Associate Chief of Staff vs. Executive Assistant: 5 Key Differences

Written by Beth Jacobs

September 25, 2023

The distinctions between an executive assistant (EA) and associate chief of staff (ACoS) sometimes cause confusion. Both roles have a primary purpose of ensuring that executives can focus on the tasks that most benefit from their expertise, skills, and strategic vision. However, the spectrum of responsibilities and the depth of involvement of each role differ significantly. Let’s delve into the five primary distinctions that set these roles apart and make the ACoS role indispensable.

Level of Direction Required from Leaders
An EA provides essential day-to-day support to a leader. They’re available at a moment’s notice to handle unexpected requests that might otherwise derail the leader’s day. They may attend meetings with the leader for the purpose of taking notes, making sure the executive’s materials are ready to go, and arranging logistics to get to and from the meeting. They can handle a wide variety of tasks, but they typically need direction to know which tasks to perform. A leader may need to set aside time each week to explain what they need in detail. 

In contrast, an ACoS offers support with longer-term projects, operating with a high level of autonomy. They are a senior level individual contributor that typically operates at a manager level whether that be an operations manager, project manager, or systems and process manager. They set their own priorities independently from week to week in order to complete their deliverables, requiring little direction from the leader. When working with an ACoS, a leader only needs to describe the result they want, and an ACoS will figure out the steps and strategy needed to achieve that result, anticipating challenges that might arise along the way.

Scope of Responsibilities

When providing daily support to a leader, an EA engages in tasks typically accomplished within minutes to hours. These tasks often deal with logistics or basic communications, such as arranging travels, managing schedules, processing expense reports, or drafting short emails or social media updates. By handling these tasks, an EA frees up time in the leader’s schedule. 

An ACoS, on the other hand, embarks on more complex projects that could span weeks or months, usually encompassing multiple sub-tasks. They bridge gaps before a full-time hire, step in during unforeseen absences, or manage special projects that have been lingering on an executive’s to-do list for months. 

For example, they might be asked to spearhead the launch of a direct-to-consumer sales channel or scout for an alternative HR platform and provide analysis and recommendations. In a small business an ACOS might serve as the first operations manager. By taking the lead on these projects, an ACoS expands the leader’s and the organization’s capacity. 

Interaction with External Stakeholders

A traditional EA primarily focuses on internal operations, limiting their external stakeholder interactions to scheduling meetings and handling logistical details. While they may draft communications for an executive, in most cases the executive will want to review those messages before sending them.

An ACoS, backed by their more extensive professional experience, assumes a broader, more autonomous client-facing role. They confidently liaise with clients, engage with vendors, and represent the executive in communications without needing prior approval from the executive.

Relationship to Other Staff

An EA typically offers dedicated support to a single leader in order to ensure their availability at a moment’s notice, whereas the ACoS role is more flexible. 

An ACoS can be assigned to either one leader or multiple leaders and they might simultaneously manage a team of EAs or other junior-level team members. Additionally, they often operate within an organization as a process and system manager, which requires interfacing with stakeholders across the organization. Since their role frequently involves managing complex projects with many stakeholders, they are skilled at collaborating across multiple departments. 

Skills & Experience Required

The EA role is an entry-level position, typically requiring a high school diploma. The skills required to thrive as an EA include attention to detail, unwavering follow-through, adherence to established processes, and basic competency with interpersonal communication.

Due to the more complex nature of the job responsibilities, an ACoS requires a bachelor’s degree and five to 11 years of corporate or nonprofit professional working experience. An ACoS must excel at creative problem-solving, project management, and process development, and possess advanced public speaking and written communication skills.

Infograph illustrating the differences between an executive assistant and an associate chief of staff.

Get Timely Support for Urgent, Complex Projects

An ACoS is a perfect fit for any organization caught in the messy middle of a one-time project, new initiative, or growth spurt. This senior-level individual contributor can help transform an organization by providing operational insights, building scalable systems and processes, and researching and recommending vendors. They have the ability to streamline and find efficiencies for an organization to move forward in a sustainable way.  

To learn more about the impact an ACoS could have on your organization, schedule your free consultation with vChief today.

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