7 Myths About Being a Chief of Staff

There are all sorts of myths and misperceptions about being a Chief of Staff (COS). Most of them come from our knowledge of Chiefs of Staff to the President of the United States (whether real – James A. Baker III and Dick Cheney or fictional – Doug Stamper and Olivia Pope). The Chief of Staff is often portrayed as a power-hungry, intelligent yet manipulative individual, who is more concerned with their success than the success of their Principal. More recently, we’re seeing the Chief of Staff role emerge in tech and other start-ups, yet the role is still largely misunderstood by the public and even their own colleagues.

Here’s what I know: Chiefs of Staff are business-savvy professionals who often operate behind the scenes, but make a significant impact across the organization. The Chief of Staff is a high-visibility strategic partner that supports their leader with effective decision-making, project management, and execution of strategic initiatives across the company. Chiefs of Staff provide the organizational and communication framework for customers, employees, and leadership team members to implement the leader’s vision and achieve annual goals. Chiefs of Staff live in the future and focus on long-term planning and projects to ensure the growth of the organization and the success of their Principal.

So let’s dispel these false beliefs and ideas about Chiefs of Staff. Here are seven myths about being a Chief of Staff (in no particular order):

1. Chief of Staff Roles are Only Applicable to the Government, Health Care, or Tech

Nope. While, the Chief of Staff role did get it’s start in the government and military, which continued on to health care, and then more recently into tech, you can find Chiefs of Staff in any complex or high-growth business. The need for a Chief of Staff role is usually necessitated by how stretched the Principal is. For example, if you have an entrepreneur running a family enterprise with ten different companies, while taking off internationally, while setting up a foundation, then a Chief of Staff may come in handy to keep it all together. Furthermore, you may find Chiefs of Staff at non-profits, working side-by-side with celebrities, or helping a CEO enhance their effectiveness across their global organization.

2. Chiefs of Staff Get Paid More Than Executive Assistants

While Chiefs of Staff may earn more than an Executive Assistant at the same company – this isn’t a true statement across the board; though, I do find that this is often one of the reasons EAs want to move into Chief of Staff roles. I would caution against that being the driving factor. While both positions generally support the Principal, the EA and COS role are fundamentally different. Furthermore, an Executive Assistant to a celebrity or at a Fortune 500 company may very well be making more money than a Chief of Staff at a non-profit or a start-up. While Chiefs of Staff may get paid more, this is not a hard and fast rule. Do you research and understand what role you really want.

3. A Chief of Staff Career is the Next Step for an Executive Assistant

The Chief of Staff role is not necessarily the next step for an Executive Assistant, though it can be. It’s one career option; however, it’s just one, among many others. Executive Assistants are uniquely positioned to see many different jobs within an organization. Perhaps Chief of Staff is the next right career move, but it could also be moving into HR, working on the communications team, or moving from supporting a VP to the CEO. And, let’s not forget, being an Executive Assistant is an incredible career in its own right!

Chiefs of Staff also come from many different backgrounds as well. Some move into the position from finance, human resources, or project management. Some Chiefs of Staff are there to support and shadow the Principal in order to take on a role in the C-Suite in the near future. Still other times former C-Suite executives or even former business owners have moved into Chief of Staff roles to lend their expertise and experience. There are many ways to have a career as a Chief of Staff, the key is finding out what type of COS role, what industry, and what leader is right for you.

4. Chief of Staff Positions are Temporary and Rotational

Yes, Chief of Staff positions can be temporary and rotational, but that is not always the case. Usually that is based upon the Principals’ needs and the company’s vision for the role. Some entrepreneurs, celebrities, or CEOs may want a Chief of Staff (the same Chief of Staff) by their side from day one of the company or their tenure until the day the company is sold or they retire. Other organizations have established the Chief of Staff role as a sort of apprenticeship for a year or two before the Chief of Staff moves into another leadership role in the company. And other times, like in the government, a Chief of Staff will rotate in and out of the position based on the elected official. Long story short, the length of a Chief of Staff’s time with the company or their Principal is subjective. But, find out ahead of time what the company’s vision for the role is and if that aligns with your goals.

5. The Chief of Staff Role is Just Another Title for Senior Executive Assistant

Don’t let recruiters, your Principal, or a hiring team get away with telling you this. The Executive Assistant (even of the Senior variety) and Chief of Staff role are two different positions. They work closely together and yes, occasionally, there is some overlap. But saying an EA and COS role are the same with different titles is like saying a Social Media Manager and a Public Relations Specialist or a Controller and an Accountant are the same roles. It’s just not accurate. Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff roles both involve strategy and tactics, they are simply working on different parts of one big, important, high-impact job.

Executive Assistants tend to live in the now… or usually 1 week to 30 days out. This doesn’t mean they aren’t planning for future events, travel, or chipping away at longer-term projects. It simply means their work is driven by the demands of the day and week – meeting prep, handling phone calls, emails, and visitors, scheduling, answering questions that come into the Executive Office, keeping the CEO on track and on time, managing and organizing files and information, researching, preparing travel, etc.

Chiefs of Staffs tend to live in the future… or a minimum of 90 days out, though anywhere between 90 days and 1 year, and often beyond. They handle what they must in the moment, but much of their time is focused on longer-term planning and projects to ensure the growth of the organization and the success of the CEO. Their work is driven by the demands of the Founder or CEO’s long-term vision – interviewing for future leadership positions, creating a Family Office, writing a book, creating presentations or writing speeches to share the vision, meeting with potential business partners, refining recruiting and retention processes, establishing OKRs (objectives and key results), and more.

Two different roles. Two different career options. Two different titles. One vision.

6. Chiefs of Staff Are Not Leaders

On the contrary, Chiefs of Staff are highly influential leaders in an organization – whether they want to be or not. Because they work so closely with the Principal, their words carry weight. They have the ear of the Principal and can use that to help advocate on behalf of staff and the company at large. At the same time, they can help guide the mission and vision of the Principal and the company through purposeful communication and support. Chiefs of Staff are an extension of their leaders, but they have to be able to stand independently as a leader as well.

7. Chiefs of Staff Are Just Messengers & Gatekeepers

Chiefs of Staff may act as messengers and gatekeepers from time to time, but that is not their sole function. Not to mention, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. COSs play a huge role in ensuring consistent and clear communication throughout the organization. But it’s far more than just delivering a message. It involves understanding the context of the discussion and why the message is being delivered, using their judgement to know when and where to best deliver the message and to whom, while providing additional clarity, context, and accountability along the way. A message without meaning is basically pointless. Chiefs of Staff provide the meaning.

In addition, a Chief of Staff (along with the EA) is often charged to “protect the empire” by either allowing or blocking people from reaching the Principal. Yet, gatekeepers are not meant to keep people out; rather, they should let the right people in at the right time. They should control the flow of information, not stop it. Chiefs of Staff can either hoard information and use that position of power as a crutch, or they can share what they learn with their co-workers and be seen as a leader, a resource, and an influencer at all levels of the organization. Information should flow up, down, and sideways throughout the company—and this often hinges on the successful communication skills of the Chief of Staff. Again, context is key to being a messenger and gatekeeper that positively impacts the organization.

As you can see, there are a lot of incorrect assumptions and myths about the Chief of Staff career. What other myths have you heard about the Chief of Staff role? How would you challenge or dispel those assertions? What is your favorite part of being a Chief of Staff that would surprise someone else?

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