The Chief of Staff (CoS) role has become increasingly popular in recent years, as businesses have sought to streamline their operations and improve coordination between different departments. However, there is a growing debate about whether the CoS role remains necessary in today's cost-conscious business environment. From our vantage point at the Chief of Staff Network, we’re observing that numerous CoS have been caught up in waves of layoffs throughout 2023. Furthermore, we’ve seen in the last few months that open CoS roles, which were once abundant, have decreased precipitously; we used to see ~400 fresh roles per week and now we’re seeing about ~150.
With that said, we have to ask: is the Chief of Staff role dead? Has its luster worn off?
In this post, we’ll briefly discuss why the Chief of Staff role became one of the hottest roles in the private sector and then examine what may be causing the decline of the role and where it might go from here.
As Karl Yang puts it in his great piece The Job Status Cycle, high prestige strategy & ops roles are created in order to win talent that might otherwise be out of reach on a pure compensation basis:
“Pioneering executives have trouble recruiting talented young people, often because their comp bands aren’t competitive. Unwilling or unable to pay more, they promise things like ‘high visibility’, ‘high autonomy’, and ‘opportunity for growth’, along with a New Title.” The New Title is birthed typically by rebranding old roles and/or cribbing them from other industries (i.e. CoS from politics).
As the first cohorts of the role become managers or move on to other roles, a broader audience begins to pay attention. You can tell a role has reached this point when fresh MBAs begin to apply to the New Title en masse; this is what Anu Atluru calls a trophy job: “a job that people covet for its status more than its substance.” In Yang’s words, “momentum from the high status of the earlier phases begins to be overwhelmed by declining exclusivity.”
Finally, there is a decline to steady state. The New Title is no longer prestigious and “status begins to trend toward Project Manager, which is a large part of what all these roles do.“
Now that we understand the status cycle, we need to understand what caused the Chief of Staff role in particular to explode in popularity. Like many (most?) things in corporate America, we can attribute it to mimesis, Rene Girard’s idea (later popularized by Peter Thiel) that imitation is the root of all human behavior.
One of the first prominent corporate CoS was Ben Casnocha, who served Reid Hoffman at LinkedIn and Greylock Partners. Shortly thereafter, Potluck Mittal served in a CoS capacity for Sam Altman at Y Combinator. The renowned executive coach Matt Mochary, who has coached the CEOs of Coinbase, Flexport, Reddit, Brex, and many more, began encouraging his clients to get Chiefs of Staff in 2017 and eventually would not take on new clients unless they had a CoS. All of these contributed to the vast interest in the CoS role in the last 5 years.
And now, the role appears to be declining to a steady state. Yang predicted this would occur in 2020, but in fact, per our data at CoS Network, it’s happening right now. We’re getting more membership applications than ever from people aspiring to CoS roles, especially those who have just graduated from MBA programs.
The CoS role has, for some firms, become a cargo cult: companies have emulated the visible effects of achievement believing the real achievement would follow automatically. They hired CoS because great CEOs had them, not because they necessarily needed them or knew what to do with them.
And now, with the economy in turmoil, the role is facing some stress, mainly in the form of fewer CoS job openings and increasing CoS layoffs. Why is such a critical role under pressure in this way? Often, CoS spend their time serving as culture champions, strategy advisors, change managers, and executive coordinators. Note that there isn’t direct commercial impact in that list. And at a time when companies are worried about hitting revenue targets and cutting costs, an expensive role (with $158k average cash compensation) that doesn’t directly drive commercial impact might be seen as a “nice-to-have.”
With all of this said, we believe rumors of the Chief of Staff's demise are greatly exaggerated. We fully expect the role to weather the current economic storm. While the role will evolve over time, CoS will remain critical to organizational success. Here's why:
First, the scope of the CEO's job has expanded exponentially. Beyond setting strategy, today's CEOs are expected to be public figures, crisis managers, culture champions and more. The span of control is too great for any one person to manage alone. Chiefs of Staff provide critical support across a diverse set of responsibilities. They don’t merely project manage, they extend the principal’s ability to get novel & complex projects done.
Second, even small startups eventually become complex organizations. Flat structures get harder to maintain. What worked at 40 employees becomes unmanageable at 400. As organizations grow, coordination challenges multiply. A Chief of Staff helps connect disparate teams and fosters alignment. While hard to measure, improved alignment and coordination cut the significant dollar and morale costs associated with “thrash” (constant change of project requirements).
Finally, the external environment is increasingly volatile. Navigating issues like technological disruption, political upheaval, and economic instability requires strategic insight. Chiefs of Staff operate as a radar, identifying threats and opportunities. They provide a 3rd party perspective to complement the CEO's vision.
The Chief of Staff role needs to keep adapting. But even in our tumultuous business climate, the core mandate remains the same: complementing, supporting and challenging the CEO so the organization can thrive. In the coming evolution of the role, those who succeed will bring deep commercial rigor via both the revenue generation and cost cutting lenses in addition to the people / culture, project management, and advisory / facilitation aspects we’ve already seen. Most importantly, they’ll be the ones who love the job for its substance, not its status.