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What We Learned From… What a Chief of Staff Does

August 5, 2020  |  3 min read
What a Chief of Staff Does

Last month, in our “What You Need to Know Right Now” webinar series, Bower’s CEO, Georgina Bale, hosted 4 current or former “Chiefs of Staff” with multiple perspectives and various industry backgrounds residing in both the UK and US for a conversation around the role of a Chief of Staff. Now we look at what we learned from the webinar and highlights included things such as: the difference between a Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant, the importance of emotional intelligence, what traits make a great Chief of Staff, and when startups need a Chief of Staff.

Here’s what we learned:

1) What a Chief of Staff does.

“A Chief of Staff is there to create a bit of time and space for the CEO and be a right-hand support,” said Jeston Na Nakhorn, the first-ever Chief of Staff at Gresham House, an investment management firm that’s been around since 1857. “I act as a sounding board to the CEO and share the operational burden…this job is about organisation and prioritisation.”  Similarly, Benedict Collins, Programme Director at Department of International Trade agreed, “You are supporting that person in getting their job done. Being inside that person’s head. You are their voice – internally and externally.”

2) Trust, objectivity and adaptability are crucial.

Mary Barnes, CoS at WorldRemit, who has also held EA and PA roles, says that being able to zoom out for a big picture point of view with a fresh pair of eyes is a huge asset. “Being able to adapt and be flexible and react to situations. Often as a CoS you’ll get called in to pick up some slack.  Sometimes even the fact that you don’t have knowledge of a particular area is actually really valuable.”

3) The Ultimate Strategist: the difference between a Chief of Staff and an Executive Assistant.

While CoS and EA roles and titles can overlap, CoS is more strategic – it’s about executive operations. A Chief of Staff drives accountability, fills in the gaps, and works across teams to drive results – they are the ultimate project manager while an EA is tactical and frankly, doesn’t have the bandwidth or time to be a strategic partner. Maïa Cybelle Carpenter, a two-time CoS in fintech and biotech, who owns a consulting firm and currently leads a team of over 40 EAs globally at Square, joked about startup founders “needing” a Chief of Staff. “If I had a penny anytime a startup exec said, “I’m done with an EA, I need a COS now.” A CoS helps their leader keep to priorities and focus.

4) It gets lonely at the top.

Founders tend to want a CoS around 300 people vs.10 people. They need someone they can trust, whom they immediately have confidence in and can bounce ideas off. A CoS is not always someone that’s been in that role prior, but someone who’s had a long-term relationship with the CEO because often, they don’t have time to build a new relationship.

5) Emotional intelligence is essential – leading from behind.

Understanding how people work and what motivates them helps a CoS move projects along. The goal is to get the most out of your teammates and ask the right questions. Unfortunately, an “assistant” title tends to get less respect than a “chief” title. Maia’s a firm believer in leading from behind and having a soft impact to drive results.

6. A great Chief of Staff always remains curious, helps with challenges and fills in the gaps.

Last, but not least, Georgina Bale, Bower’s CEO, a former EA, PA and CoS, is extremely passionate about the intersection of technology and human capital/operations. “Be like water,” she says. “Fill in the gaps and lead during a crisis. Bringing people from many teams together is a unique skill.” Being innovative and on top of the latest technology and apps can be game-changing whilst supporting a CEO and leading a team’s communication strategies.

You can watch the entire conversation here. Stay tuned for next week’s instalment!

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