Successful negotiations are frequently marked by outcomes where both sides gain. Win-win positions are also applied to decision-making when the decision-maker works to create an outcome where multiple positions are favorably enhanced. This goal is admirable. However, the chief of staff must recognize that win-win decisions are not always best for the organization. Many sports teams have individual athletes’ names on the back of their game uniforms to help announcers and fans identify them, but almost all teams have the team’s name on the front of the jersey. Similarly, chiefs of staff have to play for the name on the front of the jersey more than the name on the back; they must keep the bigger picture of the organization in focus at all times.
One of my responsibilities is to manage the payroll for the non-military employees in our organization. I chair the Personnel Management Review Board as a mechanism to determine when and how many new employees we can hire, or how many of those who are leaving we can afford to replace. Let’s say that the Director of Logistics wants to hire another employee. She coordinates with the Human Resources Director and determines that we have the capacity for a new hire. They then coordinate with the Comptroller, who determines that the organization has enough space to hire another employee in the Manage to Payroll budget. It seems like a win- win-win, except the chief of staff knows that a 15% payroll cut is projected for the following year. It is not in the organization’s best interests to hire someone only to let them go the next year – or to keep them and operate over budget. Chiefs of staff must always keep the interests of the larger, entire organization in mind over the interests of specific staff sections.
Chiefs of staff must have a bias for action. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, explains his perspective eloquently: ‘Be a proactive decision-maker. It is better to get your butt chewed for going too far rather than not doing enough. Remember, it is always easier to get forgiveness than permission.’ (2) Decisions are not like wine; they don’t get better with age. When the chief of staff waits, the entire organization waits. Yes, some decisions require research. Yes, some decisions are complicated and require time to work through the options and implications. Preparation takes time, but it should not be drawn out when it comes time to make the actual decision. You can increase the speed of the decision-making process by not waiting until the issue is in crisis before acting. A former 1st Marine Division commander was fond of saying, ‘small, frequent, rapid decisions will save you from having to come up with a big decision at the eleventh hour.’ (3)
Much of a chief of staff’s job is relational, and decisions cannot be separated from people. A chief of staff needs to understand the people on the team along with their tendencies, personalities, and capabilities when making decisions. Some teammates are long-winded or give overly elaborate explanations – best not to put these in with The Boss at the end of a long day. Other staff members don’t do their homework and conduct discovery learning in the Boss’ office. These types may be better to pre-brief you and answer all your questions before you say, ‘How about I take that decision for you and get an answer from the boss?’. Still, other teammates may be deliberate thinkers who need the exposure and credit for their excellent ideas. A chief of staff must know his teammates and his boss’ likely reactions to them or their presentation style. Frequently a decision can be made rapidly because the correct person is – or not – briefing the salient points.
Chiefs of staff are the caretakers of decision-making in complex environments and require a collection of abilities. They need to be fluent in the four categories of decision-making responsibility and adept at managing all their variables simultaneously. Chiefs of staff must prepare the boss for his decisions and coordinate staff participation according to the boss’ needs while making chief of staff-specific decisions in a timely fashion. Simultaneously, chiefs of staff must coach and support subordinate leaders in the organization as they make their decisions and keep an eye out for decisions made across the breadth and depth of the organization to serve as an effective conduit of information.
Chiefs of staff serve as an organizational lubricant and manage the human factors required in decision-making across the enterprise. These responsibilities include coordinating the timing required for specific decisions, communicating the decisions, and ensuring all involved can correctly anticipate the consequences and outcomes of decisions made. Leadership author Donald Philips provides a concise roadmap for helping chiefs of staff understand the critical parts of a decision-making process. He writes, ‘when making a decision, gather information and understand the facts, consider various solutions and their consequences, make sure that the decision is consistent with your objectives, and effectively communicate your decision.’ (4)
In sum, decisions are functions of the experience of the people who make them, effective use of the time available to decide, and the human factors surrounding them. More than in any other role in an organization, chiefs of staff must be equally adept at making decisions, deciding when decisions need to be made, and managing the decisions of others.
Mike Jernigan is a United States Marine and currently serves as the Chief of Staff for Marine Corps Installations East, an organization responsible for one-third of the Marine Corps’ worldwide bases.
- Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Leadership. (Moody Press, 1967), 36.
- General Peter Pace, speech at United States Marine Corps Basic School, Quantico, VA, 16 September 1992, author’s notes.
- Major General John Admire, 1999 quoted in Freedman, David H. Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines. (Harper Business, 2000), 8.
- Phillips, Donald T. The Founding Fathers on Leadership. (Warner Books, 1997), 56.