A lot of people aren’t fully familiar with the role of a chief of staff and what they do. Their only reference may be hearing mentions in the news or seeing characters on Scandal or The West Wing. And though the chief of staff role has long been employed in politics, it has more recently gained prominence in the corporate and nonprofit realms as well.
What is interesting is that the role looks fairly different across sectors, and frankly even within them. As someone recently asked me, “There are lots of flavors of chief of staff. What flavor are you?”
Types of chief of staff
It would be wrong to say a given chief of staff falls neatly into one of these buckets, but they do outline a few of the different ways chiefs of staff and leaders operate together:
The surrogate: This chief of staff is in many ways like a second version of the leader. She attends meetings in her leader’s stead and often makes decisions on her behalf. She manages the leader’s team. She is a gatekeeper, keeping the flow of information to the leader targeted on what is most critical in the moment.
The shadow: This chief of staff is always by a leader’s side. Rather than replacing the leader in meetings, she attends alongside, taking notes, then planning and following up on action steps. She is a ghostwriter and a behind-the-scenes force in making things happen.
The executor: This chief of staff gets things done. She may not replace the leader or even be alongside her most of the time, but she takes over multiple initiatives on behalf of the leader and the team. She oversees cross-team initiatives, leads communications efforts, creates systems and processes to make things flow with ease.
Each chief of staff will have a unique set of duties, but here are a few roles all chiefs of staff play to some degree.
- Being the right-hand person: A chief of staff is always there for the leader she works with. She is a trusted adviser who can be called on at any moment to provide support.
- Lightening the load: A chief of staff makes a leader’s life easier. She takes over tasks and duties the leader would otherwise be doing herself, whether that’s managing a team, preparing for key meetings, or leading high-stakes projects.
- Connecting the dots: A chief of staff must be well connected with those reporting into a leader, and others across the organization, in order to influence outcomes. She often has a bird’s-eye-view across teams and departments, and is able to connect the dots in ways others are not.
Beyond these common themes, however, there are more differences in chief of staff roles than similarities. And that is truly by design. A chief of staff’s main role is to enable her leader to reach new heights, and each leader needs a different type of support to do that.