Chiefs of staff (COSs) are a diverse cadre of individuals that serve in a wide variety of organizations. This includes the public sector, the private sector, and the social and not for profit sectors. Sometimes they may earn limelight in their own right, for example, a White House COS may, but usually they act in the background.
It is not to say that their work is less critical; far from it, COSs are instrumental in the success of their organizations which helps explain why there are so many of them in the world today.
Yet there are certain archetypes of COS that have been identified. McKinsey and Company found that there are four models of COS that build on the roles they perform in the organization.
The four main archetypes are: broker, operator, guardian, and loyalist.
A broker archetype is one in which the COS plays to their strength as an implementer and a proxy. Such COS are “connected influencers, adept at translating ideas into action,” according to McKinsey and Company. They are less bogged in administrative functions and may have a moderate role as gatekeeper or counsellor. They centre themselves within organizations as translators of their principals’ objectives into concrete action as go-getter functionaries.
The operator is one in which the COS draws upon administrative prowess and dependability as counsel to the principal. Such a COS is often a “savvy manager able to seamlessly handle priorities, processes, and personalities,” according to McKinsey. They is less bogged-down in acting as a proxy or implementer and may have a moderate gatekeeper role.
The guardian archetype involves acting as a gatekeeper and counsel above all else. Such a COS is considered “a steadfast advisor, closely protecting the [principal’s] time and reputation,” as McKinsey puts it. Administrative acts may be less emphasized, and implementation is somewhat subdued in this archetype. Instead, trust and reliability are core tenets of this archetype, and the expectation is of the COS to act in a protective capacity towards the principal’s interests.
The loyalist is one who focuses on their responsibilities towards the principal as a counsellor. Such a COS is often an “ardent confidant holding a longstanding relationship with the CEO,” as McKinsey notes. The traits of gatekeepers and implementers are more subdued in this archetype. Instead, the loyalty of the relationship between the COS and the principal cements this type of COS.
Keeping these archetypes in mind, the question of “who” is a chief of staff is context-dependent. These archetypes are also not set in stone, in that COS may find themselves rotating between such categories over their careers, whether due to a change in internal organizational circumstances or due to exogenous pressures thrust on the organization.