Climb the Ladder

What Does a Chief of Staff Do?

“Chief of Staff” (CoS) sounds like an ambiguous role – and it is. But don’t let that keep you from considering the position. CoS roles can be used as a stepping stone – a great way to enter a new industry or make a career change – or in other cases, they’re roles for someone looking to commit to an organization for the long run and become a true strategic partner, offering the type of high-quality help that can only be developed over time. In all cases, it’s a rare chance to work side by side with a senior executive and gain a valuable mentor.

Check out the blog below to learn more about what a chief of staff does, what skills make a great chief of staff, and why you might want to become one yourself.

What is a chief of staff?

Typically, a chief of staff is the right-hand person to the CEO or a senior executive. Your goals are essentially your manager’s goals – i.e. you need to help them be as effective as possible, in whatever capacity makes sense. As a chief of staff, it is your responsibility to take as much as you can off of your manager’s plate so he or she can focus their energy where they add unique value – that is, on the things that only he or she can do. Basically, anything that can be done by someone else, should be done by someone else.

Over here at Scouted, we like to use the analogy of a surgical team to illustrate this: A surgeon’s unique value to the hospital is his/her ability to make the incision and perform the operation. So, when a surgeon walks into an operating room, the scalpel has been cleaned, the wound has been prepared, the medical history has been pulled and the anesthesia has been administered. A chief of staff is akin to the prep team, responsible for making all of those things happen, so the boss can optimize his/her value to the organization.

Even though as a chief of staff you’re primarily supporting one executive and focusing on his or her goals, it doesn’t mean that this is a siloed job. It’s actually quite the opposite. As an extension of your boss, you’ll not only represent him/her in front of the C-Suite, but also to the team. You need the interpersonal skills to build relationships with the members of the organization, regardless of level, as well as the self-confidence to hold them accountable when needed. If the concept of a chief of staff is new to a company, employees might feel that you are adding a layer of bureaucracy between them and the boss, making it harder for them to get what they need, or even taking away their opportunities for exposure. The key is to ensure that the team knows you’re an advocate to their success, not an obstacle in the way of it.

Main responsibilities of a chief of staff

In general, chief of staff roles come in many different flavors: some junior CoS are more administrative, some are more operational, some are more project-oriented, some are more analytical, some feel more like ad-hoc leverage/help wherever it is needed, and some feel more like being a strategic advisor/a real #2 (a la Batman and Robin). Regardless of the flavor, you’ll almost always be helping your manager stay on top of priorities, not drop balls, and act as the first line of defense between the company and your boss.

Think of it as a ladder of leverage – at the bottom of the ladder you can provide leverage for your manager through tasks like printing materials and managing their calendar or inbox, while at the top of the ladder you might own chunks of his or her responsibilities and be a strategic thought partner.  

Almost every CoS role will dip down to the bottom of the ladder (whether that’s doing the tasks or managing an executive assistant to help you do them); but, how far up the ladder you will go will depend both on the person you are working for as well as your own capabilities. You need to have the skills to build the systems so all the operations run smoothly. Once you’ve done that, it’s up to you to create the space to take on more interesting and challenging responsibilities.  Forbes highlights a few examples of some other initiatives owned by chiefs of staff:

“At Zappos, the CoS is not only the ‘right hand’ to the CEO, but also leads the culture and community. At Rolls Royce, the CoS heavily responds to the Board and shareholders on the behalf of the CEO or with the CEO. Marissa Mayer’s CoS is tasked as being the ‘innovator and forward thinker’ and to look for new technologies or companies to acquire and develop.”

