Chiefs of staff (COS) are a diverse cadre of individuals that serve in a wide variety of organizations. You can find a COS in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, as well as in the military and tertiary sectors. While the chief of staff role is in the limelight in the White House, in most cases they operate in the background.
This is not to say that their work is less critical; far from it. Chiefs of staff are instrumental to the success of their organizations. It is for this reason that there are so many of them in the world today.
Yet, there are certain traits common amongst chiefs of staff. McKinsey and Company have identified four models of COS that build on the roles they perform in the organization.
Their four main archetypes are: broker, operator, guardian, and loyalist.
A broker is a COS that plays to their strengths as an implementer and a proxy. These chiefs of staff are “connected influencers, adept at translating ideas into action”. They are not bogged down in administrative functions and may have a moderate role as gatekeeper or counsellor. They centre themselves within organizations as communicators of their principals’ objectives and are implementers of concrete action.
The operator is a COS with 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 are less concerned with acting as a proxy or implementer and may have a moderate gatekeeper role.
The guardian archetype is a COS that acts as a gatekeeper and counsel above all else. A guardian is considered “a steadfast advisor, closely protecting the [principal’s] time and reputation.” Administrative functions are emphasized less, and implementation is somewhat subdued. Instead, trust and reliability are core tenets of a guardian, and the expectation is that the COS acts in a protective capacity, particularly to safeguard the principal’s interests.
The loyalist is someone who focuses on their responsibilities towards the principal as a counsellor. This COS is an “ardent confidant holding a longstanding relationship with the CEO,” McKinsey notes. The traits of gatekeepers and implementers are subdued and instead, the loyalty of the relationship between the COS and the principal is central.
Keeping these archetypes in mind, the question of “who” a chief of staff is tends to be context-dependent. These archetypes are also not set in stone – chiefs of staff may find themselves rotating between these types over their careers whether it be due to changes in internal organizational circumstances or exogenous pressures thrust on the organization.