Why CEOs Need a Chief of Staff and an Executive Assistant

I’ve had a Chief of Staff (COS) for several years and the most common question I get is what does she do? Well, you’d have to ask her; I’m not entirely sure. Really. That’s the point right? I couldn’t tell you exactly what my Executive Assistant does either. What I do know is that I am able to focus on my 20% (sharing the vision and mission, leading the team, and making important decisions) because I have my COS and EA behind me.

The Chief of Staff role, most commonly seen in the military, government, and hospitals, has been making it’s way onto the corporate scene more recently. Entrepreneurs, high growth start-ups, and complex corporations are all starting to see the benefit of having a Chief of Staff, well, on staff. So what exactly does a Chief of Staff do? The Chief of Staff (COS) role is probably one of the most misunderstood positions, right next to that of Executive Assistant. Let’s break these two roles down.

A recent Inc.com article explains it well:

As a company grows and becomes more complex, hiring a chief of staff can be a smart move. In the political arena, the COS is a leader and trusted advisor who takes responsibility and delivers results for the president or governor. In the corporate world, the COS understands the company’s sensitivities, customers, and team members who make it all work.

While the COS concentrates on troubleshooting and paying attention to the daily needs of the company, he makes room for the CEO and COO to spend more time strategizing and focusing on the growth of the company.

Another way to look at it is that the COS focuses inward. They manage the needs of the CEO, Executive office, and company, such as overseeing employee satisfaction, recruiting, brand and reputation management, training, communication flow, and maximizing the CEO’s reach. While a COS may often have a focus area (such as recruiting, technology, or business development), they will more often then not be the “filler” or as I like to call it, the “fixer” position. They will take on any special projects that do not fall specifically to any other person or department in the organization. This might be an internal audit of the company’s operations, setting up a new recruiting platform, or establishing a Foundation in the CEO’s name. The work is varied and strategic. A high powered COS maximizes your reach, attends meetings on your behalf, keeps projects on track and moving forward, ensures communication is flowing between all parties to successfully achieve your priorities and goals.

Where the COS is strategic in nature, the Executive Assistant (EA) is more tactical. While the COS is managing the company, the EA is “managing” the Executive. This can be everything from travel arrangements, meeting prep and follow-up, event planning, extensive calendar management, research, and assisting with personal items. A high powered EA knows the names of everyone in the room, and details on them and their families, they can throw together an event in a week and ensure it is flawless, they anticipate needs, know what you know, and take care of all the details behind the scenes so you, the CEO, can simply show up and lead.

There are, however, a few caveats to consider. A high powered EA may often be serving in the capacity of a Chief of Staff, just as a Chief of Staff may be fulfilling some of the functions of a Executive Assistant. Depending on the structure, size, and complexity of your organization, it might be the same person. And, because the corporate Chief of Staff role is still being developed, one CEO’s Chief of Staff is really an EA (more tactical), while another’s serves as a Vice President (more strategic).

Now, I didn’t hire a COS, my COS started as my EA over seven years ago and grew into the position, taking on more and more projects and leading alongside me as my companies grew and became more complex, as we added new teams, new divisions, and new projects. About a year ago, the workload was such that it necessitated our search for, and eventual hire of an Executive Assistant.

So what do the COS and EA roles have in common? They are both force multipliers. They take your vision and make sure it is carried out. They both lead and assist a CEO and typically only report to the CEO or another senior C-Suite Executive. Strategy and tactics combined, they are the ultimate C-Suite Dream Team. A great COS and EA will work together to get things done before you even know you needed them.

With both a COS and EA on staff, a CEO can not only be extremely focused on only the most important issues each day (thanks to the support of their EA), they can also be in two places at once (thanks to their COS). Let me give you a couple of examples of how the CEO/COS/EA relationship works in my organization:

  • When I am on my one-on-one coaching calls each week (which my EA has scheduled, often rescheduled, and then prepared any documents or notes for me), my Chief of Staff is meeting with potential talent or future business partners for our company. My EA has ensured we are both in our meetings when we need to be and then is asking us for feedback and follow up items so that nothing is forgotten or missed.
  • This weekend we hosted a full-day seminar, called Quantum Leap, for high school students (and some parents). My Executive Assistant planned and organized the entire event, arrived early to set up, and ensured that the day went smoothly, so all I had to do was show up and be totally present while teaching these high schoolers. My EA also made sure the students had everything they needed and checked in with them during the breaks. Meanwhile, my Chief of Staff was giving tours of the office to current and future business partners and making connections with and for some of the adults who were there (sounds like we may be launching an internship program next!).

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t a CEO want both a COS and EA on staff? If you are a CEO with multiple divisions and complex business systems, an entrepreneur with several companies and business ventures with multiple stakeholders, or a founder in a high growth start-up, you need an Executive Assistant and a Chief of Staff. Your day will run smoother, you will be able to serve your company at a higher level, and you will be able to maximize your vision, reach more people, and ultimately grow and scale your company bigger and faster, all while maintaining your sanity (at home and at the office).

Do you have a Chief of Staff? How do you define the position in your organization? How do you see these roles evolving in the future?

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