Seeing around corners: How to excel as a chief of staff (2024)

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Since its modern-day origins in the White House, the role of the chief of staff (COS) has proliferated across the business world. It’s a privileged position, bringing access to the top leadership and the most pressing corporate agendas but requiring an intense focus and unique skills. As one former COS told us, “It is one of the hardest jobs that you can have.”

No two chiefs of staff have the same journey. The responsibilities can range in scope from the administrative to the strategic depending on the organization’s needs and the relationship between the COS and the principal. Nonetheless, the role’s raison d’être is always to enable the principal—typically a CEO but increasingly other C-suite members—to execute their mission.

Over the past five years, we have held biannual forums bringing together more than 200 chiefs of staff from both the public and private sectors. Through conversations with them and subsequent research, we have distilled eight pieces of practical advice to help chiefs of staff maximize the role’s impact—both for the principals they serve and for their own career arcs.

1. Agree on the job description

The COS and the principal should explicitly define up front the role’s scope and decision rights. Will you have full control over administrative matters? Will you serve as the CEO’s proxy at leadership or board meetings? Might you even handle special projects, such as rolling out a new set of corporate priorities or establishing a new function? One COS told us that running a project alongside her regular responsibilities allowed her to expand her functional experience, helped her meet more colleagues, and enabled her to see how the organization operated.

Defining the job description should be an iterative process that refines the role’s scope as the principal’s needs and your aptitudes become clear. “You have to be direct with [the principal] and pin them down, knowing that the space you are in is going to evolve,” another COS told us. “Your role will change, the business will change, and the marketplace will change.”

The size of the team the COS manages is another factor that will determine the role’s responsibilities. In many cases, a COS has to oversee (and sometimes set up) the office of the CEO, leading a team of up to 20 people in what can be a nebulous and politically sensitive remit. The team size may be partly dictated by the number of executives with their own chiefs of staff. In such scenarios, it can be easy to end up “doing business with each other,” in the words of one COS who faced that situation, so make sure you focus on your principal’s strategic priorities for the organization.

A CEO’s COS ultimately serves not only the company’s leader but also the broader management team, so it’s important that the CEO communicates your role’s parameters to senior executives and the broader organization. This will serve to both legitimize your position and clarify the role’s attendant responsibilities and scope of power.

2. Build trust

Earning your principal’s trust is a priority beyond anything else. The COS is usually privy to the principal’s most sensitive concerns—both personal and professional. As such, you need to earn a higher degree of confidence than would have been necessary in your previous supervisory relationships, several chiefs of staff told us. That may require asking many clarifying questions and repeatedly “sense checking” to ensure you and the principal are on the same page—something seasoned executives may find uncomfortable.

Trust is particularly critical for one frequent aspect of the role: serving as the CEO’s sounding board and adviser. With an impartial perspective rounded out by interactions with many parts of the organization, you are well placed to offer a unique take on issues and, when appropriate, to even challenge the CEO’s thinking. Showing the courage to have such conversations early on will go a long way toward developing mutual trust.

Transparency is an essential element of building trust, so even before you assume your position, discuss with your principal their priorities and ways of working—and with the outgoing COS, if there is one—to make sure you understand the expectations. High measures of self-restraint and humility are also important qualities for an effective COS. “I had consistently been the leader in my previous roles,” one COS told us. “Now I’m not, and it’s a big shift.” Another noted, “Your job is not to make yourself look good but to make your principal look good.”

Since your effectiveness relies in part on engendering the goodwill of many stakeholders, you also need to earn the confidence of the broader leadership team. “It’s a difficult balance to be a trusted confidant to the principal and a sounding board to their team and then deliver aggregated ‘home truths’ delicately to the principal as and when needed,” one COS told us.

Finally, don’t forget that your principal is human and possibly struggling with the insecurities and doubts we all occasionally experience. A former government minister shared that bosses sometimes need the COS to help them keep their spirits up in tough times and noted that he valued a sense of humor in his own chiefs of staff.

3. Nail your firsts

Making a smooth transition into this role is more important than in most other positions, since the organization’s leader will rely on you from day one. “Be crystal clear on how to step in; otherwise, you’ll create noise,” one COS warned. Many chiefs of staff we interviewed talked about their first investor day, board meeting, or town hall as a high-pressure proof point, and they recommended identifying (together with the principal) critical early milestones to get right.

What’s as important as nailing your own firsts is helping a new CEO nail theirs. In a recent article, we highlighted how incoming CEOs can make the most of their early days in the role.1Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, Vikram Malhotra, and Kurt Strovink, “Starting strong: Making your CEO transition a catalyst for renewal,” McKinsey Quarterly, November 17, 2022. The COS has to understand those initial priorities, so ask your principal, “How do you want the organization to see you?” and, “On the day you leave the role, what would you be most disappointed not to have achieved?” What you learn should inform your own priorities, so regularly check that these remain well calibrated to the principal’s.

4. Ensure the CEO’s office is not an island

Part of your job is to serve as gatekeeper to a principal facing enormous time demands. However, preserving their time for priority matters should not go so far as to isolate the CEO. On the contrary, the COS should help connect the leader to the rest of the organization and ensure that they are seen as approachable. One COS mentioned that in her early days on the job, she made herself highly visible and accessible. By being physically present in the office, she was a natural go-to for team members, which in turn gave those colleagues a sense of closer connection with the boss.

