Chiefs of Staff Are Necessary for Politics, But Not Always Great for Companies
I spent the first part of my career in politics — as a congressional and campaign staffer — and have spent the second part working in tech companies. One of the developments I’ve seen over that time is the export of the “chief of staff” role from politics to companies.
This development has been heralded by many of those who’ve held corporate chief of staff roles, some of whom created the Chief of Staff Tech Forum to promote best practices in the role. Harvard Business Review made the case for a chief of staff. CNBC called being a chief of staff the “surprising role…that can land you a job in the C-Suite.”
I have no doubt that many corporate leaders find that hiring a chief of staff makes their lives easier — by reducing the friction of their work. But that doesn’t mean that the chief of staff role, and its proliferation within companies beyond CEOs to more junior executives — is a good thing for the companies themselves.
To be clear, I’ve worked with many good people who have filled chief of staff roles ably. But I’ve also seen many cases where the role either hasn’t worked, or it has created unintended negative effects in the corporate culture. As a result, when past bosses have asked me whether they should hire themselves a chief of staff, my answer has been no.
Chiefs of Staff Work in Politics, But Corporate Life is Different
Many people are familiar with the role of White House chief of staff — the person who runs the daily operations and strategy of the White House. Each Member of Congress, many Governors, and some state legislators all have a similar chief of staff.
One critical point is that in politics, the principal (the President, Member of Congress) isn’t just at the top of the org chart — they’re also the product. Every single thing the White House staff says and does is about what the President wants or is doing; he or she is the product they are selling, managing, and executing for.
As a result, political offices are structured so that chiefs of staff are the main decider on administrative matters — office hiring, budgets, and processes. The principal is rightly focused on their positions, voting, policymaking, and advocacy that they deputize operational responsibility to the chief of staff, who is effectively a COO and chief strategist, combined.
In contrast to politics, company executives are not the product (as political principals are), and corporate leaders are expected to manage and make tough decisions on administrative and organizational questions themselves.
In a typical company structure, a leader sits at the top of a company or organizational pyramid, often with different interests and views represented just below them. Many of these differences among the leader’s direct reports can’t be worked out on their own without the leader clearly setting priorities. The team below the leader expects the leader to resolve differences and make decisions. In fact, some might say that making those decisions that can’t be solved at lower levels is one of the leader’s main jobs.
Another issue I’ve seen is that many corporate chiefs of staff have very ill-defined roles, and this creates conflict and unhappiness.
The role can be totally undefined by the principal, leaving the person with little to do, or it could become a glorified executive assistant, or it could be a roving project manager, or it could become a bottleneck gatekeeper, or it could be a second-guesser of strategies. I’ve seen all of these iterations.
In companies, a leader’s authority often springs from several functions or units reporting to the leader, and the leader having ultimate responsibility for those units. The chief of staff role is typically off to the side of reporting lines of responsibility, not embedded within it, and that affects the chief of staff’s ability to move people and get things done. In contrast, in political offices all staffers typically report to the chief of staff, and the chief of staff reports to the principal — and this structure is an essential ingredient of why political chiefs of staff can be effective.
I’ve also seen how the chief of staff role can deprive some junior leaders of growth opportunities. Let’s say that the VP of Sales for a company needs to execute a complex restructuring of their team. The VP could turn to a chief of staff to carry out this restructuring, or she could deputize one of her operational direct reports to lead a working group to carry out the restructuring. While both options may be fine, the leader who asks her deputies to carry out a strategy is challenging her potential future successors to take on projects of increasing complexity.
Chief of Staff Put Band-Aids on Leadership Shortcomings
I’ve also seen situations where leaders hire a chief of staff to cover their own shortcomings, which usually puts a band-aid on the situation rather than build a better structure or hold leaders accountable for underperformance.
When many companies are searching for senior leaders, they build a long list of wish list qualifications — which often amount to an impossible “unicorn” candidate who doesn’t exist. Then when the company hires a candidate for that role and finds that they don’t have every single one of the desired qualities, someone then suggests that the leader hire a chief of staff to do the things that the leader isn’t as good at.
I’d argue that this is a flaw of poor structural thinking. Of course no one person can be both a visionary and a practical leader, or an external ambassador and internal operator, a spreadsheet jockey and a cocktail party charmer. But rather than hire a person of one of those types and then filling in the gap with a chief of staff, companies should hire the type of person who can sit atop the whole function, and then hire specialists below that leader.
When chiefs of staff get hired to manage the shortcomings of a specialist leader, the whole organization suffers — not because the chief of staff isn’t doing their best as a band-aid, but because the organizational structure is not designed for success.
Chiefs of Staff Naturally Focus on the Leader, Not the Company
Lastly, as corporate chiefs of staff proliferate, they’ve become almost a status symbol for the ambitious executive — as potent a symbol of power as a corner office or an executive assistant.
Of course, this kind of support can be intoxicating for the leader — it can feel wonderful to have someone experienced permanently looking out for *your* interests, 24/7, and making your work life easier.
But this can lead to the chief of staff treating their executive as a kind of political figure, including talking openly about cultivating a leader’s “brand” externally and within the company. This can then become a kind of self-perpetuating cycle, where a chief of staff helps build a corporate leader’s “brand,” for the ultimate purpose of increasing their internal and external power relative to other leaders.
At that point, the chief of staff’s role is less about the company’s overall success and more about the leader’s ego and political aims.
I’ve seen many friends and colleagues move interchangeably between the worlds of business and government — and having the understanding of each world makes one more effective in both realms. And as corporate leaders have seen political chiefs of staff up close, it’s natural that they begin to like the idea of having a chief of staff themselves.
But as our country’s political system becomes more and more polarized, and about point-scoring rather than actual progress, I think we can agree that politics should take more lessons from business, not the other way around.