In the world of politics, Chiefs of Staff are often the unsung heroes behind successful leaders. These skilled professionals are masters of building and wielding spheres of influence to get things done in high-stakes, constantly-changing environments.
With that said, there’s a lot that private sector Chiefs of Staff can learn from their political counterparts. By adopting some of the same tactics and strategies used by political Chiefs of Staff, corporate Chiefs of Staff can better navigate complex organizational dynamics, manage conflict, and ultimately, drive impactful change. In this article, we'll explore the ways in which political Chiefs of Staff build and wield influence, and how these lessons can be applied in the world of tech to elevate the work of Chiefs of Staff and their teams.
Influence is a crucial skill for Chiefs of Staff in both the public and private sector. Since the CoS role first gained prominence in government before making the jump to the corporate world, we can learn a lot from how political CoS build influence. Take the ways in which the White House Chief of Staff establishes influence:
- Build trust with the President: The Chief of Staff must establish a strong working relationship with the President, serving as a trusted advisor who can provide frank advice and guidance.
- Foster relationships with key stakeholders: The Chief of Staff needs to build relationships with key players in the Administration, including Cabinet members, agency heads, and Congress. This requires effective communication, collaboration, and a deep understanding of the issues and priorities of each stakeholder.
- Manage the White House staff: The Chief of Staff is responsible for managing the White House staff and ensuring that everyone is working toward the President's goals. This requires strong organizational skills, the ability to delegate tasks effectively, and a talent for motivating and inspiring others.
- Exercise control over the President's schedule: The Chief of Staff must manage the President's schedule, prioritizing the most important meetings and events while ensuring that the President has sufficient time to rest and recharge.
- Develop a deep understanding of policy: The Chief of Staff must be well-versed in policy issues and have a deep understanding of the President's agenda. This requires ongoing research, analysis, and collaboration with policy experts.
In many spheres of politics, whether presidential, congressional, or gubernatorial, a Chief of Staff handles more types of work than a corporate Chief. Often, political CoS simultaneously wear the hats of chief operating officer, office manager, chief strategist, policy advisor, decision-making proxy, gatekeeper, headhunter, crisis coordinator, and personal confidant.
In exchange for this amount of work, CoS are frequently catapulted to roles of much greater authority in a short span of time:
- Richard Nixon's chief of staff Alexander Haig, became Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan
- Gerald Ford's chief of staff Dick Cheney later became a congressman for Wyoming, Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush, and vice president under George W. Bush
- Donald Rumsfeld, another chief of staff under Ford, later became Secretary of Defense in 2 administrations
- Jack Lew, Obama's fourth chief of staff, was later appointed Secretary of the Treasury
In the corporate world, a CoS would rarely serve as COO, chief strategist, office manager, or gatekeeper, while the other responsibilities may remain the same. Even so, we can use the 5-point framework above within business settings to help corporate CoS springboard into more senior roles quickly:
Build trust with the principal:
It’s easy to think that building trust with the principal is all about delivering business results. That’s certainly part of it, but you need to remember that your boss is a human being as well. As isolating as the CoS role can be, your principal almost certainly feels more alone.
So invest in creating a meaningful relationship with them that goes beyond the work (h/t to Matt Mochary’s “Trust and Like”):
- Express genuine curiosity about their lives, at work and at home.
- Ask them questions.
- Prove to them you're listening by saying, "I think I heard you say…" and then repeating back the highlights of what they said.
- When the meeting ends, write down as much information about the person as you remember.
- Prove that you remember by saying at the next meeting, "The last time we talked, you said …."
- Let them know what you appreciate about them.
Foster relationships with stakeholders:
You can start building stakeholder alliances by using the steps for a meaningful relationship above. However, you can go beyond this with a “Waiting For” List, as described by Tyler Young, CoS to the CFO at Braze. Such a list tracks the top action items you are waiting on for others to complete. Rather than nagging, using this tool effectively can create immense relational value with stakeholders.
- Following-up demonstrates that Chiefs of Staff are organized and attentive to detail. Tyler starts each day by going through his Waiting-For List to look for upcoming deadlines.
- Additionally, following-up with people is important for Chiefs of Staff because it helps build relationships and trust: “If I notice deadlines are approaching without others having already taken action, I strategically reach out with relevant, timely, and actionable messages to set them up for success.”
- Finally, following-up is simply good manners - it's a way to show that you care about the person you're communicating with and value their time and input. “This sets the standard with Executives at Braze that my messages are sent with the intention to help me help them to help the business.”
Typically, Chiefs of Staff do not have direct reports, until their company or department is large enough to have an Office of the CEO (or other principal).
Instead, CoS lead staff via project plans and setting priorities with the other members of the management team. One great way to approach project management is the crawl, walk, run approach espoused by our member Emily Smith:
- Crawl: slowly introduce new ideas via limited pilots.
- Walk: incorporate pilot feedback and begin change management efforts.
- Run: launch en masse.
By taking the time to do this, you can avoid potential problems and ensure a successful transition for your team. Taking the time to incorporate feedback will ultimately help you build a better process, program, team, etc. than you could have on your own.
Control the schedule:
This is not to say that you should take on executive assistant responsibilities; however, you should understand where the principal spends their time. Run a calendar and energy audit every two weeks for 15 minutes, where you discuss with the principal what gave them energy in the last 2 weeks, what sapped them, and what was neutral. Then figure out how you can shuffle the calendar for the 2 weeks ahead to maximize their energy and delegate out the tasks that sap them; the goal is that 75% or more of their time is spent doing things that give them energy.
As a CoS, you should not be a gatekeeper for the principal’s time; that’s typically more of an EA responsibility. However, you should be helping the CEO operate in their zone of genius (i.e. the things that give them energy and that they are exceptional at) as well as ensuring that the trains run on time with regard to executive deliverables.
Develop understanding of issues:
In order to build influence, you need to credibly speak about the core issues of the business. In politics, Chiefs of Staff are often chosen because they bring pre-existing knowledge of the administration’s key priorities and policy areas. In the corporate world, given that vast variety of companies out there, it’s rare that a CoS will come in with the exact knowledge of a company’s customers, sales motion, product features, and other functional expertise.
The best way to assuage this is to flip the famous GitLab CEO shadow program on its head and shadow individual contributors across all departments. If you want to learn about the customer and their needs, go sit with the sales, customer support, and user research folks. If you want to learn about your firm’s product development process, follow the day-to-day of individuals on the product, engineering, and design teams.
In conclusion, the role of Chiefs of Staff in both politics and business is crucial, as they help leaders navigate complex and high-stakes environments. Corporate Chiefs of Staff can learn from their political counterparts by adopting similar tactics and strategies for building and wielding influence, namely building trust with the principal, fostering relationships with stakeholders, managing the staff, exercising control over the schedule, and developing a deep understanding of issues. By adopting these strategies, corporate Chiefs of Staff can springboard into more senior roles quickly.
To network with Chiefs of Staff who've made the jump from politics to private sector, apply for CoS Network membership here.