don’t assume the CEO’s decision-making responsibility, but they can help the CEO consider crucial factors that could adversely impact a decision. 

      Valuable chiefs of staff are also trustworthy confidantes; the CEO can rely on them for helpful advice without worrying about potential organizational fallout.

      Make the Chief of Staff Role Fit Your Organization

      Only some organizations will need a chief of staff with the highest levels of expertise who can advocate and implement the CEO’s vision. Some companies find a Level I chief of staff more suitable, especially in organizations where the concept is long-standing and the CEO is seeking better management of their time.

      Consider the critical questions when deciding whether you need a chief of staff. If you find yourself continuously hampered by a lack of information and poor collaboration between departments, it’s time to open the role.

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      At Cowen Partners, our HR executive recruiters are exceptionally skilled at delivering in-demand candidates, no matter the need and across all industries. Backed by a proven executive recruiting process, we have been the partner of choice for startups, corporations, small businesses, non-profits, and more, meeting unique and critical recruitment needs across the entire C-suite, including CEOsCFOsCOOsCMOsCIOs, CTOsCHROsVPs of sales, other VPs, directors, and several other leadership roles.  

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