What’s the Difference Between an Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff?

Several years ago, when I was an Executive Assistant (EA), I became obsessed with all things EA. I read books and articles, followed top EAs, listened to podcasts, and attended EA conferences. I studied the profession and implemented what I learned into my career.

As Chief of Staff (COS), I did the same. While less information exists on the COS role, that’s quickly changing as more and more Founders and CEOs are seeing the benefit of having a Chief by their side. No longer relegated to the military and government, Chiefs are popping up in start-ups, higher education, non-profits, and more. The more complex the organization, the more need there is for a Chief of Staff, and yes, an Executive Assistant, too.

So, what is the difference between an Executive Assistant and a Chief of Staff? Is it just semantics? What distinguishes these two roles? Both positions are often misunderstood, but they do have one thing in common: they are both Force Multipliers.

Defining the Roles of Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff

Through my continuous research on both the EA and Chief of Staff roles, patterns began to emerge. Yes, there is overlap between the two roles. A top EA may work on special projects in a strategic capacity as one CEO’s Chief of Staff, while another EA may be more administrative and tactical. In some cases, the titles are even interchangeable. However, when both an EA and COS exist in an organization, the roles are quite unique, yet interdependent, and offer two distinct career paths.

The most common way to define the two roles is this: Executive Assistants are tactical and Chiefs of Staff are strategic. However, that is a gross oversimplification.

EAs are some of the most strategic individuals in an organization. Have you have ever witnessed an Executive Assistant pull off a seemingly impossible trip, navigate the complexities of scheduling multiple Executives with competing demands, or save the day minutes before an event? Yeah. That’s all strategy, planning, extreme resourcefulness, and yes, tactics, too.

Conversely, Chiefs rely on both strategy and tactics daily. Working on big picture items and then breaking them down into actionable steps, communicating the vision, and holding various stakeholders accountable to the results.

How EAs and Chiefs go about getting the job done involves both strategy and tactics. After all, they are simply working on different parts of one big, important, high-impact job. The better differentiator is where in time their focus is.

Executive Assistants Live in the Now

…or usually 1 week to 30 days out. Again, 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. Learn more about the role here.

A successful EA thrives in a supportive leadership role. They are organized and highly detail-oriented and enjoy handling administrative tasks. They are an exceptional communicator, a high performer, and can handle a high volume of work with a sense of urgency, without letting quality slip. An Executive Assistant prefers to handle small (though no less important), urgent tasks one after the other and moving on to the next.

Chiefs of Staff Live in the Future

…or a minimum of 90 days out, though their focus can be anywhere between 90 days and 1 year from now, 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.

A Chief of Staff’s 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. Learn more about the role here.

Just like an EA, a Chief of Staff thrives in a support leadership role. They prefer to be behind the scenes, holding the space for the CEO to express their genius and flow. A Chief prefers to dig into bigger, more complex issues. They enjoy working on big picture items and are okay with waiting to see the results of their work and initiatives. There is not much immediate satisfaction for a Chief!

The above is just the beginning. I could write an entire book on the differences between the two roles (perhaps I will!). Suffice it to say, they are both integral parts of an organization and key partners to a CEO’s success. Specific job descriptions are a bit harder to define, as they are dependent on the CEO, the organization, the industry, and more. For a basic job description, click here to download our Force Multiplier Job Descriptions.

How would you describe these two positions? Are you clear which career path is the right one for you? What would you add to these descriptions of the roles?

Originally published on September 25, 2021. Updated for 2024.

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