The Chief of Staff Association interviewed Australian Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency the Honourable Arthur Sinodinos AO in December 2020.

Member Spotlight – Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos AO 

“The enemy of leadership is stagnation”

The Chief of Staff Association interviewed Australian Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency the Honourable Arthur Sinodinos AO in December 2020. Ambassador Sinodinos previously served as Prime Minister John Howard’s chief of staff for an incredible nine years. Additionally, Ambassador Sinodinos has served as Australia’s Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, held the role of Cabinet Secretary, Assistant Treasurer and Senator for New South Wales in the Australian Parliament from 2011 to 2019.

 Interviewing Ambassador Sinodinos was three-time New York Times bestselling author, Keith Ferrazzi. Keith has spent nearly the past 20 years coaching executive teams on the most effective leadership styles, and most recently, published a book called ‘Leading Without Authority.’ His process is so transformative he had to invent a new word in order to properly capture its impact, Co-Elevation, which describes leadership as a team’s commitment to one another and the mission at large. 

KF: In your perspective, as a former chief, what differentiates an amazing chief of staff from someone who is not?

AS: First and foremost, a chief of staff must be able to organise a team in support of their principal. This is the aspect that can often prove tricky for chiefs of staff as it requires one to sublimate their ego. What I mean by this is that when choosing a team you do not select people based on their loyalty to you, or worry about them having a stronger relationship with your principal, or worry that they are more talented than you are. The reason being your most important function as a chief is supporting the implementation of your principal’s agenda for the given enterprise. As such, when selecting your support staff, you must choose those who are the most qualified to support you in carrying out the successful implementation of your principal’s agenda. This leads me to my next and most important point; you must keep things moving. The enemy of leadership is stagnation, and so if you allow any one topic or issue to hijack the agenda it will bring everything else to a halt.

KF: Can you provide me with an example of how you utilised the skills you just described and translated them to the current leadership position you now hold?

AS: That’s an interesting question, because as a chief of staff your job is to focus on the implementation of the agenda or mission, as a leader however, there is an extra wrinkle to your job in that you also must keep everyone focused and believing in the mission and its importance. Now, I arrived at my post in February just before the outbreak of COVID and so a month into the job I was already facing a situation that no living Australian Ambassador to the US had ever faced before, which meant I couldn’t ask anyone for advice. Further to that, it was a situation that no one in the world had ever experienced before which meant there was, and still is, tremendous opportunity for distraction amongst my staff and for them to become fixated on the topic of the pandemic, which would ultimately result in stagnation of the mission we are here to achieve. Thus, my chief concern became how do I keep my team focused and on the same page even in the face of all the uncertainty and distractions that come with the worst global pandemic in a hundred years?

My solution to this was to increase my presence amongst the staff because the more they saw of me and communicated with me the more likely they were to stay focused on the mission. As such, every Monday morning I would have a meeting with all the branch heads from the embassy to clear the deck for the week ahead and ensure that everyone was on the same page and focused on the objectives necessary to the success of our wider mission. Furthermore, every morning I have a meeting with all the branch heads from the Foreign Affairs department of the embassy to discuss the daily agenda. This increased presence and awareness of the operations of my staff provided them with the assurance that even in the face of this great global crisis, their leader was totally focused on serving the Australian community in the US and improving the US-Australia relationship. In turn, everyone here at the Embassy has done an amazing job moving the mission forward and staying focused on the task at hand. 

KF: Can you tell me about the transition from chief of staff to leader? What is some advice you would give to those making this transition?

AS: The most difficult part of the transition is that you are no longer the one doing the advising, but rather you are the one being advised. The difficulty of this is that you lose that bird’s eye view that comes with being a chief of staff and always allows you to give totally sound, objective advice. Where this gets amplified is public speaking. As a chief of staff, you may advise your leader to say x, y and z and from your bird’s eye view it is perfectly sound advice. However, as a leader you take that extra second to think about whether you are ready to own such a statement publicly. Thus, as a leader it is paramount that number one you know what you stand for privately and are willing to be accountable for that publicly. Number two, you must surround yourself with those who also know what you stand for and who will give objective advice based on that, regardless of whether you want to hear it. Essentially, your advisors must hold you accountable to the same veracity that the public will

KF: Is there a story you have that brings this point home?

 AS: When I was in the senate and working as Assistant Treasurer, I had to stand down because of investigations going on in my home state. With this obviously came stress and emotion that coloured any reaction I had to news and decisions regarding the matter. As such, because I couldn’t necessarily rely on my own ability to be objective at the time I had to rely on my advisors. Mind you, it is not easy trusting others with a matter that will ultimately only reflect negatively on you should they screw up. However, the best leaders can recognise when their own judgement may be clouded by a situation and pivot their decision making to rely more on their advisors, who were hired for exactly those instances.

