‘Listen without bias’: How to develop the mindset and core skills of a chief of staff

52 chiefs of staff; five distinguished Oxford professors; three actors; eight singers; three eminent guest speakers; and one international conductor, to say nothing of the Chief of Staff Association team: this extraordinarily diverse group of people came together last week to create ‘magic’ during the Chief of Staff Executive Education Programme at the University of Oxford.

This four-day residential programme, held twice a year, is the apex of the Chief of Staff Association learning journey that leads to professional certification as a chief of staff. It is an educational experience like no other. Under the direction of Dr Andrew White, leadership expert and Senior Fellow in Management Practice at Saïd Business School, the chief of staff participants this May were not so much taught as provided with myriad opportunities to make connections, allow lighting bolts of inspiration to strike, and reflect deeply on their own skills, attitudes, and career aspirations.

Among the highlights of a packed week were:

  • Dr Jonathan Trevor on the role of chiefs of staff in facilitating strategic alignment ‒ the careful arrangement of the various elements of an organisation, including its business strategy, capabilities, structure, culture, people and management systems, to best support the fulfilment of its long-term purpose.
  • Professor Ian Goldin with a stunning synthesis of 21st-century challenges and a wide discussion about how to steer organisations through an uncertain and unstable system, which is globally integrated and yet fragmented at the same time.
  • Peter Hanke’s conducting workshop, analysing individual leadership styles without words, but with wisdom and kindness.
  • The Honourable Linda Dessau, Governor of Victoria, with a fascinating and funny speech during the closing dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The ‘learning points’ were many, and too individual to list. But one key idea that cropped up again and again throughout the programme was the importance, not just of listening, but of listening without bias: being able to hear someone’s story without immediately superimposing your own story or your own interpretation. The ability to do this is central to the role of chief of staff, and very often the difference between success and failure in many different contexts.

Written by Caroline Scotter Mainprize, Chief-Editor, The Chief of Staff Association