Potential responsibilities for a chief of staff can include:

  • Building operating systems to improve efficiency and effectiveness within your executive’s office and across the company
  • Developing and optimizing internal company management
  • Quality assurance / blocking & tackling – ensuring that anything that gets to your boss is c-suite ready and that s/he is only dealing with items that require their unique input
  • Helping your boss prioritize what’s on their plate and holding them and others accountable for completing tasks on time to achieve goals
  • Attending meetings and calls with and/or on behalf of your boss
  • Writing first drafts of communication and managing your manager’s email
  • Taking notes in meetings and holding your boss accountable to action items discussed
  • Helping your boss prioritize their time and appointments (ie. calendar management)
  • Managing an executive assistant
  • Acting as a sounding board for new ideas
  • Ad hoc project and research leverage as needed

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Why you’ll want to be a chief of staff

This increasingly in-demand role offers a unique opportunity to have a high impact at the executive level. You’ll learn the ins and outs of running a business and create great connections for yourself down the road. You’ll have unparalleled exposure to senior management and strategy conversations, creating incredible and unique learning opportunities. You’ll be in the room where it happens, but not just as a fly on the wall, often with a seat at the table. Don’t be fooled – it’s not always glamorous, but it is meaningful. Many people might think that the required operational work is lower level work – but at the end of the day, the most valuable asset of senior executives is his/her time. If you can figure out how to take things off their plate and ensure they are prioritizing their time and using it well, your value-add will be immeasurable. Top that off with the ability to be a true thought partner, and you’ll make yourself indispensable.

What does a chief of staff earn (i.e. salary)

While you might be looking for a specific number, it’s not that simple. Salary ranges can vary greatly based on the company – its stage, industry, location – your benefits package, your specific role responsibilities and, of course, your experience. A chief of staff job for an investment firm in New York City will pay differently than a chief of staff role for a startup in Austin, Texas. However, in general, these roles tend to be well paid as you are directly impacting the quality of life of a senior executive. Just keep in mind that what “well paid” means varies across the board. Here are a few of the blog posts we’ve written on salary and negotiation to help you out:

How to Accept a Job Offer: From Email Examples to Negotiation

11 Things You Should Negotiate Other Than Salary

The Risks of Asking for Too Much in Your Salary Negotiation

When You Should Apply for a Job Even If You Don’t Meet the Minimum Requirements

How to know if you’re cut out for the chief of staff role:

A good CoS brings a unique and varied skill set to the table. Most importantly, you need to have the intellectual ability to hang with the c-suite, but also the agility, humility, and execution orientation to turn those ideas into reality. You need to be equally as comfortable sitting across the table from senior executives as you are rolling up your sleeves and being in the trenches with junior employees.

Characteristics and skills hiring managers look for in a chief of staff can include:

  • Highly proactive, action-oriented self-starter and a natural leader
  • High standards for excellence, are results-oriented, and will do whatever it takes to meet goals
  • Polished, professional and a skilled communicator, with strong written and verbal communication skills
  • Highly organized and detail-oriented; the type of person that can manage multiple, complex work streams and never miss a beat
  • Hungry for learning and growth
  • Humble with strong interpersonal skills
  • Persistent and resilient, with a strong work ethic
  • A team player, with a strong service orientation who genuinely enjoys helping others to excel in addition to doing good work yourself  

The big x-factor when it comes to being the right fit for a CoS role is the chemistry between you and your manager. Often attached at the hip, you will spend an incredible amount of time together – it’s a true partnership and some even equate it to a ‘(work) marriage.’ Like every marriage, it needs to be the right mutual fit, as chemistry is a two-way street. While it’s important to assess if the role is a good fit for your capabilities, it’s also critical to assess whether you and your potential new boss are the right fit together.

In summary, as Chief of Staff, you’ll be incorporating a wide range of your past skills and experiences in order to accomplish whatever your boss needs. It offers an unparalleled opportunity to work with senior executives, learn about an industry, and learn how to effectively run a company. It’s an intellectual role and an interpersonal role. And most importantly, the CoS job needs the right person – the one who stays a step ahead, never misses a beat, and jives well with the boss.

If you’re interested in becoming a chief of staff, check out the active CoS roles below on Scouted.

Active chief of staff roles on Scouted:

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