You can’t throw a rock at LinkedIn without hitting a chief of staff vacancy announcement. But what does the position actually mean?
Is it someone who bosses a team around? Performs a pseudo-HR function? Or is it just a title upgrade for a CEO’s assistant? At times, the answer is all of the above, depending on the startup you’re looking at. Yet deploying a chief of staff in those ways wastes an opportunity.
How to get the most out of a chief of staff
A look at the role in its White House form gives you a better blueprint for what it actually entails. Chris Whipple, author of Gatekeepers, notes that a White House chief of staff’s responsibilities are vast. Done properly it would be like having a prime minister at your startup, someone who helps the CEO (president) execute on their agenda. According to Whipple, the most important role president Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker III had was “telling the president what he didn’t want to hear”.
And done right, you can translate it in that form into your startup, unlock potential and add value to a CEO’s team. To make it happen though these three foundational principles need to be in place:
- A true chief of staff needs to be an empowered senior executive working alongside the CEO. The ideal would be to create the CEO’s double — someone who understands how the boss thinks and can act as a proxy. At Amazon, for example, Jeff Bezos’ chiefs of staff (formally dubbed technical advisors) are colloquially called “shadows". And in a testament to how much Bezos trusted his chief of staff, the first person to hold the job is now Amazon’s CEO.
- A great chief of staff needs to embrace the role of antagonist. This means there needs to be enough psychological safety in place, and the person filling the position needs to have the nerve to push back on the CEO when necessary. At the same time, they need to check their egos at the door and understand the final word rests with their principal.
- Personal agendas need to be set aside. The only way for a chief of staff to avoid inevitable office politics (marketing blames sales and sales blames product for missed targets) is for the individual to be a neutral arbiter. That means they need to avoid running day-to-day departments. And, critically, they need to embrace the CEO’s agenda and vision wholesale. As a diplomat, I’ve done this myself — you are obliged to voice dissent when professional judgement warrants it. Still, once the political leadership decides, you can either get on board or resign.
How do you choose a great chief of staff?
You’re seeking gravitas, a deft touch and a calm disposition. As much as I hate the cliched “executive presence” or other euphemisms, a good chief of staff must be self-confident to work on the CEO’s behalf. Humility is an excellent trait for a CEO, but it could come across as waffling or indecision in a chief of staff.
You also need diplomacy. Brilliant jerks have a long history of being more trouble than they’re worth, but as first among equals a chief of staff needs to get marketing and product on the same page, irrespective of any potential personality clashes that are bubbling under the surface. They can’t do that if they’re damaging relationships with the senior team.
When resources are tight, you’re likely better off hiring a functional department head instead of a CEO doppelgänger
When everything is a priority and deadlines are everywhere, your chief of staff needs to stay calm under pressure. If they’re panicked, it sends the message that the CEO might be panicked too, which is never a good look. They must reach for the fire extinguisher, not run for the exits.
A chief of staff is a valuable asset, yet if your startup is still in its early stages or is pre-product-market fit, you’re likely to miss many of the benefits the job brings. When resources are tight, you’re likely better off hiring a functional department head instead of a CEO doppelgänger.
But when the time comes, CEOs can unlock hidden potential with the right chief of staff. That might mean after a Series A, or when the speed of scaling starts to outstrip the senior staff’s capacity to stay aligned.
Zed Tarar is chief of staff at Builder.ai and completing an MBA at London Business School. He has worked in five countries as a U.S. diplomat.
Disclaimer: While Zed Tarar is a U.S. diplomat on sabbatical, his views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.