To perpetuate those connections, some chiefs of staff help their principals develop communication channels for different parts of the organization, with a focus not just on a regular rhythm of interactions but on their quality (such as sending personal messages to employees who secure big wins or are facing difficult times). This communication cannot flow only one way, however; the principal should also engage with employees’ concerns, whether through fireside chats, coffee mornings, or by “walking the floors.”

5. Exert influence without playing politics

As a CEO’s COS, you have a superpower: people pick up the phone when you call. The role certainly confers cachet, but with that comes the tricky task of exercising influence without having explicit authority. As a direct link to the principal, you have “halo authority,” but you should be clear when you are speaking on your own behalf and when on behalf of your boss. And don’t get mired in internal politics, chiefs of staff warn. Indeed, the COS has to master a delicate balancing act of being part of the leadership team while retaining independence from it. Consequently, the role can be lonely—it’s not clear in whom you can confide—so some chiefs of staff rely on executive coaches to serve as sources of impartial perspective.

Just as an incoming CEO will often do a “listening tour,” so too should a new COS reach out widely and form relationships with colleagues at different levels of the organization. This network can enable you to better read the mood of the institution, developing an “outside-in” perspective you can then use to help the principal keep their finger on the organization’s pulse.

6. Hone your peripheral vision

A COS serves as the principal’s eyes and ears, helping them anticipate and head off challenges and avoid surprises. One COS noted that senior leaders tend to bring only good news to the boss; a well-connected COS knows and informs their principal about what’s happening on the front lines, good or bad. “You need to have a compass of what you perceive to be the ‘right’ thing to bring to your CEO’s attention,” the COS told us. To do that well, chiefs of staff need a blend of emotional intelligence, big-picture thinking, and attention to detail.

One way to reduce surprises is to help your principal align their professional and personal calendars (such as business trips and holidays) with the business cycle of planning, executive committee, and board meetings. It’s also useful to set aside time—weekly, if not daily—to scan the horizon and prepare for important upcoming events. Ten minutes spent considering the likely topics of discussion at a key board meeting or all-hands session will allow you to get ahead of potential problems. As you mature in the role, this will become second nature.

7. Make the role your own

While the external environment, organizational maturity, and the principal’s priorities will shape the scope of the COS role, chiefs of staff we spoke with stressed the importance of “making the role scale with you.” As a COS, you have a unique opportunity to develop skills and knowledge valuable for your future career. The goal is to go as broad and deep as possible. Don’t shy away from technical topics, but also don’t get bogged down in the details of every single initiative happening in the organization.

Try to find a balance between diving into projects close to your heart and keeping a helicopter-level view of other matters important to your principal. On any given day, you have to decide where to focus, and knowing your own preferences and priorities will help you pivot toward your passion projects and strengths. As one current COS advised, “A COS can be an emissary for change and at the same time must be ready to be a resource for the entire organization.” You are in a position to challenge the status quo, but successful chiefs of staff get the right balance between making the role their own and knowing when to toe the organizational line.

8. Manage transitions (including your own)

Since the COS role is so relationship oriented, the arrival of a new principal is a turning point. Some chiefs of staff successfully transition to a new CEO, but the role is typically time bound (to around 18 to 24 months) and rotational, partly due to its intense demands. We have found that most chiefs of staff tend to leave the organization for their next role at this time.

While moving on can feel like a “spring into the abyss,” in the words of one former COS, remember that the role has given you an unrivaled view of the organization—experience that can help you excel in many other positions. The network you develop during your tenure can also be valuable in securing your next job. As for when to begin planning for your next role, a good rule of thumb is to devote 20 percent of your time to the task starting three to six months before the end of your tenure.

Inherent in any transition is the challenge of harnessing both the enthusiasm of an incoming leader and the experience of the outgoing one. You will need to manage the handover of all business-critical activities as well as sensitive, people-focused considerations—issues you may not want to write down but that a new CEO or COS should be aware of.

For the incoming principal, a COS who remains in the role should balance the practical aspects of the transition with learning the incoming leader’s working style and how you can support and complement it effectively. For the outgoing principal, you should develop a handover plan and document key past decisions.

As you leave the role, take the opportunity to share with the organization what you’ve learned during your tenure. Is this a moment to reset some elements of the COS role to match the preferences of a new principal? Should the organization consider both internal and external candidates? The organization may be facing a cultural transformation or a strategic realignment that may affect the necessary qualifications for the next COS, and your input, based on your experience, will be valued.

The dynamic between the COS and the principal has to be carefully tended, perhaps more so than with any other professional pairing. While the role’s variability and intensity make it challenging, they also make it exciting. Those who deftly navigate the different phases of their tenure will likely find new career vistas opening before them.

Eleanor Bensley is a partner in McKinsey’s Sydney office.Andrew Goodman is a senior partner in the London office, where Poppy Johnson and Connor Rochford are consultants.

The authors wish to thank Rose Beauchamp, Michael Birshan, Mark Dominik, Suzanne Heywood, Anna Moore, and Stuart Shilson for their contributions to this article.

This article was edited by Joanna Pachner, an executive editor in the Toronto office.

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