When you think of a chief of staff, you might think of someone like John Kelly, who currently holds the position in the Trump administration. At least that was my frame of reference until I recently spoke with Caroline Pugh, chief of staff to Aneesh Chopra, who was the first chief technology officer of the United States under President Obama’s first term, and is now the president of CareJourney, a healthcare data analytics company. Before my conversation with Pugh, I was unaware that chiefs of staff have powerful and influential roles in the private sector, and that this role is a great opportunity for ambitious women.
Chiefs of staff (COS) serve an important function in the corporate world. They provide the communication framework for customers, employees and executives. Smart CEOs lean on their COS to troubleshoot and handle the daily needs of the company. This allows the CEO to then focus their efforts more developing strategies to grow the company.
Pugh organizes and hosts events for chiefs of staff in Washington, DC, and has done research about the role and its function in business. She has surveyed and spoken with over two dozen chiefs of staff including, the chief of staff to the CEO of Rolls Royce, Marissa Mayer, Tony Hsieh (Zappos), former Vice President Biden and Jean Case.
From her own experience as a COS, as well as her research, Pugh outlines the responsibilities of a typical COS.
The Chief of Staff is generally assigned a focus area. At Zappos, the COS is not only the ‘right hand’ to the CEO, but also leads the culture and community. At Rolls Royce, the COS heavily responds to the Board and shareholders on the behalf of the CEO or with the CEO. Marissa Mayer’s COS is tasked as being the ‘innovator and forward thinker’ and to look for new technologies or companies to acquire and develop.
The Chief of Staff is generally positioned as the CEO or executive’s ‘right hand person’.
Responsibilities often include:
Attending meetings and calls on the behalf of their boss if he/she couldn’t not make it.
Helping their CEO prioritize their time and appointments.
Writing first drafts of proposals, emails, letters etc. for their COS.
Taking notes during the meetings that the CEO attends and making sure that the action items from the meeting are executed.
Acting as the communication arm for their boss with other executives in the organization, clients or major stakeholders.
Acting as the sounding board to their boss for new ideas and initiatives.
Acting acts as the facilitator for their boss’s colleagues or employees (department heads or other VPs that report to him/her). This means being able to communicate wants, needs, concerns, ideas from employee to boss in an effective and efficient way.
How does the COS role differ from a COO?
Of course, the responsibilities vary by the complexity and needs of an organization, but according to this article on the topic, “A COS is committed to his or her principal executive, not the board or staff—except through that principal executive. The COS represents the principal executive but isn’t a principal executive, and thus leads from behind. The principal executive maintains control and supervision of communications, governance, technological progress and, perhaps most of all, confidentiality with a trusted thought partner in that isolated space known as the top.”
What does it take to be a good chief of staff?
Caroline suggests that if you want to be a chief of staff, it’s important to be very organized and work efficiently and effectively. You must be people oriented and objective and communicate well with different personality types. It’s also helpful to have the ability to think ahead and catch problems before they arise.
Above all else, a chief of staff must be willing to use their power and influence to lead from behind. They need to be passionate about their role and the mission of the organization and be a strong partner for the CEO.
Many chiefs of staff are female and this role provides a unique opportunity for women to have an impact at a high level. For example, at the last chief of staff event Pugh hosted, over half of those who attended were female. “Women that are chiefs of staff are sharing this career path and opportunity with their networks,” she said. “It’s having a domino effect where now more and more women are the right-hand women to CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies. They are being positioned as the next wave of C-suite executives themselves which is really exciting. The chief of staff role could be the very role that finally evens out the gender disparity in boardrooms.”
Are you interested in learning more? According to Pugh, there is at least one new COS recruiting firm that has started building a platform for connecting, recruiting and training COSs.
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