A detailed, accurate position description is critical in any hiring process. For a chief of staff role, this is especially true, given how different the role looks across industries and organizations. There is no single answer to the question, “What does a chief of staff do?” There are several functions of a chief of staff, many of which may overlap in a single role. It can also be challenging to capture because some portion of a chief of staff’s role is typically reacting to the day-to-day needs of the leader and can’t always be identified in advance. The role can often morph and change over time, or even through seasons in the year.
While it can be challenging to write, the position description is important in the search process. We use the position description to inform our scorecards and interview questions, so having the right information is critical to finding the right person. We thought we would share some tips on drafting an effective chief of staff position description based on our experience identifying and hiring chiefs of staff.
Steps to write the position description
- Write a position summary, including the key functions of the position
- Outline the role’s duties and responsibilities
- Detail the qualifications of the ideal candidate
- Review the position description with the leader and his or her team
We include a position summary with every description, which defines the key mission of the chief of staff role and gives an overview of its key functions and the benefits it will provide to the leader, office of the leader, and the entire organization. We usually also include who s/he will work most closely with (e.g., the Board of Directors, leadership team, executive assistant, etc.).
In developing the key functions for your chief of staff, consider the various archetypes and those that make most sense in your context. For example, are they the operator (creating structure and process for a visionary leader) and advisor (providing strategic thought partnership) or are they more integrator (acting as glue, creating cohesion and alignment) and implementer (getting stuff done, driving priorities and/or special projects on behalf of the leader)? You often have aspects of ALL, but we focus the summary on where they will spend a majority of their time. We then use these key functions to create specific responsibilities.
Outline the key duties, tasks, and responsibilities for the role. Be specific with what you know, leaving room for what you don’t. Many of the duties for your Chief of Staff should be outlined, but approximately 10-20% of the role may be left undefined until the chief of staff assumes the position.
Below are some sample items that might be included in a CoS role description:
- Help leader identify priorities, strategically align his/her time with those, and revisit them regularly to assess progress
- Act as a key thought partner, brainstorming & identifying solutions to challenges
- Manage a variety of long-term, cross-organizational projects (include specific examples)
- Plan leadership team retreats, developing objectives and agenda, coordinating with executive assistant on logistics
- Oversee meeting preparation and planning for Board of Directors; support CEO in managing interactions with board chair and committee leaders
- Provide communications support: drafting emails, reports, memos, presentations, internal and external communications, and/or social media posts
Note that these examples specify the kind of work the chief of staff will do, rather than simply using a vague statement like, “Oversees communications.”
Knowledge, skills, and mindsets
Though the exact duties of each chief of staff will vary, seeking a breadth of skills and behavioral traits is crucial to finding that effective “Swiss Army Knife.” There are particular skills we’ve identified that many chiefs of staff possess; however, other qualifications will be dependent on the duties of your specific position. For example, if your chief of staff will be tasked with providing more structure, process, and administration to the office of the leader for improved efficiency and operations, your chief of staff will need process and systems thinking.
An effective chief of staff must have a mindset that is very focused on supporting a leader in any ways necessary, putting the leader’s needs above their own. This implies someone with fierce loyalty and minimal ego.
Previous experience and education
Unlike many roles that often encourage or require a lot of specialization in a particular field or function, the chief of staff role tends to promote diversity of experience. Therefore, having a cross-functional background tends to work better for a chief of staff as opposed to a specific focus in one area.
Chiefs of staff typically have at least 8-10 years of professional experience with at least a bachelor’s degree – many having advanced degrees (e.g., MBA, JD, MA/MS or MPA/MPP).
Here are some qualifications we often look for in a chief of staff:
- Jack-of-all-trades, with experience in wide-ranging or cross-functional areas, and an eagerness to learn new skills
- Strategic thinker, data-driven and analytical in approach to solving problems
- Strong written and verbal communication; listens well and can easily learn to communicate in someone else’s “written voice”
- Excels at building relationships and networks; influences others to achieve outcomes
- Systems and process-thinker; loves creating order out of chaos
- Comfortable behind the stage, supporting the person in the spotlight; thrives on helping others be their best selves and anticipating their needs before they are spoken
- Deeply loyal and a steel-trap with confidential information
The leader should be involved in drafting the position description from the start – outlining the mission of the role and the overview of the functions. He or she should also be very specific in the known duties and responsibilities of the role. The HR team may round out the rest of the position description but the leader should do a final edit and approval.
The leader’s team should also play an active role in reviewing the position description to ensure it aligns with the ways they can best leverage their chief of staff.
Though the chief of staff role can be hard to fully capture and define, a thorough and detailed position description can help ensure the candidate, the executive, and the hiring team are all on the same page regarding expectations for the role and finding the candidate who is the best fit. With a strong position description in hand, you’ll be much more likely to hire a superstar chief of staff.
Catherine Berardi is the Founder & CEO of Prime Chief of Staff, which provides high-performing Chiefs of Staff to high-performing companies. They work with fast-growing startups to established corporations across industries to identify, onboard, develop, and coach exceptional talent for this critical role.
Madeleine Niebauer is the Founder & CEO of vChief Virtual Chief of Staff service, which offers part-time and interim chief of staff support to start-ups, nonprofit organizations, and businesses of all sizes.