How does a vision go from something you see far in the distance, off in the shimmering future, to something you can see, touch, and watch unfold in the present?
This magic happens when a chief of staff (CoS) does precisely what they do best: make things happen.
A razor-sharp and prodigiously motivated chief of staff brings visions to life by doing the planning, the work, the managing, and even the post-project accountability reporting. Through their purposeful, systematic, day-to-day actions, they build the figurative bridge between a theoretical idea and a present reality.
“There’s very little power distance between the Chief of Staff and CEO aside from a few key strategic decisions,” CoS Jessica Powell said during an interview. “Chief of Staff is basically a General Manager who goes out and whips on behalf of the CEO to ensure their vision is realized.”
If you’re already a CoS, we know what you might be thinking: damn, right. If you’re curious about this role or if you think you might want to be one someday, you might be thinking: wow, these people sound impressive and inspiring. You might be wondering what building blocks — skills, training, and experience — go into these incredible people we call chiefs of staff?
Through our own research, first-hand interviews with real Chief of Staffs, and some help from The Assist community, we are able to answer your burning questions. Read on for a primer on the multi-faceted chief of staff job.
What is a Chief of Staff?
Leaders in their own right, chiefs of staff serve as complementary partners to the leaders they work with, which include chief executive officers (CEOs), presidents, and vice presidents. They are the communicators, the problem-solvers, the innovators, the process drivers, and the day-to-day decision makers as well as chief architects of the decision-making process.
They often serve as a sounding board for ideas, plans, and dreams, but they also have plenty of their own ideas, plans, and dreams.
“A Chief of Staff is a jack of all trades responsible for closing the gap between strategic objectives and objective reality — this encompasses whatever matters most for long-term company outcomes,” says Powell.
In other words, chiefs of staff provide essential services; they do not simply serve.
Is a Chief of Staff an Executive Assistant?
Short answer: No, a chief of staff is not an executive assistant.
- A CoS and an EA will both enable leaders to do their best work. Their job descriptions may frequently overlap. However, the chief of staff role and the executive assistant role have a few defining differences, especially in terms of their approach to supporting leaders.
- A CoS’s approach usually revolves around people — managing staff, liaising with stakeholders, and cultivating top-to-bottom consensus.
- An EA’s approach usually revolves around tactics. EA duties usually include things like managing tasks, prioritizing time, and optimizing productivity.
So the short and simple answer to the “chief of staff vs executive assistant question” is a matter or process, not necessarily product. As is the case with other confusingly similar roles, such as office administrator vs office manager, the true significance of the differences may not be clear until you take on the role yourself.
Pro-tip: Executive assistants and chiefs of staff don’t simply do different, but related things; executive assistants often become chiefs of staff. Any EA (whether interested in developing into a COS or not) can find ideas for making their work more fun, more efficient, and more strategic with these resources:
- How to Choose The Executive Assistant Career Path That’s Right for You
- 17 Executive Assistant Skills In 2021 For Insane Effectiveness
- How to Be An Executive Assistant, As Told By The Experts
P.S. – Join other Chief of Staffs in signing up for The Assist – a free weekly newsletter dedicated to providing advice about workplace management and other related topics!
Key Differences between CoS, COO, and EA
What happens when we toss COO (chief operating officer) into the mix of roles and subtle differentiators we outlined above?
Unlike a chief of staff and an EA role, who both enable leaders to do their best work, the COO role is rarely seen as supportive to one particular individual in any capacity. When an EA or a CoS might be found coaching an executive or helping them plan the annual summit, the COO can usually be found doing their own thing, namely running the company, more or less.
When a COO talks about their direct reports, they mean pretty much everyone. Investopedia provides a simple superlative that perfectly and concisely describes the COO: second in command.
One could argue that COOs support the office of the CEO by keeping businesses running, but essentially, instead of helping individual leaders do their best work, the COO helps the entire organization do their best work.
If an EA, a CoS, and a COO all find their way onto a pirate ship, the COO would be the quartermaster, working independently, but running the show. The EA and the CoS could be seen as the navigators; the captain would get nowhere without them, but their duties remain hedged under the captain’s canopy.
This table highlights some overarching differences without any seafaring terms:
|Modus operandi||Tactical and organizational acumen||Charismatic, but direct, leadership||Foresight combined with strategic presence|
|Primary goal||Ensure everything gets done||Manage and nurture human capital||Keep business running optimally|
|Typically found doing …||Keeping meetings productive and efficient||Developing company-wide communications and correspondence||Coaching or collaborating with department heads|
|Slogan||“Leave no task standing.”||“Let’s be clear.”||“Always right and has the job title to prove it.”|
|Authority||Most apparent when acting on CEO’s behalf||Unmistakable, but unofficial||Oversees pretty much everyone|
|Least favorite task||Managing inboxes||Monitoring department goals and metrics||Course correcting underperforming groups|
Where can you find the CoS on an org chart?
