As counsellors, COS serve as close confidants, and provide thought leadership and advice while “speaking truth to power.” Three examples of responsibilities that McKinsey and Company suggest fall under the counsellor category include:
- acting as a sounding board,
- advising on high-level strategic or urgent matters, and
- serving as the last line of defence against potentially poor decisions.
As implementers, COS prioritize the principals agendas, including coordination with stakeholders. They continually “work with key leaders to drive strategy and implementation,” according to McKinsey. This implementation role also helps ensure cross-functional accountability for execution against objectives set by the organization.
As proxies, COS communicate or act on behalf of their principals, which helps to increase their principals’ “surface area”. Responsibilities within the proxy role may include convening relevant stakeholders, communicating with external stakeholders (such as the media or regulators), and standing in for the principal in consultations.
These five diverse roles that a COS can play is evidence of their importance to organizational success. However, it also shows that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to the question of “what” a chief of staff does.