Nine reasons you need a Chief of Staff

15 August 2017 -

chiefofstaffConsigliere. Fixer. Wingman. Behind the world’s most powerful people there is often a woman or man who makes the operation tick. The role of chief of staff used to be confined to politics and the military, but now it’s entering the business mainstream

Alex Benady

“Don’t emote.” That was the instruction given to the American actor Michael Kelly when he was preparing for his role in acclaimed political thriller House of Cards. Kelly went on to give a bewitching, memorable performance as loyal, brooding presidential chief of staff Doug Stamper.

The chief of staff has long been a fixture in political life. As prime minister Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked: “Everyone needs a Willie” – a reference to her own trusted adviser, enforcer and facilitator, Willie Whitelaw.

It’s taken a couple of decades for the role to start migrating to business. Just 15 years ago, there were hardly any chiefs of staff in commerce. But, today, more and more business leaders have grasped the wisdom of Thatcher’s words and appointed their own fixer. Here’s why.

Everyone else has one, and so should we

While the growth of the role has not been authoritatively documented, you only need to look at LinkedIn, which lists no fewer than 140,000 chiefs of staff, to see how pervasive the title is becoming. According to research by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, the professional body for the UK recruitment industry, the number of online postings for chief of staff roles grew by 13% in the past year alone.

But the supply of chief of staff jobs is dwarfed by the growing demand. Searches for these roles were up by nearly 30% between the first quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017.

They unscramble a noisy world

There are many theories as to why the chief of staff role has exploded. Tanya Khakbaz, head of growth and product marketing at US digital start-up Accompany, suggests it is no coincidence that the role has mushroomed at the same time as digital media.

“There’s so much noise in the world – there’s so much information coming at us – that we are overloaded. People are looking for solutions to improve the signal- to-noise ratio,” she says.

Much of the growth is fuelled by the tech sector, partly since it tends to have less hierarchical structures. “Where things are flatter, you need extra glue, extra connectedness,” says Richard Hytner, adjunct professor at London Business School and author of the book Consiglieri.

Tech firms also tend to be much more aggressive and ambitious than firms in conventional industries, seeking faster growth from the off. Some argue a chief of staff can help them operate more leanly and keenly.

“Chiefs of staff have gained momentum among tech companies large and small as the pace of growth quickens and... efficiency and structure become a necessity among a leadership team,” observed Scott Amenta, chief of staff at mobile-shopping app Spring Inc, in a recent blog.

Whisper it – the job title is good for the ego

So there are powerful organisational reasons for CEOs to employ a chief of staff. But are we

also just rebranding what were once more prosaic admin roles?

Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, thinks so: “The chief of staff role is gaining traction, but what’s really interesting is that the increase

in searches for it dwarfs the increase in job ads. At a time when candidates are scarce, this popular job title could work to the advantage of employers, who have to work harder than ever to attract people to fill roles. Thinking creatively about how to attract candidates and meet what people want out of a role is key, whether that’s a step up in title, a better salary package, or opportunities for training and progression.”

Then there is the reflected glory of having a chief of staff, which makes the CEO of even the humblest enterprise feel just a tad more presidential.

They bring military discipline

One of the intriguing aspects of the role is defining it. A head of marketing or finance would have pretty much the same job description wherever they worked. That is not the case with chiefs of staff. The role, says Ian Beckett, honorary professor in the School of History at the University of Kent, is essentially about plugging organisational gaps wherever they appear.

“The chief of staff role first appeared in European armies in the 19th century in response to the increasing size and complexity of military organisation and conflict,” he says. “It freed up the commander to think. In the Prussian army, the chief of staff had total authority in the field, whereas the British chief of staff was effectively head of the entire army.”

They’re the ultimate fixer

There are very different ideas about what a chief of staff should be. “I think the role is shaped by the organisation. You could be a COO, a bag carrier or a  fixer,” says Lucy Findlay, chief of staff at Crossrail. She describes her brief as,  firstly, to support the CEO and chairman, and, secondly, to be the  first point of contact between Crossrail and its sponsors (Transport for London and the Department for Transport).

