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Chief of staff: a role worth considering

The CEO’s day is typically jam-packed with meetings, conference calls and events, which tend to leave them with little time to think or contemplate.The CEO’s day is typically jam-packed with meetings, conference calls and events, which tend to leave them with little time to think or contemplate.

In political terms the idea of a chief of staff has long existed but in recent years the business world – especially in America – has borrowed the idea and we are now slowly but surely witnessing the introduction of a top-executive full-time adviser to the CEO acting as ‘…part confidant, part gatekeeper and part all round strategic consultant’.

In fact, CNN Money published an article on its website in 2010 entitled ‘Latest CEO accessory: a chief of staff’, which struck in chord in many a corporate board room and the trend since 2010 has been for this newly created position to become mainstream.

Who has one? For the time being, mostly big American companies being such as Yahoo, AOL, AFL, Goldman Sachs, ING, Microsoft, etc.

The idea of a chief of staff is to strengthen the position of the CEO. I suppose you could see the chief of staff as a sort of right-hand-man (not to be confused with a second-in-command since that is the role of a deputy CEO). My interpretation is that this new role is strategic and administrative at the same time. By this I mean that the chief of staff acts as the glue for top management (chief officers and heads of departments) helping them work cross-functionally. The new role also allows the CEO to focus more on the high level, the external and the decision-making while the chief of staff would look more at the implementation and the internal context.

In the past the CEO’s personal assistant performed this role to some extent but the chief of staff is part of the top-management team

Granted, the role is still being developed by those early-adopters and management innovators like Goldman Sachs. Yet to my mind it makes sense to have a chief of staff in certain, large, local companies. I think a CEO can benefit a lot from this type of full-time support by a capable person. I appreciate that in the past the CEO’s personal assistant performed this role to some extent but the chief of staff is part of the top-management team and thus seen and treated as ‘one of us’ by top management hence commands more clout and mutual respect. I also think that the CEO needs someone behind the scenes, someone with more time to solve problems, mediate disputes and help implement decisions not to mention follow-up on initiatives ensuring that the original urgency stays fresh. This is something which sometimes CEOs neglect or forget.

Of course, the role of adviser and confidant to the CEO does mean that an important part of the work of the chief of staff is confidential and seen or appreciated only by those at the very top, which could undermine the position internally, but then there is an equally important part which involves direct involvement in the implementation of key decisions which keeps the role out in the open and highly visible for all to see and appreciate. I also like the omission of the word officer from the title since a chief of staff is not just another chief officer. In fact, I see the chief of staff as a member of the CEO’s office yet still part of top management.

Something else people tend to forget or underestimate is the value of a key decision maker having a sounding board on important changes being contemplated/implemented and/or key decisions.

The CEO’s day is typically jam-packed with meetings, conference calls and events, which tend to leave them with little time to think or contemplate. In a sense, the chief of staff is valuable to the CEO since he/she can work to develop or research raw ideas o.b.o the CEO and provide calm, researched and well-thought-out advice. After all, the CEO has to deal with the board, the media, the management team members, strategy formulation and implementation, motivating the rank and file, leadership, setting out and implementing a vision and the list goes on. It therefore only makes sense for the office of the highest-ranking position in a company to be strengthened in a strategic sense since this can only be a benefit to the company.

Using football as a crude and simplistic example, it has become popular to have a football manager who manages the club and a football coach who coaches and manages the players. The English model, until recently at least, was for one person to try and do everything but I think English football has realised and learnt from continental Europe that there is a big and sizeable difference between managing the club and coaching the team. Perhaps, that is a useful analogy for us to use when trying to understand and appreciate the importance of this new position.

I don’t know if this idea will take off in Malta but what normally happens in America is followed up in Europe and then eventually copied in Malta.

I suspect we shall in the months and years to come, witness certain local large companies experimenting with this new position. I see a lot of value in local companies of a certain scale and size having a chief of staff supporting the CEO and top management and recommend that such companies investigate the matter further.

www.fenci.eu

Kevin-James Fenech is a director consultant at FENCI Consulting Ltd.

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