All over it! A multilateral role, often with no meaningful definition outside of “do what’s necessary,” chiefs of staff can be hard to place on org charts and can, in different organizations or companies, end up in different places.
Most often, an organizational chart will place the CoS in between the highest level executive leadership team (CEOs, founders, presidents, and CIOs) and departmental leaders (directors, managers, and department heads). Other roles that might sit next to a CoS include vice presidents, senior directors, and leadership deputies. The CoS may or may not sit in the executive office with the rest of the executive team.
The White House org chart is a classic example of CoS placement in the hierarchy.
Is the CoS an executive?
Merriam-Webster defines an executive as “a directing or controlling office of an organization.” By that definition, chiefs of staff are absolutely executives. They direct affairs and influence people. They’re essential members of the leadership team.
However, in many organizations, chiefs of staff lack the documented authority to officially direct people while remaining managerial in every meaningful sense. They can influence and encourage staff members (and do so effectively more often than not), but there’s nothing in writing that says employees have to listen to their guidance; they just do. In this way, the chief of staff acts as a trusted universal mentor to nearly all employees.
In the end, the question of a CoS’s “executive-ship” is a question of semantics. Two people may proffer two different answers and yet both be right. When it comes to a CoS, their level of authority and executive presence often becomes a state or mind and a state of perception.
Now that we’ve primed you to consider the blurry lines between linguistic nuance and subjective interpretation, it’s the perfect time to cover chief of staff alternative titles — roles with the same functionality and authority called by different names.
Alternative titles for CoS
- Chief Administrative Officer
- Chief Business Officer
- Chief Business Administrator
- Personnel Manager
- Chief of Personnel
- Staff Director
What does a Chief of Staff do?
A chief of staff does whatever they deem necessary to reach priority short-term goals (including informing staff about a key policy change) and priority long-term goals (including delivering the last strategic plan performance indicator on a silver platter).
A chief of staff functions, for the most part, autonomously. They don’t execute a set of tasks day after day. Each day, they determine what they need to do and then they do it.
One of their primary goals involves maintaining and developing productive relationships with everyone and anyone — stakeholders, staff, board members, leaders, investors, and so much more. As such, their to-do lists are as complex and varied as the people they’re building relationships with.
What are the main duties and responsibilities of a Chief of Staff?
Although those in this role do different things each day, they’re usually centered around a core menu of chief of staff roles and responsibilities, which include, but are naturally not limited, to:
- Attending meetings, meetings, and more meetings. (And not just showing up, but rounding up consensus, enforcing processes, and ensuring strategic buy-in.)
- Preparing to make meetings successful meetings
- Developing and delivering communications materials and collateral for everything from town halls to development training.)
- Initiating, leading, and guiding special projects
- Guiding and advising staff
- Counseling and advising leaders
- Gathering quantitative and qualitative evidence of process and project success and delivering course corrections
- Hiring, training, and mentoring staff at all levels
- Executive coaching
- Performance coaching
- Process review, documentation, and revision.
What department does a CoS oversee?
A CoS doesn’t usually oversee one specific department unless they’ve been tasked with a special project or with coaching and course correction. They do, however, generally oversee all departments, holding them accountable for goals and deadlines.
How do you become a Chief of Staff?
You can become a chief of staff by being a chief of staff before you get the title. Act like a chief of staff. Think like a chief of staff. Deepen your responsibilities and skills, especially in essential areas such as finance or human resources.
Start navigating through your day as though every second counts, because it does.
“Become exceptionally self-aware,” says Powell. “Devise what the exec needs during early conversations. Believe what’s communicated between the lines. Do not compromise on who you are to be what they need.”
Work on your relational skills by talking to anyone and everyone you can. Every interaction can be a learning experience for your future role.
What makes a good Chief of Staff?
By now you’ve learned that chiefs of staff are all-around powerhouses who can do pretty much anything they set their minds to. You might be thirsty for some more specific recommendations on how to be a great chief of staff. Here are some tips beyond generally being awesome and absolutely on top of everything.
- 8+ years managerial experience
- Unilateral leadership skills
- Proven experience translating data and metrics to action
- Demonstrable experience managing high-profile projects
- Robust written and verbal communication portfolio
- Emotional intelligence
- Ability to achieve and maintain consensus among diverse groups
- Strong analytical capacity
- Shrewd and accountable decision-making skills
- Project management experience
- Compassion and foresight
Chief of Staff Training
- Cornell’s Systems Thinking
- SHRM People Manager Qualifications (PMQ)
- Design Thinking for Innovation
- Leading: Human Resource Management and Leadership Specialization
- People Analytics
- Strategic Leadership and Management Specialization
- Diversity and Inclusion for HR Professionals
Bonus: EA Training and Development
Here’s inspiration and resources EAs both on and off the CoS career track can leverage to find fulfillment where they are in the present.
