Chief of Staff: What It Is, Responsibilities, and Career Path Overview

Chief of Staff roles have gotten increasingly popular. Here's what it is and what you should expect, from a former Chief of Staff to the CEO of a unicorn.

Alex M.

By Alex M.

Posted January 23, 2024

In the past couple of years, Chief of Staff roles have become increasingly popular at a variety of companies, including rapidly growing technology companies. The following article outlines what a Chief of Staff role entails, their responsibilities, and what roles being a Chief of Staff actually prepares you for.

What is a Chief of Staff?

This question is slightly tricky to answer, as each Chief of Staff role is going to be slightly different. Put simply, a Chief of Staff serves as an execution partner to an executive within a company. You will be there to execute on the things that the executive deems as a priority, but does not have time to do.

Typically, Chief of Staff roles will be listed as Chief of Staff to a particular executive, such as Chief of Staff to the CEO.

While all Chiefs of Staff will be a critical partner to their executive, the format may be different. For example:

  • Some Chief of Staff roles are rotational in nature (i.e., you will only be in the role for a short period of time) while other roles will be long-term
  • Some Chief of Staff roles will be looking for someone earlier in their career, while others will want a more tenured individual
  • Some Chief of Staff roles will be more focused on operational processes (scheduling, calendaring) while some may be more focused on strategic planning

Chief of Staff Responsibilities

In my experience, the responsibility of a Chief of Staff looks like the responsibility of other business operations or senior executive roles including:

  1. Own regular operational processes: This bucket includes organizing and running weekly executive team meetings, preparation for quarterly board of director meetings, writing team-wide communications, or conducting quarterly sales kick-offs.
  2. Drive special projects to completion: Oftentimes, special projects owned by the Chief of Staff will be projects that do not have a natural home in the organization. These include projects that require the collaboration of multiple teams or projects that need executive oversight.
  3. Connect the dots across the organization: As a Chief of Staff, you will be privy to a lot of information across functions. One of your core responsibilities will be to connect the dots around the organization. For example, you will be in a prime spot to encourage two executives to talk to one another when you hear that they are both kicking off projects to streamline onboarding for their teams.

And then, of course, there are some responsibilities that are more unique to the Chief of Staff role, including:

Being the eyes and ears on the ground for the executive.

Everyone wants to impress senior executives, especially the CEO, correct? Although done with good intentions, this often means that senior executives are shielded from many problems within the organization. As a Chief of Staff, your executive will rely on you to listen intently around the organization and proactively identify issues that they may not be aware of.

Seeing around corners.

Along with proactively identifying currently active problems, a great Chief of Staff will identify problems before they become problems. You may notice that a certain organizational structure is not conducive to a seamless client delivery – you can quickly flag this to your executive partner to prevent customer abrasion.

Serving as a sounding board for the executive.

The organization will often rely on your executive partner to make decisions, big and small. Sometimes, making those decisions can be difficult and lonely. As a Chief of Staff, you can aid in the decision-making process by helping the executive make “go/no-go” decisions, and pressure test specific logic or ways of thinking.

Why Be a Chief of Staff?

A Chief of Staff role is a perfect fit if your long-term career goals include being a senior leader at a company. As Chief of Staff, you will get to ride shotgun to your executive, seeing how they run the business, make decisions, and evaluate trade-offs. As Chief of Staff, you will also gain exposure to a variety of different projects and functions, allowing you to decide what type of work you do and do not like.

Ultimately, a Chief of Staff position is perfect if you aspire to be a CEO someday! The wide breadth of exposure you will gain in the role will allow you to start building the broad foundation needed to run a company someday.

What Makes a Successful Chief of Staff?

There are a number of skills that make a successful Chief of Staff. To name four:

1. You are a quick learner.

As a Chief of Staff, you will often be tasked with projects for which you do not have any experience or background. You will need to dive in and get up to speed quickly. Ensuring that you can learn quickly and synthesize information across a variety of sources will be crucial to your success.

2. You can push through ambiguity.

Your executive may come to you one day and say, “We need to launch our new product offering to the market. Can you help?” Of course, you say yes, and suddenly have to figure out what comes next. As Chief of Staff, you will need to be skilled at taking an ambiguous request and breaking it down into concrete next steps, outlining a path forward to completing the project or solving the problem.

3. You are organized with great attention to detail.

As you manage various operational processes and projects, you will need to be incredibly organized and attentive to detail. You will often serve as a “conductor,” helping stakeholders understand who needs to do what and when.

4. You can lead effectively through influence.

Oftentimes, your projects will require collaboration between multiple teams across the organization, over which you do not have direct control. You will need to “lead through influence,” convincing stakeholders to come along with you to effectuate change.

Overall, Chief of Staff roles are a fantastic way to learn how to run a business while exploring a variety of functions. You are able to develop close relationships with executives, work with a lot of different teams and on a lot of different projects, tackle high-level problems, and have an outsized impact on the organization.

Alex is a former Chief of Staff to the CEO of a private equity-backed unicorn. She was admitted to the MBA programs at Stanford, Harvard, and Northwestern (Kellogg). Book a FREE intro call with her today and land your dream Chief of Staff role.

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