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How to find the right chief of staff

When should a startup hire a chief of staff and what should they be looking for?

By Miriam Partington in Berlin

A chief of staff is the glue that holds a company together: they keep teams aligned, start and lead strategic initiatives and are a trusted companion to the CEO. When should a startup hire a chief of staff and what should they be looking for? Tristan Lim, chief of staff at Commsor, a platform solution for communities, explained all to Startup Life.

Identify what kind of chief of staff you need

The spectrum of chiefs of staff ranges from an executive assistant who takes lower-level tasks off of the founder’s plate to someone who leads and takes charge of strategic projects. Think about the needs of your organisation: do you need someone to manage the founder’s schedule, help with internal communication and alignment or someone to handle operational aspects?

Look out for candidates used to high performance

When browsing applications, look out for people who have had experience doing anything of a competitive nature, whether that’s building a product or company from scratch or competing in sports tournaments. This indicates that a person can manage time well, perform effectively and go above and beyond, whatever the circumstances.

Find a chief of staff with entrepreneurial spirit 

Chiefs of staff have to be self-starters. They need to be willing to try things out, make suggestions and be effective at pushing things forward — all while ensuring their actions align with the vision of the founder. It’s like being a parent: you have to juggle lots of responsibilities and be willing to take initiative while supporting, listening to and empathising with your partner (in this case, the CEO).

Propensity to learn is the most important quality

You need someone who can identify where the vacuums are in a company within the first two weeks, and understand what is needed to plug them — or even eradicate them. Maybe you’re lacking a CFO right now or someone to manage the people function. Either way, a chief of staff must be able to learn relevant skills on the spot and morph into different roles depending on what’s required. When interviewing candidates, look out for people with a growth mindset. A way to identify this is to see if they are humble when they don’t know the answer to something and if they take the initiative to find out more.

They need to vibe well with the CEO

There’s no question: the chief of staff at any company has to be able to work efficiently with the CEO and be highly trusted by them. Prospective chiefs of staff must realise that part of their role is to be a soundboard to the CEO and to help them scale their decision-making. You need someone who can listen attentively, soak in a lot of information and find a way forward.

It’s hard to figure out what a working relationship will be like just from an interview. However, understanding the background of a candidate can help you gauge what this person will be like to work with. Questions to ask yourself include: do they come from a background of building? In which case, they will be more likely to suggest improvements and want to tweak processes. Do they have high emotional intelligence? This is often related to having interacted with diverse groups of people, perhaps in different fields. With those two foundational traits, everything else will come.

Miriam Partington is Sifted’s Germany correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter, and tweets from @mparts_

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