With six years of experience identifying talent for Chief of Staff roles, people want to know, “What does it take to be Chief of Staff?” It can feel like traditional search processes value the career ladder - where your next opportunity is a simple rung higher than where you’ve been. However, for the Chief of Staff, we see it differently. What it takes to be great in this role cannot be learned in one position or with one company, but rather, through the amalgamation of your talents and experiences over time. There is not one path to becoming Chief of Staff. Focus on understanding and developing the three areas below.
If you are an organization seeking a Chief of Staff, remember that all of these areas are critical when identifying the right person for the role.
Not all aspects of a Chief of Staff role are learned in a classroom or on the job. Some of the most important skills (often behavioral) are more innate or nurtured much earlier in life. Nevertheless, merely having skills doesn’t mean much if you lack the awareness of how to best use them. Take stock regularly of where you excel and what motivates you. Take a strengths-based assessment, like Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, to help you discover and communicate your unique abilities. Ask your colleagues what they appreciate about you. In addition to managing your strengths, you must also be mindful of your shortcomings. Sometimes our greatest strengths can rear as weaknesses. Our understanding of what drives us is essential for the Chief of Staff, a role that requires strong emotional intelligence and relationship management.
The Chief of Staff role is occupied by former (and current) musicians, athletes, artists, and more. They did not set out to be a Chief of Staff in college; however, they were able to use their key strengths in different disciplines.
The Chief of Staff role goes broad when others go deep. It is the nature of the role. Therefore, if your experiences are too specialized or focused, it may not be as helpful for this position. Consider building a resume of experiences that aren’t vertically in the same field. Instead, focus on combining roles and opportunities that provide breadth across several aspects of a business, from operations to marketing to finance, while also focusing on developing functional skills like project management, strategy advisory, and process improvement.
It is important to note, being cross-functional does not necessarily require job hopping. We look for diversity of experiences, not a certain number of positions held. You can work for the same company, and even in the same role, and still develop breadth.
Your experience alone won’t make you an effective Chief of Staff. It is what you learned from those experiences that differentiate the best candidates. Being exposed to cross-functional projects is one thing. Learning how to build an accountable environment is another – even if you failed the first time. Be sure to thread the responsibilities you had with your results, both good and bad.
Focus on combining roles and opportunities that provide breadth across several aspects of a business, from operations to marketing to finance, while also focusing on developing functional skills like project management, strategy advisory, and process improvement.
Business acumen is part of the “special sauce” of a Chief of Staff. This acumen allows you to connect the dots between the work you do and the impact it has on the organization. It helps you determine what is mission-critical and what is not. Your acumen is your understanding of Business (capital B) and business (lowercase b). It is learning the industry and business model of your particular organizations while also understanding what it takes to achieve goals. When employers say they are seeking “discernment,'“ “presence," and “smarts,” they are offering referring to this acumen. For some, this know-how is more innate. Perhaps you showed an enterprising spirit from a young age and understand the inner-workings of business is simply ingrained in you. However, business acumen can also be learned. It can studied through business-specific coursework in undergraduate and postgraduate programs like an MBA. It can also be learned on the job. No matter how you gain this important acumen, it is critical that you have it and can demonstrate it for a Chief of Staff role.
What do you think? Are there areas, that as a Chief, have contributed to your success that would have been helpful had you known them earlier in your career? Let us know in the comments below.