From Force Multiplier to Founder: An Interview with Catherine Berardi

I often get asked what the next career move is for Force Multipliers (Executive Assistants, Chiefs of Staffs, and Personal Assistants). While I believe that being a Force Multiplier is a dynamic career in its own right, it may no longer be the right fit for the individual at some point as with any position. What I find fascinating is that many high-performing Force Multipliers start their own companies. In this series, I interview former Force Multipliers about their journey to Founder and what they learned along the way.

Catherine Berardi, Founder & CEO of Prime Chief of Staff (since 2014)

Catherine Berardi is Founder and CEO of Prime Chief of Staff, a full-service Chief of Staff advisory firm.

Prior to launching Prime in 2014, Catherine served as Chief of Staff to Mellody Hobson at Ariel Investments, where she provided high-level “right hand” support and advisory across a variety of business functions, including strategic planning, sales and marketing, human resources, community initiatives, and special projects. Catherine has held other positions at Ariel Investments, Principal Financial Group, and also founded a marketing strategy company in 2009.

Catherine is passionate about helping professionals and executives understand and utilize the Chief of Staff role within their organizations. She speaks at colleges and universities as well as companies and organizations across the U.S. She also serves as a mentor for the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. Catherine graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Business Institutions. Here is my interview with her.

Can you tell us what you are doing today and give us a brief overview of your career path?

I own and operate Prime Chief of Staff, a full-service Chief of Staff advisory firm. I started Prime six years ago after my time as a Chief of Staff to Mellody Hobson at Ariel Investments in Chicago, IL. Prior to that, my career path resembled more of a hop-scotch court more than a ladder. I originally went to college to pursue a career in music (saxophone) but graduated with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Business. I worked in public affairs, human resources, business development, and corporate marketing before finding the Chief of Staff role.

Before you started your career as a Chief of Staff, what do you wish someone had told you?

I am not sure I would have taken the advice because I was so inexperienced, but I wish I would’ve known to keep myself a priority. I think it is easy to neglect yourself in a role that has very little to do with you. If you neglect yourself, the role simply isn’t a sustainable one.

Tell us about your first assistant or Chief of Staff role. How did you land the job?

I started as a temporary receptionist at Ariel Investments during my junior year at Northwestern University. It was a way for me to try a “real-world” job. After about 6 months learning every employee’s name and phone extension, I had the opportunity to join the public affairs team as an assistant. I was very much the hardworking, junior employee who said “yes” to everything – and the team really appreciated me for that! My work in public affairs helped me gain exposure to the company’s President, who also took notice of my work ethic, and started giving me projects of her own. I decided to move on from Ariel, but the President always tried to get me to come back. Four or five years later, she asked me to come back as her Chief of Staff.

Was it always your intention to start your own business at some point?

I don’t know that I ever formally intended to start a business, but I certainly have always had the “entrepreneurial bug.” I sold pogs on the playground in second grade, I sold books and lemonade at the end of my driveway, I made and sold t-shirts in high school for our student-run jam band. I enjoyed finding ways to commercialize things from an early age!

Being the right hand to the leader of an organization, you see the good, the bad, and the ugly of running a company. Now, as the Founder & CEO of your own company, what are you doing differently?

I would love to say that I learned from every good, bad and ugly event I saw as a Chief of Staff, but I don’t think it is that easy.

I believe part of leadership is learning through your own failures and strikeouts. I often say, “I have to touch the fire to know that it’s hot.” I watched my leader touch fire plenty of times, and I still have to touch it myself as a business owner.

Catherine Berardi

What I am doing differently is leading in the way I want to lead. I think it’s easy for any “right hand” to assume the traits and characteristics of their previous leader rather than identifying the unique traits they bring. While I definitely learned many great habits from my former boss, I define leadership a bit differently, so it is important that I am true to myself.

Do you think your COS role and leadership in the C-Suite prepared you well to be a Founder/CEO or did you find there was more on the job learning than you expected?

You are never fully prepared to start a business no matter your background; however, I do believe any cross-functional and strategic role like a Chief of Staff is beneficial. Leading a business requires a ton of mental fortitude and resilience. I think a role like Chief of Staff is a great way to learn skills like this. However, the business acumen is also very important. I still had, and currently have, so much to learn, but I’ve developed the skills to keep learning and keep improving – that’s what matters.

What was the tipping point for you that made you decide to start your own company?

They say “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and that was no different for me. I saw firsthand how well the Chief of Staff role supported my leader and my organization. I also knew we weren’t an anomaly – other executives would have the same challenges and need similar support. When my boss’s peers saw our relationship and when my boss vocalized the success of the role, other leaders wanted the same thing. I saw a need in the market, and I decided to meet that need.

Is becoming your own boss a natural career progression for EAs and COSs?

I think it can be for some, but not all. Your career progression should be focused around your strengths, skills, and where you ultimately want to go as a professional and as a person. We don’t all need to do the same thing – and I think it’s important that we begin to acknowledge and appreciate that. For me, being Chief of Staff helped me become a business owner, but it was the amalgamation of my experiences and interests that ultimately created the opportunity – not any one role.

What advice would you give to someone who is in a Chief of Staff role and thinking of starting their own business?

The best advice I received was from a dear friend and colleague of mine. He said, “Just know that whatever vision you have for your business will likely not happen the way you’ve planned. Listen to what the market is telling you and be very willing to adapt.” I tell everyone starting a business the same advice because I think we can often have in our minds what “should” be. However, we don’t really know how things will pan out until we try, fail, learn, and do it all over again. You have to be willing to listen, pivot, and adjust in order to find your place.

What are you working on next?

We are working on a lot of exciting things at Prime! We’re partnering with more companies to identify the value of a Chief of Staff role by looking at executive and organizational effectiveness. We really want to bring more data and research to our work, which will continue to illuminate the benefits of a Chief of Staff.

For more information about Prime Chief of Staff visit www.primechiefofstaff.com or connect on LinkedIn at /primechiefofstaff or /catherineberardi. You can also find Prime Chief of Staff on Instagram.

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