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The Second Life of the Chief of Staff Role: From Cabinet to Corporate

When we hear the words “Chief of Staff” many of us immediately think of those lucrative right-hand roles in the government sector. Fascinating shows like West Wing or House of Cards may have brought more public attention to an otherwise prominent behind-the-scenes role. But where the Chief of Staff, (or CoS), was typically found serving Cabinet Ministers or Secretaries of State, it is perhaps most popular today in corporate spaces. Technology startups and established corporate entities have helped reidentify this fascinating role. And, similar to government, the demands of a Chief of Staff are widespread and integral to the leader they are found serving. 

With this second life of the Chief of Staff role, the question is often asked: 

What does a Chief of Staff do?

With the modernization, if you will, of the CoS role, the question is a good one. Does the established Chief of Staff of government hold any similarity to its corporate doppelganger? Are there any differences in this newly emerged version of the Chief of Staff, or was the role title hijacked for its “sexy appeal” alone? 

In fact, the fascinating thing is, some of the early corporate Chief of Staff roles were filled by people who filled a role by the same title in government prior to their corporate reemergence.

Take Cheryl Sandberg, for example. As Julia DeWahl notes in her article The Chief of Staff Role in Silicon Valley” (published on Medium), Sandberg was Chief of Staff to the US Treasury Secretary before working at Google, and then Facebook.

Another interesting Chief of Staff who has found success in both corporate and government positions is Caroline Pugh, who Bonnie Marcus in her Forbes article Are you Ready to Become a Chief of Staff” notes was “Chief of staff to Aneesh Chopra, [and] first chief technology officer of the United States under President Obama’s first term, and is now the president of Care Journey.” 

Many other examples can be found where the merger between serving high political offices, and corporate executives have been highly successful. This is, naturally, due to the transference of the role holding major similarities in tasks, wherever the title is found. So, what are these general responsibilities of a Chief of Staff

While each C-Suite or Leadership position should carefully consider exact details of the role that best extends them, there are some general Chief of Staff performances that are almost always part of the list.

Typical Tasks of a Chief of Staff are:

Operating as the Right-Hand Person to the CEO, or C-Suite.

  • Being the proxy, attending meetings and events on behalf of the leader when they can’t make it themselves.
  • Writing on behalf of the C-Suite in a variety of ways: drafts, proposals, letters, emails, correspondence notes.
  • Keeping detailed notes and records of meetings, events, and information that could be required later by the CEO or C-Suite.
  • Communicating internally and externally on behalf of the leader. This can be with other executives or board members, managers, and direct reports to the CEO, or with external relations and key investors.
  • Facilitating action items on behalf of the C-Suite.

Extending the Reach of the Executive C-Suite Leader.

  • Ensuring that direct reports are being followed up on and meeting deadlines or targets.
  • Keeping an overall view of operations across a specific C-Suites area or the entire organization.
  • Synthesizing copious amounts of information to ensure they are prepared to give solid advice and detail to prepare a C-Suite for a meeting, or to benefit in making key decisions.
  • Nurturing relationships with staff and stakeholders.
  • Working to build a culture that promotes employee relationships, job satisfaction and overall productivity. Importantly creating a culture of belonging and inclusivity.

Buying Back Time for Leaders who are Stretched too Thin.

  • Managing, and maintaining a healthy time card for the C-Suite is crucial.
  • Working as a Gatekeeper ensures the Executives time is dedicated to places where it is really needed.
  • Ensuring that details or questions that do not need to demand the Leader’s time are handled accordingly.
  • Acting in a trustworthy manner allows the CEO or C-Suite to depend on things being handled in a personal way, without them having to be involved at every turn.

So, while the Chief of Staff role has merged from government to corporate spaces, we can see that there are many transferable skills or even skills that are directly related to both sectors by nature in ways that may not have previously been noted. While it seems like a second life for the CoS, it is a natural fit to see Chief of Staff roles growing in popularity wherever executives or leaders can benefit from critical personal support and extension.

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