Serving as a Chief of Staff imposes significant demands on your time, your mental resources, and even your social life. I’m sure many of our readers have endured 60-hour or more work weeks to get high priority items such as board decks or partnership launches done. While shipping those key projects can give us a sense of accomplishment, a huge amount of work over a sustained period can be demoralizing and exhausting. This guide will assist Chiefs of Staff in striking a balance between their professional commitments and personal life, so as to be effective for the long run.
The Balancing Scale: Managing Resources
Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, defines happiness as ‘experiences of pleasure and purpose over time’. Work-life balance, hence, is about separating the professional and personal in a way that contributes to happiness. Dora Nagy, a seasoned Chief of Staff, community member, and executive coach, wrote an insightful post on scaling businesses. Drawing from her extensive experience, she offers invaluable perspectives on the complexities of organizational structure and leadership. Nagy advocates for regular 'time and energy' audits, staying within one’s ‘zone of genius’, and focusing on systemic solutions rather than short-term firefighting.
Setting the Boundaries: Determining Prioritization
To be effective in our roles, it is crucial we distinguish between important and unimportant tasks. Nagy exhorts people to focus on ‘$5M problems’ rather than ‘$50 problems’. She notes that “your time spent should reflect that''. This, in essence, is about setting up boundaries and respecting them. It is not about squeezing your schedule or working 80 hours per week, but maximizing your output within normal working hours. While you are responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of your organization, you need not answer every call or respond to every query immediately.
Running an Energy Audit
Your goal should be to spend the majority of your time doing things that energize you. This will enable you to do your best work. How do you achieve this? Via an energy audit.
As executive coach Matt Mochary instructs: go through each workday hour-by-hour and ask yourself, "Did that activity give me energy or drain my energy?" Highlight those that gave you energy in green and red those that did not provide you with energy. There are no neutrals; every hour must be marked one color or the other. If an hour does not give you energy, it is red. (If you want to take a shortcut, you can just mark the reds.)
When finished, write out a list of each of the reds and group those activities into similar buckets. (i.e., 1-1 meetings, recruiting meetings, etc.)
Delegate and Disseminate
Everyone has their ‘zone of genius’. It's about understanding your strengths and areas of expertise. Hand over tasks that can be executed by others more effectively. This not only frees up your schedule but, as Nagy points out, it also helps in building a team of A-players. It is crucial to remember that it's not about assembling an all-star ensemble; instead, it's about creating a cohesive unit where every member contributes to achieving collective targets.
Turning back to Matt Mochary, there are four zones:
- Zone of Incompetence.
- Zone of Competence.
- Zone of Excellence.
- Zone of Genius.
Zone of Incompetence are the things that other people probably do better than you, and therefore you should outsource if they don’t energize you.
Zone of Competence are the things that you do just fine, but others are as good as you and therefore you should outsource if they don’t energize you.
Zone of Excellence are the things that you are excellent at, but don’t love doing. This is the danger zone. Many people will want you to keep doing these things (as they gain significant value from you doing them, i.e. key functions in your job), but this is the area that you should also look to move away from. This is the hard one!
Zone of Genius are the things that you are uniquely good at in the world, and that you love to do (so much so that time and space likely disappear when you do them). This is where you can add most value to the world and yourself. This is where you should be driving toward spending most, if not all, of your time. You should utilize energy audits to uncover these things.
Create a Systematic Approach
Systems are more efficient than individual tasks. They are a set of interacting procedures forming an integrated whole. Nagy stresses ‘systematic solutions’ over ‘ad hoc putting out fires’. Develop protocols for recurring tasks. Automate them if possible.
As David Thomas and Andy Hunt state in their great book The Pragmatic Programmer, “don’t repeat yourself.” For programmers, this philosophy enforces never writing the same piece of code twice. For a CoS, it tends to be about documentation. For instance, if you regularly receive similar queries, draft a FAQ document that can serve as a ready reference for the team. This reduces the demand on your time and helps streamline processes.
The Importance of 'Switching Off'
Every organization has 'quiet periods' when the workload is considerably lower than usual, such as during holiday seasons or weekends. Use these periods to relax and rejuvenate. This also sets a positive example, encouraging your team members to do the same. Leading by example is a powerful tool you possess; make sure to use it judiciously. It is not just about the number of hours logged in; it is about maintaining a high level of efficiency and productivity.
Achieving work-life balance as a Chief of Staff isn't just about time management; it's about managing your life as a whole. Striking a balance is integral to not only your personal well-being but also your professional success. It's crucial to remember that effective leadership lies in guiding, not micromanaging; leading, not dictating; delegating, not dominating. Nurture a positive organizational culture, develop systematic solutions, identify your 'zone of genius', and, above all, prioritize your mental and physical well-being.
Always bear in mind this parting thought from Dora Nagy: "The one and only job of a great Chief of Staff is to make the CEO successful. Everyone else comes after." But, in making others successful, never forget yourself. You can't pour from an empty cup.