Chief of Stuff (That No One Else Can Manage)

George Boyar

April 22, 2021

All of us need the one who can handle everything when we’re not around. And when it comes to business, you just crave for a person or two who can act as a Swiss Army Knife. Well, another name for that knife is a Chief of Staff.

What does the Chief of Staff do?

As we say, behind every successful Executive, there is a strong Chief of Staff. But, what exactly are their responsibilities and duties?

While the Chief of Staff title has grown significantly in the last few years, it still takes on different naming conventions across industries and companies from SMBs to enterprises and often plays a very different role in tech companies as compared to politics.

Just talk to CoSs of big companies like HP, Microsoft, Facebook - all have various titles, but virtually all of them are Chiefs of Staff. The issue with CoS is that it doesn't have a standard set of responsibilities. So, to puzzle out any given CoS role and its duties, we need to look across:

Seniority levels

Let's break CoS duties and responsibilities down into 5 types according to the seniority levels:

Level 1: Executive shadow

A Chief of Staff is responsible for day-to-day tasks like coordinating calendars, sharing out meeting notes, and generally executing their Principal’s lower-list (but still mission critical) priorities. 

This person is the eye and ear of their Exec and helps them to choose suitable candidates when it comes to hiring new employees. This person is often the first line of defense on whether an issue makes it to their Exec. Yet, she/he doesn't necessarily participate in building and shaping overall strategy.

  • Frequency of check-ins: Daily
  • Key responsibilities: Reactive administrative work
  • Impact type: Access

Level 2: Generalist for hire

This Chief of Staff is how an effective Exec gets 36 hours of a 24 hour day - she/he is the one who shadows the Exec in all major meetings, aggregates decisions to keep things efficient, and owns major research, communication, and analysis type tasks that inform decision making. These CoSs can be story writers and responsible for leveling up the effectiveness of the Exec’s performance.

  • Frequency of check-ins: Daily
  • Key responsibilities: Organization and efficacy of the Exec
  • Impact type: Influence

Level 3: Team lead

A future candidate for leading a team and having direct reports. That is why a CoS in this level acts as an Exec from time to time. They can hold and attend meetings themselves instead of the Exec. So, when the Exec is not around, they’re the must-go people. In some scenarios, this CoS may have 1-2 direct reports.

  • Frequency of check-ins: 1-3x weekly
  • Key responsibilities: Department level efficacy
  • Impact type: Lead by example, delegation

Level 4: Strategist for hire

This CoS is the Exec’s right-hand strategic thought partner and is sometimes retitled to Director or VP of Strategy and Operations. In this role, you should expect to spend most of your time meeting with different cross-functional teams and looking for opportunities to increase multiple teams’ success. You will hear lots of "Have you considered..." from this level Chief of Staff. 

  • Frequency of check-ins: 1x a week
  • Key responsibilities: Are we working on the right things?
  • Impact type: Prioritization of resources

Level 5: Exec-lite

In this role, a CoS has a narrower focus and manages a team. This role often evolves into “Business Operations” and is sometimes referred to as an “Internal Management Consulting Team.”

This CoS will both develop new strategies and implement  them. This is the closest to an Executive level position, and good performance requires more than hard effort - a CoS in this role is held accountable for selecting the right strategy too.

  • Frequency of check-ins: 1x a week
  • Key responsibilities: Leadership and accountability
  • Impact type: Delegation


Company size

The Chief of Staff's duties and responsibilities can vary depending on companies and their culture.

The bigger the company is, the more diversified duties a CoS may have. 

Let’s clear up the confusion - Chief of Staff vs. Operation

Finally, let’s clear up some common areas of confusion:

Chief of Staff vs. Executive Assistant

While both roles handle tremendous work to help the Exec not to sweat blood, they still don't do the same work.

Key responsibilities for an EA:

  • Travel arrangements
  • Recurring reports
  • Answering phone calls or emails

Key responsibilities for a CoS:

  • Directing administrative, operational, and financial activities
  • Storyteller - Consulting - Strategist
  • Startup Siri - providing crucial information on critical issues

One of the most straightforward explanations of differences between CoS and EA can be Hallie Warner's, the author and CoS of Adam Hergenrother Companies:

"Executive Assistants live in the now (or usually 1 week – 30 days out). Chiefs of Staff live in the future (a minimum of 90 days out, though anywhere between 90 days and 1 year, and often beyond)."

Simply put, EA mainly falls under the first three seniority levels we’ve covered above as they’re not responsible for coming up with and following up on new strategies for the company. But CoSs are more than that: they’re responsible for optimizing the Exec’s time and leveling up the entire organization’s performance.

Chief of Staff vs. Operations Lead (or another team specialist such as Sales Ops)

Ops Lead has recurring responsibilities. Usually, she/he does the same thing even 1 year later, just in a higher level/position.

On the other hand, CoS evolves into new responsibilities every 1-3 months. Otherwise, the Executive Team should take it as a signal that the organization is under-resourced and should hire more people.

Chief of Staff vs. COO

Besides the two same letters in their names, CoS and COO have a lot in common. Both of them are generalists that gravitate towards the most challenging problems  and have copious amounts of responsibilities. The following career step for a CoS can be a COO position.

Depending on the company, a CoS is a COO-lite. The COO role varies a lot depending on the size of the company. If a staff involves less than 100-150 people at a startup, the level 3 CoS might play a COO role, as well. Finally, it’s important to note that this is not a strict hierarchy. Each of these levels requires different skill sets and specializations. Put differently, you should not be surprised to find a type 2 CoS earning more than a type 4 CoS.

So the next time you’re networking and you ask a Chief of Staff what they do and they respond like this, at least you’ll know why.


Helpful outside resources:

Reading Time:
5
Min

want to join the cos network?

We are an invite only community welcoming new members who meet the following criteria.

You are currently a Chief of Staff*
You work in the private sector (non-government)
You’re ready to actively participate in the community
*Your job title should include Chief of Staff in your public profile.
Not a Chief of Staff yet? Contact Us