The Chief of Staff Role: The Secret to Successful Leadership

The hands of a person (representing the chief of staff role) are shown writing at a desk while holding a smartphone.

Written by Beth Jacobs

April 14, 2024

The chief of staff role is an increasingly critical component in supporting a successful leadership team. Serving as a leader’s right-hand, a chief of staff provides much more strategic support and high-level execution than an executive assistant is capable of.

Often described as a gap-filler, the position can be quite flexible to complement the skills of the leader and the needs of the organization. In this article, we thoroughly explore the duties of a chief of staff and why it’s such an impactful role.

What Does a Chief of Staff Do?

The chief of staff (CoS) role is defined by its ability to provide strategic counsel and hands-on support to key leaders within organizations. While the day-to-day responsibilities vary dramatically across industries and companies, the following are some of the key responsibilities. 

Directly Support the Leader

A chief of staff is responsible for creating as much time as possible for the leader to focus on their strategic priorities. While this may include handling a wide variety of administrative tasks that would otherwise fall on the leader, it also means helping the leader identify the areas to direct their focus and define metrics for success. To ensure they have enough time to focus on priorities, a chief of staff must strategically manage their leader’s time by working closely with the executive assistant on day-to-day scheduling, managing the long-term travel calendar, and evaluating new opportunities to determine whether they fit within the leader’s priorities. 

A chief of staff also provides direct communications support to an executive, drafting everything from company newsletters and board presentations to speeches and emails.

Meeting & Event Facilitation

The Chief of Staff plays a pivotal role in facilitating meetings and special events that are crucial for strategic alignment and team cohesion. For example, they often manage the cadence and preparation for board meetings, ensuring materials are sent in advance, time is well spent, and objectives are achieved.

Additionally, a chief of staff can help facilitate a smooth strategic planning process by setting up meetings, facilitating discussions during the meetings, and following up on action items.

Project Management

A chief of staff is often tasked with overseeing large, cross-functional projects or initiatives spanning the entire organization. This role involves bringing together diverse stakeholders and driving decision-making processes, ensuring that projects stay on track and align with the company’s strategic goals. The Chief of Staff influences without managing and employs a combination of researching, benchmarking, and analyzing data, to make informed recommendations to steer these projects to success. They act as a bridge between various parts of the organization to achieve common objectives.

Hiring and Management

Hiring new team members can take up a significant portion of a leader’s time, especially at smaller organizations that lack an HR department. A chief of staff can ease the burden of this responsibility on the leader by drafting and posting job descriptions, outlining interview processes, and screening candidates before one-on-one interviews with the leader. 

To further optimize the leader’s time, a chief of staff may take on the management of the Office of the CEO, which may include executive assistants, special projects managers, speech writers, or other support staff. The chief of staff will handle hiring, onboarding, and professional development for these positions. 

If you’re looking to hire a full-time chief of staff, our chief of staff job description template may be helpful. It includes sample interview questions and scopes of work to help you define the role. 

5 Roles a Chief of Staff Plays to Make Leaders More Effective 

The role of chief of staff is to provide support to their leader in order to complement the leader’s skill set and enhance their effectiveness. Here are five roles a chief of staff can play — sometimes all at the same time — to help leaders maximize their capacity

Thought Partner

This chief of staff acts as a strategic thought provider and confidant to the leader and a sounding board to members of the executive team. Because the CoS role interacts with so many different team members and touches many aspects of the business’s daily operations, the chief of staff can maintain a finger on the pulse of the organization, picking up on the team’s mood and noticing problems before they become crises. This allows the CoS to provide key decision-making support, giving department leaders invaluable context that leads to better decision-making

Surrogate

This chief of staff is in many ways like a second version of the leader. They attend meetings in the leader’s place and often make decisions on their behalf. When the leader’s time is eaten up by external meetings, the chief of staff steps in to offer strategic counsel, key leadership, and day-to-day management to the executive team.

Gatekeeper

This chief of staff protects the leader’s time and focus by serving as the first point of contact for staff members. When appropriate, they handle issues on their own, only escalating issues to the leader when necessary. The chief of staff prioritizes, organizes, and condenses information going into and out of the executive’s suite. In some cases, this role can even include managing their executive’s email inbox, which can involve responding directly to queries and/or preparing a daily digest of the most important emails.

Shadow

This chief of staff is always by a leader’s side. Rather than replacing the leader in meetings, the CoS attends alongside, taking notes, asking questions, then planning and following up on action steps. They are a behind-the-scenes force that makes things happen.

Executor 

This chief of staff gets things done. When one-off projects arise that don’t fit neatly into anyone else’s job description, the chief of staff handles them to keep the CEO focused. This can include cross-function special projects such as relocating a warehouse or implementing a new database system. The chief of staff manages the design, oversees the execution, and outlines the process for ongoing maintenance. 

