Co-Authored by Catherine Berardi & Madeleine Niebauer
The Chief of Staff (CoS) plays a critical role supporting a leader, though what that looks like in practice varies widely. The most important aspect of this partnership is the fit between the leader and the CoS. This “fit” is not an identical match of personality traits and technical competencies, but rather a combination of attributes that enhances productivity and establishes close rapport. As Tyler Parris notes in his book, Chief of Staff, The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization, “To help [a leader] make and execute great decisions, the chief of staff serves as analyst and decision framer on one hand and project manager, change agent, and coach on the other.” Although the CoS role and leadership varies from company to company, we identified particular skills and traits that make most CoSs successful in the role and as high-potential future leaders for the organization.
Characteristics of a Superstar Chief of Staff
Ability to get things done: Superstar CoS’s are incredibly driven to achieve results. They are tenacious in the face of adversity and carry a can-do attitude. Master organizers and project planners, they consistently look ahead and anticipate needs before they arise.
Strategic mindset: Chiefs of Staff are natural problem solvers. They are analytical and structured in their thinking. They create order out of chaos by identifying systems and processes in need of tightening. They deeply understand business operations and easily synthesize information to develop a recommended plan of action.
Off-the-charts emotional intelligence: Chiefs of Staff must understand the underlying motivations not only of their leader, but also of themselves and others across the organization with whom they build relationships and influence. They are politically savvy–the ultimate connectors, in the know about every key project, and able to connect the dots across the company. They are positive, empathetic, flexible, curious. They garner respect and people want to be around them.
Loyalty & managed ego: A leader trusts her CoS above all others. Chiefs of staff are deeply loyal, thinking of their leader before themselves and looking for ways to elevate them. They must be confident enough to be candid & push back at times, while also humble enough to happily remain behind the scenes.
Identifying Superstar Talent
Identifying true “superstars” during the hiring process is difficult, but there are ways to tailor your approach to better assess CoS-specific traits. First, understand the most critical technical and behavioral competencies required for your specific position. This aids in developing interview questions that assess the right factors. Second, spend ample time with candidates to understand their individual strengths and skills in areas mentioned above. An answer to one question may not be enough, but over time their responses will uncover their skills and abilities. Third, ask a variety of the candidate’s professional references (e.g., former supervisors, subordinates, colleagues, clients, etc.) about the same CoS-specific traits. They may provide an interesting perspective. Lastly, consider having finalist candidates shadow executives for at least a few days. This time together allows both the candidate and executive to get a feel for each other’s personalities and work styles. It also helps develop rapport during the selection process, giving the candidates and executive more comfort about a future partnership.
Hiring a Superstar Chief of Staff
Hire internally: One obvious place to look for a superstar CoS is within your company. It is a great opportunity for a rising star to build a broad generalist skillset and gain access to key leaders across the organization. Parris notes in his book, organizations often use the role as “a formal, rotational position that is specifically designed to develop high-potential leaders in the organization.”
Search externally: To source the role externally, you can share the job description with your networks or post it on job-search websites. However, given the critical nature of the role and the importance of a strong fit, consider engaging an executive search firm. Prime Chief of Staff focuses exclusively on filling chief of staff positions by first identifying the needs of the organization and leader prior to sourcing A-player candidates.
Part-time option: If you could use a CoS, but don’t have the resources or workflow to require a full-time staff member in the role, consider bringing on a part-time chief of staff. vChief provides experienced CoSs who partner with executives from 5 – 20 hours per week. Some clients have also found it is a great opportunity to try having a CoS and see if they benefit from it, before bringing on a full-time team member.