- How the Best Executive Assistants Set and Hit Their Goals
- 9 Of The Best Executive Assistant Conferences In 2021
- 20+ Essential Executive Assistant Training Courses
According to this trusted Linkedin job description template, an ideal chief of staff candidate will have a minimum of 7 years experience “in a business management role, with a special focus on executive-level advising and interdepartmental collaboration. “
Other highlighted experience areas include:
- Data analysis
- Directing multiple teams and departments
- Budget management
Pro-tip: If you’re an EA hoping to become a chief of staff, you can get there by constantly working on your craft, reading EA blogs, finding the right tools, seeking the right tips, and, most importantly, signing up for the Assist newsletter, a delightful mashup of all these resources combined with a healthy dose of community and camaraderie.
Can you become a Chief of Staff without any Executive Assistant experience?
Having executive assistant experience is not a prerequisite for a chief of staff role. Getting better at juggling executive assistant responsibilities will certainly help you develop the skills, strengths, and shadow management techniques you need to be a successful CoS, but you can also gain similar experience in other roles that mix people and process management, that mix planning processes with delivering results. Such titles include, but are certainly not limited to:
- HR manager
- Office manager
- Compliance officer
- Department manager
- Project manager
- Business development manager
What can you do on your own, for free, to gain more valuable skills for this role?
Plenty of independent development activities can help you gain translatable chief of staff skills.
Practice: Seek out volunteer opportunities, including those on boards and councils, that involve the complexities of chief of staff work on a smaller scale. You can also start developing the task tracking prowess of a CoS with a little help from monday.com. (Consider this tool your CoS work management training wheels.)
Network: Talk to chiefs of staff. If you don’t know any, find some and talk to them.
Learn: Read books and blogs about the current skills in highest demand for those seeking CoS roles. One classic recommendation is Tyler Parris’s Chief Of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization.
What are the most sought after skills for a CoS to possess?
The most important chief of staff skills are those related to emotional intelligence, leadership, information processing, and initiative. Additionally, some of a CoS’s most essential skills are dependent on the people they work with.
“Complementary skills are extremely important between Chief of Staff and CEO,” says Powell. “This said, compatible intuition and values are very useful for being able to speak and act on the CEO’s behalf.”
Really the list of skills these people can and do possess would require a browser with infinite scroll to cover in full, but here is a comprehensive selection:
1) Hard Skills
- Data literacy
- Management best practices
- Process management
- Project management
- Public speaking
- Conflict resolution
- Legal understanding
- Strategic planning
- Analytical skills
- Research literacy
- Systems, design, and divergent thinking
- Tactical communication skills
- Coaching techniques
- Knowledge of psychological frameworks
2) Soft Skills
- Commitment and follow up
- Organizational skills
- Rapid learning
- Rapid learning and processing
- Motivational leadership, including the ability to inspire staff members using employee recognition strategies and tools, like Nectar.
What’s the average salary for a CoS?
The national salary average for a chief of staff is $122,225, according to Glassdoor. Other surveys, like this one from the Chief of Staff Network, generally align, showing that nearly 70% of all chiefs of staff make $120,000 a year or more. According to the Economic Research Institute, that average salary could grow by as much as 13% in just 5 years.
The top 8 states by Salary for Chief of Staff
According to Indeed.com, these are the 8 locations with the highest CoS salaries:
- New Orleans, LA
- Pittsburgh, PA
- Washington, DC
- Chicago, IL
- New York, NY
- Albany, NY
- Miami, FL
- Boston, MA
What does the future of the Chief of Staff role look like?
The CoS role is essentially futureproof. What will it look like in the future? It will look like what companies and organizations need it to look like.
Chiefs of staff make things happen. They adapt. They adapt to small day-to-day changes, and they’ll adapt to the changes — technological, cultural, and even geopolitical — sweeping over the workplaces of the future. The chief of staff career path of the future will grow as nuanced as the future demands.
Some experts believe the CoS role might even play a pivotal role in breaking through that ever-climbing proverbial glass ceiling. Quoted in Forbes, powerhouse CoS Caroline Pugh said:
“Women that are chiefs of staff are sharing this career path and opportunity with their networks. It’s having a domino effect where now more and more women are the right-hand women to CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies. They are being positioned as the next wave of C-suite executives themselves which is really exciting. The chief of staff role could be the very role that finally evens out the gender disparity in boardrooms.”
If anyone can achieve this lofty goal, it would be a chief of staff.