What is the Career Path for a Chief of Staff?

Written by vChief

December 23, 2020

Since our mission is to provide top notch strategic and chief of staff support to leverage the time of busy executives, we’ve covered a lot of ground in regards to the chief of staff role specifically: what a chief of staff does, how to write their job description, and even who the different archetypes are within the role.

If you’re interested in pursuing a chief of staff role, you may be wondering what experiences and education are ideal to have? Or, if you’re an established chief of staff, you may be curious about the next step on your career trajectory? While every single person’s career path is as individualized as a fingerprint, here are some typical roadmaps for the chief of staff role.

New to the Chief of Staff Role

If you are looking to start out in your very first chief of staff role, we’ve found a few key attributes that will lend well to the position:

Education

Candidates applying for a chief of staff position usually have a bachelor’s degree, and many come to the table with advanced degrees (e.g., MBA, JD, MA/MS or MPA/MPP). There is no requirement for any sort of specialization in a particular field or degree. Rather, the role tends to promote diversity of experience and bringing a cross-functional background is one of the best tools you can have.

Experience

While there are some situations where hiring a junior-level chief of staff may fulfill the needs of an organization, most executives will be looking for a chief with 8-10 years of professional experience. Again, this experience can be in a variety of fields and organizations–often the resume of an ideal candidate for the chief of staff role will look more like a jungle gym than a ladder–but having sound knowledge of overall business operations and processes will prove key to being an ideal candidate for the role.

Skills

Since a chief of staff usually takes on a myriad of responsibilities, there is an equal myriad of skills that they should possess to be efficient in their role:

  • Versatile: think “jill-of-all-trades” persona, with cross-functional or varied experiences, and willing to jump in and learn new skills when necessary
  • Analytical, data-driven in their approach to solving problems
  • Strategic thinker
  • Strong written and verbal communication: skilled at communicating in someone else’s style and voice and reaching diverse audiences
  • Emotionally intelligent: understands people on a deeper level, anticipates unspoken needs, influences desired outcomes, and builds strong relationships
  • Organizational genius: loves creating order out of chaos, building systems and process thinking
  • Prefers offering support from ‘the wings’ over being in the spotlight
  • Extremely loyal and trustworthy with confidential information

Moving Up the Chief of Staff Career Ladder

Perhaps you’ve been in the role of chief of staff for several years and are wondering what your next step should be. Since you most likely came to this position with quite a respectable and diverse resume, to which you have now added more skills and achievements, you are in a prime position. Your options are open and the route you take next depends on your bigger career goals and objectives.

Moving to a different organization

If you have a strong connection with your executive and feel extreme loyalty to your organization (as the two often go hand-in-hand), consider how you can grow into a role with even more responsibilities and accountability. Oftentimes, this is what your executive was working to help you achieve all along.

Many chiefs of staff are well-suited to positions in senior operations or strategy, like Chief Operating Officer or Vice President, because:

  • You are already a familiar face with both internal and external stakeholders
  • You are intimately aware of how the organization operates at multiple levels
  • You can maintain a strong read on your former executive to help influence decisions and plan strategy

Be wary, though. Some former chiefs of staff find it hard to separate  themselves from the role completely. Your executive may have a hard time letting go of their reliance on you as their right-hand, and others within the organization may follow suit. Establishing boundaries from the beginning of your new leadership role is critical.

Moving into a leadership role

If you have a strong connection with your executive and feel extreme loyalty to your organization (as the two often go hand-in-hand), consider how you can grow into a role with even more responsibilities and accountability. Oftentimes, this is what your executive was working to help you achieve all along.

Many chiefs of staff are well-suited to positions in senior operations or strategy, like Chief Operating Officer or Vice President, because:

  • You are already a familiar face with both internal and external stakeholders
  • You are intimately aware of how the organization operates at multiple levels
  • You can maintain a strong read on your former executive to help influence decisions and plan strategy

Be wary, though. Some former chiefs of staff find it hard to separate  themselves from the role completely. Your executive may have a hard time letting go of their reliance on you as their right-hand, and others within the organization may follow suit. Establishing boundaries from the beginning of your new leadership role is critical.

Moving into a leadership role somewhere else

This is a common next step, because many former chiefs of staff find it hard to distinguish themselves in their current organization, as many of their colleagues may struggle with their transition to higher leadership. At this point, you know your executive and the other stakeholders within the organization to predict how they will react to your promotion within the organization. If you think there is a risk that letting go of you as the eternal chief of staff is probable, it’s time to move on and find yourself a leadership role somewhere different.

Even if you think your colleagues will handle the transition respectfully and responsibly, now that you are intimately familiar with the organization you may realize it’s not the right fit for a variety of reasons:.

  • You’re a different person than you were when you first stepped into the chief of staff role
  • Most likely, the organization has undergone some transition in vision and decision-making
  • You are looking to grow in a certain area of interest and you find there is no opportunity for this at your current employer
  • Your values are no longer in alignment with those of the company

If any of the above apply, it’s time to seek out an organization that will allow you to achieve your current career goals.

Becoming your own boss

As a chief of staff, you have gained unique and valuable perspectives on:

  • how a business functions
  • how leadership makes important decisions
  • how to build lasting, impactful relationships that help an organization grow

You may have recognized a unique challenge you are ready to solve, on your own terms. As someone willing to take on any task for the greater good of the organization, you have already been initiated with the entrepreneurial spirit. Because entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, but you already know that because you’ve worked side by side with busy executives, many of which may have been entrepreneurs themselves. You’ve witnessed firsthand how to cope with various business failures, and you’re going in with much more business savvy than most. You may find you love being your own boss and never look back. Or you may decide working for someone else wasn’t so bad. Either way, you’ll have a strong skill set and unparalleled experiences that will make you employable and compatible to whatever pursuit you take on next.

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