KF: If you were putting a curriculum together what are some of the most important competencies you would coach chiefs of staff around?

 AS: The first competency that is essential for a chief of staff is prioritizing. As a chief of staff your leader’s time is in high demand and it is up to you to decide what demands his attention. Additionally, your time is in high demand and you need to have the capacity to decide what demands your attention. As such, it is up to you to decide which objectives are most critical to your leader accomplishing their agenda as those are the ones that require their attention. Outside of that, you must understand which objectives you can accomplish on your leader’s behalf and anything beyond that should be delegated to the appropriate person.

The second competency is being able to act as a sounding board. Leadership is a lonely endeavour and oftentimes leaders need to get something off their chest, bounce ideas off you, or even just know there’s someone there who understands what they’re going through. As a chief of staff, you must be able to accommodate all these needs and give sound advice based on what they have told you. Essentially, what you need to be is a trusted confidante that your leader can trust implicitly to keep what was said between the two of you and give sound advice pursuant to that.

The third critical competency is having an eye for personnel. As I said previously, oftentimes you must be able to delegate critical parts of the mission strictly due to constraints on your time and your leader’s time. As such, it is imperative that you have people working for you that you can trust to get the job done. Since oftentimes, it falls on the chief of staff to hire the support staff, it is crucial that you have an eye for personnel and an understanding of what qualifies people for certain positions. Building off this, you must also be able to have hard conversations with people if you feel they are not up to the job or are underperforming. It is important to understand that you are not a chief of staff because you have your own agenda, you are there to support and implement the agenda of the leader you subscribe to. For this reason, you must always be prepared to address people or issues that are hindering you from carrying out your duty and deal with that accordingly.

KF: Thinking about competencies in more of a tactical sense, are there any unique skills a great chief of staff must possess?

AS: The ability to defuse a situation. Sometimes this is done with humour, sometimes you say leave this with me and I’ll take care of it, other times you address the situation head on. It is of utmost importance though that you have the capacity to recognise when a situation needs to be defused and what is the right strategy to do so. If you fail to do so, the situation will permeate and prevent you from moving the agenda forward. Going back to one of my previous points, do not let the situation stagnate, keep things moving.

KF: What advice would you give to executives relative to chiefs of staff and are trying to decide whether they need one?

AS: Well it certainly depends on personal taste, preference and leadership style. What I would say to them though is that if you value having a trusted confidante who understands you and what you’re trying to achieve then a chief of staff can be extremely beneficial. The best chiefs of staff can help run your personal and professional life and ensure that your priorities are being dealt with. They can do so because they understand your voice and can communicate in your voice on matters of importance when you are not able to be there to do so yourself. Therefore, if you are creative there is a lot one can do with such a role.

KF: Conversely, what advice do you have for leaders relative to chiefs of staff, so far as what are the biggest mistakes that they make with chiefs of staff?

AS: When a leader silo’s things. For the relationship to work the chief of staff must have the authority to roam across all the responsibilities of their principal. I used to say in the Prime Minister’s office that the smallest thing can bring a Prime Minister down. This brings me back to what I said about how chiefs of staff have a ‘birds eye view’ of the implications of their leader’s actions and responsibilities and therefore can provide sound objective advice based on that. The leader however must allow them to do so.

KF: Do you feel that due to the digitization of the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that the nature of the chief of staff role is changing?

AS: Thats certainly a good point as a lot of what we know about the chief of staff role requires ‘being in the room.’ But again, ultimately it comes down to how the leader decides to utilise the chief of staff role. Even in this virtual environment a lot of things I previously mentioned such as, the hard conversations, dealing with personnel and communicating on one’s behalf, could be handled by an effective chief of staff. So, it really does just come down to that relationship between the leader and the chief of staff, and what they make of it.

KF: Any advice to chiefs of staff on ‘leading without authority’?

AS: It’s about communicating with influence and recognising that there’s only so much you can do to direct people and at the end of the day you must have the ability to bring people with you. To do so, you must understand the people you work with, how to communicate with them, what their drivers are, how to get all the varying personalities on the same page and working towards the same common goal. One such way is to develop a process for achieving those objectives and getting people to buy into that process with the belief that it will deliver results. The final element of ‘leading without authority’ that I would mention, is the power of your example and whether you live the things that you are seeking of others.

Interviewer – Mr Keith Ferrazzi

Keith Ferrazzi is recognized as a global thought leader in the relational and collaborative sciences. As Chairman of Ferrazzi Greenlight and its Research Institute, he works to identify behaviors that block global organizations from reaching their goals and to transform them by coaching new behaviors that increase growth and shareholder value.

A New York Times #1 best-selling author of Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone, as well as a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune and many other leading publications, Keith’s gained over 20 years of experience, from the C-Suite to founding his own companies, and distilled those years and experiences into practices and solutions he brings to every engagement.