The Chief of Staff

"You are not made a leader. You decide to become one." - Chris Fussell

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I hired a Chief of Staff in January for the first time in my career.

Previously, I believed that having a Chief of Staff/Executive Assistant was a sign of weakness (i.e. you couldn’t keep up without someone helping you) and/or hubris (i.e “Look at me, I have an assistant!”). I also thought it was a poor use of capital (financial and human). I was wrong. 

I realized that my previous beliefs were incorrect for 3 reasons:

  1. A great Chief of Staff can positively impact the organization, perhaps more so than they impact the leader they are directly supporting.
  2. It’s a tremendous opportunity to develop talent in an organization, by giving them a broader view.
  3. It’s an investment, not an expense. 

Succinctly said, a Chief of Staff role is more about helping the organization than a single leader. That’s a huge responsibility. That being said, there is no real standard for how these roles are utilized. I have seen some organizations treat them as secretarial roles (get coffee, etc), others as more transactional (briefing documents and scheduling), and others as a strategic adviser. 

But, if the 3 justifications above are correct, I believe we should give more thought to defining a standard for the role.

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In the book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, Chris Fussell writes about his role supporting General Stanley McChrystal. When McChrystal first asked him if he wanted the role, Fussell responded:

“Sir, I don’t think anyone in our community dreams of being an aide, and it's certainly never a position that I’ve sought. That said, I’ve felt something change in our organization over the past few years - we’re running differently, and better. An opportunity to see behind the curtain and understand how this is working...well, that’s fascinating to me.”

This response highlights not only his curiosity, but his desire to have an impact in a role that may otherwise be marginalized as an ‘aide’. Aptitude is important, but attitude is even more important. And, this is the right attitude to bring to the role.

Fussell goes on to share a framework for a Chief of Staff. It is four quadrants, with each one representing a different phase of development of the individual and their impact on the organization. He suggests that the Chief of Staff starts in quadrant 1 and develop clockwise. Some will reach quadrant 4, others will not. The quadrant that one reaches does not necessarily indicate their effectiveness. The framework presciently distinguishes between responsibilities that impact the Leader vs. the Organization. See here:

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While the specifics in each quadrant will vary by organization, leader, and the individual that is Chief of Staff, I believe its a great starting point for a standard.

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My experiment worked out very well. The individual ‘graduated’ in October, taking a key operational role in the organization. There are 3 things that stick out about this person:

  1. His written communication skills were exceptional. Clear, concise, fact-based, and thoughtful.
  2. He earned the respect of the organization through impact, not ‘networking’.
  3. He made our team better. 

I am now convinced that the Chief of Staff role is valuable. The standard for every organization will be different, but this framework is a good place to start.