Chief of Staff vs. Executive Assistant: Which Do You Need?

Written by Beth Jacobs

December 13, 2016

One question I’m asked about when speaking with potential clients for vChief is the difference between a chief of staff (COS) and an executive assistant (EA). It’s a good question, and it’s easy to understand, at first glance, why people confuse these roles, as both support an organization’s leader in a personal, high-touch way.

Both the COS and EA roles are inherently tied to keeping an executive organized, prepared, and focused. But there are some key differences.

  • The role of the executive assistant tends to be focused on logistics, such as travel, scheduling, and expense processing—things that require a very strong eye for detail. It’s an incredibly important role as the smallest mistake can have huge implications for an organization’s leader.
  • The role of the chief of staff, by contrast, is that of a senior-level strategic partner. A COS might manage projects across the entire organization, working with a variety of stakeholders and staff. If the leader is traveling or unavailable, the COS has to make judgments about what the leader would do and act on those judgments—so there’s a real level of nuance required. Chiefs of staff often have experience in strategy and project management, and can help leaders create strategic plans, but they also need to be generalists, with experience in many different areas. As an executive’s spokesperson, the COS also must hone in on the leader’s communication style and be able to write things like emails and reports in his or her style.

In his book, Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization, Tyler Parris posits that “one leader’s chief of staff is a high-powered executive assistant, while another’s is a vice president, with most chiefs of staff falling somewhere in between.” He also lays out the continuum of complexity of tasks in a helpful way.

Typically, a leader will have duties that run a spectrum from more administrative to more strategic, and if the bulk of the work lies more towards the strategic side, a chief of staff role may make more sense. As Parris notes, “You will likely call upon your chief of staff to perform in situations dramatic and mundane, strategic and tactical.” Very true. The best chiefs of staff are servant leaders, happy to take on truly anything their leader asks, regardless of whether it is providing input in a group of high-powered senior leaders or ordering lunch for them.

Sometimes, leaders will have both a COS and EA, where they work hand in hand, but provide distinctly different types of support. For example, as a chief of staff, I was charged with ensuring my manager was managing her time strategically and ensuring it was aligned with her priorities. I often worked with our executive assistant who helped create a 6-month travel calendar which we used to ensure she was able to attend key events and backward plan towards big deadlines.

Though there is sometimes cross-over in the types of duties, I do think it is helpful to think of these roles as unique and distinct in what they bring a leader. I’m always happy to talk with you about the needs for your startup, non-profit, or organization, and can help you determine whether those needs are more appropriate for a chief of staff or executive assistant.

vChief is best suited to leaders looking for part-time or interim chief of staff support. If you’re looking for a full-time, in-house chief of staff, check out Prime Career Advisory, who can help you find amazing talent for your role. If your needs are more on the administrative side, reach out to  33Vincent, which provides virtual part-time executive assistant support of the highest quality. (Think of them as the virtual EA yin to vChief’s yang.)

So, which do you need, an executive assistant or a chief of staff? The answer might really be both. Over the course of my career, I have been lucky enough to work with leaders who have a top-notch Chief of Staff and a stellar Executive Assistant, which is often the best of all worlds for a busy executive.

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