In this article, I would like to provide information and pointers to information on the Chief of Staff’s role in the tech industry. As a member of the Engineering Leadership Team at Red Hat, I have been in that kind of role for almost three years for the SVP of Engineering.
People instantly connect the role to the one that John R. Steelman was the first to hold in 1946: White House Chief of Staff. The definition of the role varies immensely between every presidency. Even more, as Chris Whipple states in the subtitle of his book The Gatekeepers, “The White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”
As for the White House, the job depends on the company and executive the Chiefs of Staff serve. The general acceleration of the pace of business is the main reason mentioned for the emergence of the role in tech companies. CEO and Executive tend to shift their focus from inside their organization to outside. They need someone trusted to cover for them. Mark Organ, the CEO of Influitive, describes the Chief of Staff job as making him a superhero.
Rob Dickins, who served as Chief of Staff for several executives at Autodesk, describes the role using three orientations. I find the framework useful to structure the conversations with other Chief of Staffs, or with executives looking for Chief of Staffs (CoS).
The first orientation focuses on the executive the CoS reports. How do we make the executive operate at the highest level of performance?
The second orientation includes, in addition, the executive’s leadership team. I love that aspect of the job, transforming a group of people reporting to an executive into a true team leading the company or the business unit. Being part of a team, each member levels up his game and benefits from the diversity of the group.
The third orientation is the organization itself aiming at answering the question: How do we best set the organization to accomplish its objectives. One aspect of that is why I love using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to establish a continuous two-way street dialog between the people in the organization and their leadership team. The dialogue helps to clarify the strategy and to evaluate what are the right things to do to implement it.
Julia DeWhal, Chief of Staff to the CEO at Opendoor, describes the role as the right-hand person and the force multiplier. Brian Rumao, Chief of Staff to the CEO at LinkedIn, uses the same description in the short course he made available, and adds, that the CoS have to stand in for their executive as needed. Mark Organ even says that the CoS is his stunt double.
As Ben Casnocha, who was the Chief of Staff for Reid Hoffman, surfaces very well, the more connected the Chief of Staff is with the executive he or she served, enable better decision making and better tradeoffs.
What are the attributes you will want as or for a Chief of Staff:
- Expert Facilitator: you manage conversations, synthesize multiple points of view, align on strategic orientation, either in-person or remotely,
- Trusted Organizer: you bring order to things, you get things done, and you manage sensitive information in confidence and discretion.
- Strategic Thinker: you can see the big picture, evaluate importance and urgency, and provide context for decisions.
I often wondered how Elon Musk was managing his time between his three main companies: SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company. Surprisingly, Sam Teller was the Director of the Office of the CEO for the three companies.
It seems that the “Alter Egos” were doing well together. Jonah Bromwich used the term in his New York Time article, Hail to the Chief of Staff, The title is suddenly everywhere. It can mean almost anything.
Can it mean almost anything? Yes. So it means that you can define a role so that your contribution has the most significant impact on your organization.
To find out more about the Chief of Staff role in tech, follow the CoS Tech Forum.
Edit on April 20: Here is another article to add to the references. This is from the Harvard Business Review: The Case for a Chief of Staff. The three-level model makes a lot of sense to refine the role.