What does a chief of staff do?

Chiefs of staff (COSs) are a crucial element in organizational success, and this is a reflection of the multifaceted and versatile role that they play. Given that the requirements of COS-roles are diverse and context-dependent, definitions of their role require some nuance.

McKinsey and Company has produced an excellent framework for analyzing the various types of benefits that COSs bring through their diverse roles. They list the five roles into administrator, gatekeeper, counsellor, implementer, and proxy.

As administrators, McKinsey and Company argue that COSs must focus on management and administration so that their principal is satisfied that the organization is working smoothly and “the trains run on time.” Duties in this role include overseeing processes, clarifying rights and responsibilities, fact-finding, convening stakeholders, and managing personnel.

As gatekeepers, COS seek to help principals optimize their time. McKinsey notes that COSs can exert considerable energy “shielding [their principals] from unnecessary or difficult conversations, and at times, handling other unpopular responsibilities.” By freeing their principals from such drudgery, COSs contribute meaningfully to an organization’s efforts to optimize.

As counsellors, COS serve as close confidants, and provide thought leadership and advice while ideally “speaking truth to power.” Three examples of responsibilities that McKinsey and Company suggest fall under the counsellor category include:

    1. acting as a sounding board,
    2. advising on high-level strategic or urgent matters, and
    3. serving as the last line of defense against potentially poor decisions.

As implementers, COS prioritize the principals initiative, 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.

Given these five diverse roles that a COS can play, it is evident that can be instrumental to their organizations’ success. It also shows that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to the question of “what” the chief of staff does, as encompasses so much.

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