She describes her position as a high-level internal comms role, “condensing information across the business and translating the output of an organisation manned by engineers into something ordinary people understand”.

Others might be generalists who step in wherever needed. Sophie Harrison, chief of staff at data-management startup Panaseer, says her job is to “do everything that isn’t technical”.

That includes dealing with accountants, logistics, marketing and the day-to-day running of the office. “At our size, there’s a lot of value in having oversight of different functions. As we grow, I expect to lose a lot of those responsibilities. The role will wither but may come back in different guises as we grow,” she says.

In creative industries such as PR, talent is a company’s major asset. Sarah Robinson, chief of staff at global PR agency Lewis, uses her HR experience to support growth by integrating international acquisitions into the Lewis network.

“I look at regional structures to see if people are in the best roles for their skillsets. It’s about the strategic development of the business and looking at the bigger picture,” she says.

It’s a pathway for talent

The role evidently has huge scope and patchy definition. Even so, it is possible to identify the attributes that make for a good chief of staff. Paula Dowdy is senior VP and general manager EMEA of US biotech giant Illumina, and is currently advertising for a chief of staff. “They’ll have to be a jack of all trades but I want someone with an MBA, industry experience and the ability to work across the gamut of what I need to do as a leader,” she says.

Will such a role be attractive to an ambitious, well-qualified young heavyweight? Dowdy says that applicants should view it as an opportunity for some intense but extended one- on-one coaching: “It’s an opportunity to work across various business and management roles, in return for which they’ll get a two-year rotation that’s a fast track into getting closer to the business.”

Hytner also thinks the role can be a great stepping stone: “It’s a way of getting the best coaching that money can buy. You shovel dirt for 18 months, at the end of which you are well placed for a much better job.”

… Or a role for the experienced

Sarah Robinson takes a different view. She doesn’t see the role as a stepping stone but as the summation of her career. She says she can only do her job because she has deep experience to draw on, including having run her own business.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. But you have to have gravitas that comes from experience,” she says, “as you need credibility with senior stakeholders.”

For all the different job descriptions, everyone we spoke to agreed on one thing: it’s not enough to be well trained with a wide understanding of business.

To succeed as a chief of staff, you need to be a certain type of person.

“Thisis somebody who is a lodestone, who attracts all the muck and dirt. You have to have bags of IQ and enough knowledge of how business works, but you also need emotional intelligence,” says Hytner.

Findlay agrees: “You need very strong communication skills as you have to be able to deal with people at all levels, and you have to have good judgement, knowing when to intervene yourself and when to escalate.”

They’re the CEOs confidant

Of course, a chief of staff has to be trustworthy. Not only do you have to be utterly reliable and competent, but, like Willie Whitelaw, you have to be able to do it without coveting your boss’s job – in the short term at least.

“CEOs have a deep need to be able to trust someone. That won’t be someone whose next move is CEO,” says Hytner. So, while CEOs may bask in the position of leadership, the chief of staff needs to be the sort of person who gets their satisfactions privately.

“I don’t need the glory of the spotlight, and I don’t like doing the jazz hands but I do enjoy helping and supporting the CEO,” says Robinson.

It’s not that people who suit the role aren’t ambitious or capable enough to be top dog. It’s just that they’re less concerned about power and control, and more concerned with getting the job done.

They’re so useful you can even download one

The idea of having a high- functioning factotum to lighten your load has become so entrenched that now everybody – not just leaders – wants a chief of staff of their own.

In a sure sign that the chief of staff is a meme whose time has come, Accompany has invested $40m in developing what’s been described as a chief-of-staff app.

Strictly speaking, it’s relationship-management software that automatically collects data, news and images, and provides comprehensive briefing notes for every meeting you put in your diary.

But, really, it performs one of the key functions of a chief of staff – it keeps the boss in the loop.

Powered by Professional Manager