This article is the fourth in a five-part series on what you most need to focus on to succeed as a corporate chief of staff. In research for my upcoming book, Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization, I interviewed scores of corporate chiefs of staff, C-suite executives, and HR executives around the globe and across industries. I studied thousands more. Five imperatives for new corporate chiefs of staff emerged from that research:
- Establish and maintain trust with your executive and his or her direct reports.
- Establish yourself as the executive’s proxy and information funnel, filter, facilitator.
- Establish yourself as the executive’s thought partner.
- Identify and choose the projects that you can own from beginning to end, and deliver them.
- Take care of yourself.
Identify and choose projects that you can own from beginning to end, and deliver them
Before I go too far in explaining the importance of this topic, keep in mind that many people come through a rotational version of the chief of staff role, with an eye toward general management or executive positions once they have completed 24–36 months in the role. Others are long-term or career chiefs of staff who spend five years to the rest of their careers in the role. You can take something from this post no matter which model you find yourself in, but what you take will likely be different.
In the early conversations in which you and your executive are exchanging expectations, ensure that one of you can identify a few special projects that you will own and drive during your tenure. Doing so enables your executive to focus on his or her highest and best use of time (usually big-picture, strategic thinking versus project details) and manage cross-functional work for which there is no clear departmental owner. Owning projects from beginning to end serves your needs, too, because these projects do the following:
- Establish your leadership presence and give you visibility at the executive level, especially when a lot of your work in the role is behind the scenes
- Keep you engaged in and motivated by your work, especially when a lot of your work will be focused on long-term goals
- Set you up for success in your performance reviews in the role and as you target your next role
Establishing your leadership presence and visibility
One chief of staff articulated the challenge beautifully: “In this role, there are elements of ownership, but for the most part your boss is your project, and you don’t control him. You help create the canvas on which he paints, but you don’t do a lot of the painting.” Stepping out from behind the scenes into the spotlight occasionally helps create your own leadership brand and keeps your own identity distinct from your executive’s. Some chiefs of staff, especially those who serve more than one leader or in multiple chief of staff roles, can get “pigeonholed” into staying in the role; and once that happens, they might have to leave the company to break out of the reputation of being “just” a chief of staff. You need direct, tangible business achievements to establish yourself as a leader in your own right.
Keeping engaged in and motivated by your work
Progress in this role is often measured over the long term (months or years). Many of the projects you start will not be fulfilled in your tenure. Having some ownership of short-term projects can provide you some successes along the way that can keep you engaged or prevent you from being discouraged when it feels like achievement, or even progress, is far away.
Setting yourself up for success in the role and beyond
One of the biggest challenges for chiefs of staff in the role is how to rate themselves in annual performance reviews. “Many companies allocate bonuses and stock options based on peer-to-peer comparison, which isn’t possible because one chief of staff isn’t the same from one department to another, let alone one company to another or one industry to another,” says one high-tech chief of staff. “If you have a chief of staff who is compared with sales people, the sales people can point to more tangible dollar results, so managing your review can be tricky.” Beyond this year’s performance review, especially for the rotational chief of staff, you deal with the challenge that the spotlight (and the seven-figure salary) hits the leader, not the chief of staff. If you are in the background, you often don’t get the credit; so what do you put on your resume? How do you articulate the concrete contributions that you made when you apply for that director of investor relations role or that GM of facilities role? Owning projects gives you those concrete contributions to point to.
It’s important to note that you might not own a lot of projects as a chief of staff – you’ll influence, facilitate, orchestrate, provide frameworks for, and oversee others who are on the hook for their projects more often than not. Additionally, I found multiple instances in my research where the role failed because the incumbent came into the role expecting to own projects and be in the spotlight. Still, carving out a few projects that you can own will likely make a big difference.
Here are examples of some special projects that were highlighted by chiefs of staff in my interviews:
- A review and restructuring of executive compensation packages
- Organizational restructuring, with or without layoffs
- Creating frameworks for new business models or determining which business models the company will move forward with
- Assessment of specific merger and acquisition opportunities
- A revamp of planning and budgeting processes
- A comprehensive business review of core functions
- Formulation of a strategy and program for the company’s women in leadership
- Bringing together a cross-functional team to revamp investor reporting
- Orchestrating a litigation framework and governance process that enabled a company to proactively decide on what intellectual property lawsuits it would pursue to protect its interests
- Creation of and representation in governance processes
One chief of staff for a high-tech company spent a fair amount of his first two weeks ensuring the flawless execution of a day-long meeting with 30 Chinese delegates and some executives from a major U.S. aerospace company, making sure that the right folks were where they needed to be, presentation content was delivered in Chinese and English, and dinner and other logistics went smoothly. He did all this while preparing himself and his executive for an upcoming board meeting, getting to know the team, and learning the daily tasks and ongoing projects that he’d need to attend to. This project showed that he could deliver, on short notice and without knowing all the players and pieces to start, and began what was by all accounts a very successful stint in the role.
In the next and final article in this series, I’ll look at the importance of taking care of yourself in a role in which you don’t fully own your own schedule.
I help people in chief of staff roles increase their impact, extend their influence, and shorten their learning curve so they can succeed in this role and future leadership roles that they'll step into. If you're a corporate, nonprofit, academic, or government chief of staff, stop by https://chiefofstaff.expert and make it your "home on the web" while you're in the role.