/Chief of Staff: The training ground for corporate excellence

Chief of Staff: The training ground for corporate excellence

By Ashish Lath

The US President has one, so does Jeff Bezos and the King of Saudi Arabia. Most CEOs (or head honchos running a large organization) have one. If you are wondering who this person is, one is referring to the Chief of Staff (CoS) – the professional right-hand person for almost all leaders globally. In many cases, a Chief of Staff is among the first employees a leader hires. An efficient right-hand person can transform the leader as well as the organization’s fortunes. Often, people are confused about what a CoS does.

Different leaders have differing expectations. Consequently, a CoS can range from a glorified secretary to the CEO-in-waiting! A CoS is practically a shadow of the leader, supporting and enhancing the leader’s productivity and effectiveness. Depending on the responsibilities and complexities involved, in some cases, CoS’s may have their own supporting team.

Typical responsibilities of a corporate CoS
A CoS’s main objective- making the leader more productive. They work behind the scenes – monitoring projects, removing bottlenecks, mediating disputes and dealing with issues before involving the CEO. As a confidante and advisor to the leader, a CoS’s responsibilities and power are directly proportional to the trust and confidence the CEO reposes in them.

A typical CoS could undertake the following responsibilities:
Managing key projects: As the CEO’s representative on project teams, the CoS should undertake a weekly update on all key projects, monitor their progress and resolve any issues that arise. Prioritizing the projects and resources as per the needs and strategy of the organization, the CoS should keep the leader apprised of the status and involve the CEO if any intervention is required.

Own cross-functional projects: At any time, a CoS should drive two to three key cross-functional projects. These may be temporary ones aimed at achieving specific outcomes or new initiatives and teams without any current owners within the organization. Once predefined objectives are met, the initiatives/teams may be transferred to the permanent business owners.

Research: Unlike large companies with dedicated research teams, smaller organizations may lack the same. Besides, many a times the CEO would want some quick independent research on varied topics. When required, the CoS should be able to support the CEO with ad-hoc research.

Knowing the Organization’s Pulse: The CoS should maintain good rapport with the overall team, know the pulse of the organization and accordingly assist the CEO in decision-making.

How to be an awesome CoS
The leader’s Trust: The CoS draws power, responsibilities and legitimacy from the leader. The leader and CoS must share good chemistry and trust. This point cannot be overemphasized. It’s the biggest factor determining the success of a CoS. A leader should trust the CoS’s competence, assigning incremental responsibilities. Often the sounding board for ideas, a CoS should also pinpoint not-so-pleasant facts to the leader.

Be objective: A CoS should be apolitical, unbiased and objective. The success of the organization should be the only driving principle in everything a CoS does. This will ensure acceptance and support of the CoS by the overall team while the CoS lends an empathetic ear to their concerns.

Individual identity: Typically, a CoS is perceived to be the leader’s representative, influencing the way everyone deals and shares information. Intelligent CoSs’ carve a distinct identity, being respected for their expertise and capabilities, irrespective of whom they represent. A CoS should never throw the rank of the person they represent. They should be street-smart in swiftly adapting strategies and styles as per the need of the situation.

Multitasking specialist: Multitasking all the time, overseeing numerous projects, a CoS should be fluent across functions and capable of bringing a fresh holistic perspective to issues.

What next for a successful CoS
Generally, a CoS transitions to heading a business/product/function within the organization. Colleagues know the CoS and can vouch for the person being capable of undertaking tasks well. Therefore, horizontal movement becomes easy. In turn, the CoS knows the team and the culture, compressing the learning curve. Support of the leader in smoothening the transition is critical.

Conversely, finding an external line function role is daunting. This is because the new organization has limited or practically no knowledge of the individual’s expertise and would prefer hiring a domain expert.

Being a CoS to the right leader represents a fantastic opportunity, developing an individual holistically. Since a CoS is exposed to diverse functions, works with various personalities and lives life on the edge, a CoS stint is the moulding ground for a successful corporate life.

(Ashish Lath is Vice President-Strategy and Marketing, Clix Capital.)

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