One of the most challenging and vastly under-served elements of a Chief of Staff role is understanding and communicating the position inside the organization. We recently released a CoS Leveling Framework during our Chief of Staff Foundations Track having conducted research with Chiefs of Staff to better understand how the role progresses from IC execution to strategy & thought leadership at the most senior levels.
Chiefs of Staff come from a variety of professional backgrounds and bring different amounts of experience and skills to the table. The “Chief” in CoS can be deceptive as not every CoS is working at the executive level. Despite sharing the same title, CoS are operating with varying amounts of influence & ownership and therefore at different levels within their companies.
What is the objective?
- Increasing clarity of what is expected at each level
- Supporting Chief of Staff to identify growth areas and create development plans
How do we account for differences in organization size?
Company stage/size is also a key reason the CoS role takes on vastly different forms. Our Chief of Staff leveling framework generally assumes that as org size increases, the complexity of the role also increases. So a level 2 Chief of Staff at an org size 3 (250-1000 employees) may be roughly equivalent to a level 3 Chief of Staff at org size 2 (50-250 employees).
Using the Framework
Starting from “Relationship to Principal”, highlight or circle each dimension based on the level that feels most appropriate to your current position.
- You may find your perception of your position straddles certain levels. As much as this is an opportunity to help clarify your position, the goal is also to identify areas of improvement, so be honest!
Where do you believe you are ahead for each dimension of growth? Where are you behind?
What do you need to improve?
What areas with your principal, Senior Leadership Team, or organization present the best opportunity for further development?
Bonus: Have your Principal complete the same exercise. Compare the results and discuss the questions together.
Chief of Staff Network Leveling Framework
Organization Stage & Role Impact
Early-Stage (<50 employees)
Chiefs of Staff at these companies tend to take on many of the responsibilities across teams where full-time roles have not yet been filled. This commonly includes functions such as HR/People Ops, business operations, or BD/partnerships.
Growth (50-250) & Scale-up (250-1000)
As a company begins rapid successions of growth, the previously used frameworks and operating rhythms become less applicable to the evolving company objectives and team dynamics. These operating models are often deeply embedded within a team’s culture. They are highly cross functional and sometimes sensitive to rip and replace. While more administrative Chiefs of Staff are still applicable here, this is also where the strategic side of Level 3+ Chiefs of Staff really starts to shine.
Large Enterprises (1000+)
At this stage, Chiefs of Staff start may emerge across the organization reporting to different C-Suite executives (e.g. CTO, CPO) and also occasionally across the heads of various functional departments at the VP level. Each CoS may have different job descriptions with scope typically reflecting that of their Principal’s mandates. Chief of Staff teams may also start to emerge as these operators work together on various cross-functional projects that span their respective departments. A great example of this can be found at GitLab and is documented in their handbook.
Advancement & Dimensions of Growth
Broadly, we found that advancement in a CoS role corresponds to a few different dimensions of growth.
CoS Relationship to Principal & Primary Directives.
An essential dimension of your Chief of Staff advancement is the independence you exhibit in your role.
Level 1 & 2 CoS are allotted some operational independence, but often with regular supervision from their Principal. As you advance to Level 3 & 4, we find Chiefs of Staff are generally able to operate in the role with greater independence. This doesn't mean that you won’t have regular check-ins with your Principal, but the time will be spent gaining greater alignment on priorities and responsibilities.
To operate independently means that manager oversight is no longer required for you to successfully execute different cross-functional initiatives. At all stages of growth, you should continue to leverage your manager as a coach to help you through various challenges. It is your manager's responsibility to help you advance your capabilities to reach the next level.
Role Scope & Decision Making
The scope of the Chief of Staff role generally shifts from directed work on small projects that are prioritized by the Principal to strategic projects that impact multiple stakeholders of the company. Examples of directed work may include ensuring Senior Leadership Team meetings are relevant, well-structured and prepared, coordinating All Hands meetings, and prepping your Principal for important meetings or presentations.
Level 4 & 5 Chiefs of Staff, particularly at larger companies may begin building teams that report directly to the CoS. This could be Office of the CEO type functions (e.g. Biz Ops) or as a strategic owner managing entire departments.
Expanding the scope of role enables the Chief of Staff to assume more leadership responsibilities. As highly skilled generalists, your ability to plug into any area of the business becomes a significant strength. Leadership projects may range from managing cross-functional tasks like OKRs, owning initiatives in areas that are under staffed or have no clear leader, or leading the operations of entire business units (in lieu of a COO).
Influence & Leadership
A critical component for advancement is your ability to lead with the power of influence. While the role is inherently a leadership position, it shifts from pure execution with low influence to cross-functional management with higher degrees of influence across key stakeholders and ultimately the potential to manage teams directly.
Senior Chiefs of Staff will demonstrate a greater ability to drive strong operational results through their team members, and coordinate and align the team with a broad vision encompassing the (often competing) priorities of their principal and organization.
Per the previous notes on orientation (from Rob Dickins', CoS at AutoDesk, article), CoS influence (at all levels) spans across three orientations:
- Principal: Initially your influence is with your Principal. Execution of their priorities helps build operational trust and enables you to act as a confidant and advisor to your Principal.
- Senior Leadership Team: Facilitating executive meetings, assisting with cross-company communication, and unblocking your Principal’s time to help senior leaders move faster are opportunities to build strong credibility with the SLT.
- Organization: Owning an emerging capability (and new team), coordinating internal short and long-term strategy planning, communicating the strategic vision of the Principal in relation to the organization objectives.
This is the first iteration of our Chief of Staff Leveling framework. We recognize the demands of this position can be wide ranging and therefore difficult to capture the spirit of every Chief of Staff position. With more research we will expand the competency profiles that better recognize the skills, behaviors and knowledge needed to perform best in the role at different stage organizations.
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