Where Does a Chief of Staff Fit Within an Organization?

Whether the position is new for your organization or the evolution of an existing role, it’s beneficial to understand how the Chief of Staff will fit into your organization.

The chief of staff reports directly to the leader they support, which is often the chief executive, but can be other members of the C-suite or any other department heads. Multinational organizations, like major credit card companies, often hire dozens of chiefs of staff to support leaders all over the company. 

If the CEO also has an executive assistant, an associate chief of staff, and other personal support roles, like a speech writer or a special projects manager, those roles will report to the chief of staff, as shown in the infographic below.

This infographic shows the chief of staff's position in an organizational chart. The chief of staff reports to the CEO and manages the office of the CEO, and is on the same level in the hierarchy as other C-level positions like COO and CFO.

The chief of staff position sometimes gets confused with the COO, because both report to the CEO and both play an important role in facilitating cross-functional activities, but there are clear differences between a CoS and a COO — the biggest one being that the CoS is entirely focused on supporting one leader, while the COO supports the organization as a whole. 

A Chief of Staff: A Capable Leader for Strategic Initiatives

We mentioned project management as one of the key duties of a CoS. Here are some great examples of special projects that our CoSs have taken off leader’s plates.

Implementing a Project Management System 

Kos Media CEO Will Rockafellow found himself bogged down by operational tasks after transitioning to CEO of the progressive news organization in early 2020. His team was struggling with inefficient processes and a lack of organization, and Will was unable to focus on the overall business strategy. Kos Media partnered with vChief to bring in a fractional chief of staff who implemented a project management system and took on other logistical support roles to enable Will to refocus on leading the business. Read full case study here

Developing an Enrollment Strategy for a Charter School Network 

Prospect Schools, a Brooklyn-based charter school management organization, faced enrollment challenges amplified by a key staff departure at the beginning of the school year. Under the leadership of Yoni Samuel-Siegel, COO, they partnered with vChief to bring in Juliet, a seasoned chief of staff with comprehensive expertise in NYC public education. Juliet promptly identified opportunities to improve enrollment and developed a family engagement playbook that turned the tide on enrollment in just one year and laid a strong foundation for the network’s continued growth. Read full case study here

Applying for a multi-million dollar federal credit initiative

Siċaŋġu Co needed advanced executive-level support to alleviate capacity strains and scale up backend processes to continue catalyzing economic growth on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. A big task on CEO Clay Colombe’s to-do list was applying for a major credit initiative with the federal government that could attract millions of dollars in private investment. Partnering with vChief added capacity across the entire team and helped the organization secure $7.9 million in federal funds. Read full case study here. 

Some other projects that would be a great fit include: 

  • Updating an employee handbook
  • Migrating to a new finance platform 
  • Creating a long-term fundraising strategy

Chief of Staff: Required Skills & Experience 

While the background of a chief of staff varies, they are highly educated, often with a graduate degree, and they must have extensive experience leading teams.

An effective chief of a staff must possess the following skills: 

  • Interpersonal skills: The ability to influence without managing is crucial since they work with individuals who do not report directly to them. 
  • Communication skills: They often communicate on behalf of the CEO and need to be able to maintain excellent standards in all forms of communication. 
  • Leadership skills: Instead of waiting for the CEO to give them direct assignments, they figure out which tasks are the most urgent and proactively find information and anticipate needs. 
  • Problem-solving skills: As the CEO’s right-hand person, the CoS often steps in to solve urgent problems that are beyond the skill level of an executive assistant.
  • Process improvement: Many leaders hire a CoS when they are overwhelmed by their duties and the growing complexity of their organization. A CoS is skilled at creating order out of chaos. 

Education & Prior Experience

The career path to a chief of staff role should include a minimum of 12 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree. However, candidates with a relevant advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in business administration or public administration, and at least 3 years of professional experience may also be considered for chief of staff roles. Typically, executive leadership experience is preferred.  

Ideal candidates for a chief of staff position have experience in management, human resources, strategy, operations, and/or project management roles

Maximize Your Capacity with A Fractional Chief of Staff

A chief of staff doesn’t need to be full-time to be impactful. By working with a fractional executive services company like vChief, you can hire a fractional chief of staff for as few as 20 hours per month or up to full-time. It’s a flexible and cost effective way to get high-level general support that can help you make a greater impact as a leader.

At vChief, we place talented executives in fractional roles to support startups, nonprofits, foundations, educational organizations, and corporate enterprises. 

You can flex your vChief’s hours up or down as needed from month to month. And you’re not locked into any long-term contracts. You can cancel at any time with just 30 days notice. Candidates can start in as little as two weeks from your first consultation. Schedule a free needs assessment to learn more.

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