What does a Chief of Staff do?

I recently interviewed for the Chief of Staff role at a hypergrowth startup. Halfway through the interview, I realized neither I nor the CEO really knew what a Chief of Staff does.

I decided to find out.

I interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chiefs of Staff along the way, ranging from a Chief of Staff at a young 30-person media tech startup to the former Chief of Staff at a Fortune 500 hotel chain. Everyone’s job looked a little different, but I picked up enough patterns to form an answer to the question: what does a Chief of Staff do?

Chiefs of Staff make their bosses more effective. Sometimes this means helping the CEO directly. Other times, it means advancing the boss’s priorities and message across the organization.

Responsibilities range from choosing a healthcare plan to leading integration after an acquisition. At Disney, the Chief of Staff even decides who flies on the private jet. The details of the job depend on the company’s size, stage, and industry, as well as the needs of the CEO themself.

At a startup, Chiefs of Staff generally have some combination of the following responsibilities:

Extend the CEO’s reach: Chiefs of Staff amplify the CEO’s presence both inside and outside the company. This means everything from helping with meeting coverage to managing parts of the business when the CEO isn’t available to.

Farzan had joined a hospitality startup as Chief of Staff in January 2020. Three months later, COVID hit. The CEO re-focused his attention to fundraising to keep the doors open, and left Farzan in charge of running the entire US business. Employees started jointly reporting to Farzan and the CEO. “It’s probably the best professional experience I’ve had,” he notes. “Getting the Chief of Staff role let me scale quickly.”

Maintain and amplify the company drumbeat: The CEO’s job is to decide the company’s goals, craft the narrative, and create the culture. This is the organizational drumbeat. It sets the tone for the company, the general direction things are going, and the pace.

The Chief of Staff’s role is to keep track of the beat, steady it, and amplify it. Startups scale and change constantly. It’s nearly impossible to keep tabs of everything happening across the organization and keep everyone moving in the same direction. The Chief of Staff builds the systems and processes to hold teams accountable to their goals, help the CEO prioritize their time, and create visibility across functions.

Identify risks and opportunities: Good Chiefs of Staff can spot challenges before they become unwieldy and surface opportunities that the company should be jumping on.

This happens in part by implementing effective processes. It’s a major part of Caitlin’s job as Chief of Staff at a 200-person healthcare startup. She runs a biweekly leadership meeting specifically for the purpose of identifying hidden risks. She partners with a different manager every month to facilitate these meetings, so that the C-Suite constantly has a look at questions bubbling across the company from a mix of vantage points.

Sometimes, though, the best way to identify risks and opportunities is by serving as the “company therapist.” Chiefs of Staff are often on the frontlines, hearing complaints and requests that otherwise never make it up to the CEO.

Build v1.0 of New Company Capabilities: Chiefs of Staff are often the people who stand up the first version of a new initiative or function. They define the business need, partner with relevant team members to determine what success looks like and what resources are needed to deliver on it, and then coordinate with People Ops to assemble the team required to lead the new initiative.

At smaller companies, Chiefs of Staff are often building 1.0 of key operational functions like HR, PR, and DEI. Olivia, for example, is the Chief of Staff at a 50-person adtech startup that doesn’t have an HR department. She created the employee onboarding playbook, and one of her many responsibilities is buying laptops for new hires.

Sharpen the CEO’s laser vision: Strong Chiefs of Staff help keep the CEO focused on the two to three most important tasks they need to pay attention to in a given day or week, and maintain tabs on others items that are at risk of flaming up. Boards keep the CEO accountable on a quarterly basis. A Chief of Staff does this on the daily.

Every Chief of Staff’s job is a little different.

If you find yourself interviewing for a Chief of Staff role, it’s worth asking yourself, what do I want my job to be? If your ideal mix matches what the CEO needs, you might have the keys to your dream job.

Founder @GlowDotFM, believer in a robust media & the power of storytelling. Obama & Hillary alum. Creator of the Backyard Cambridge podcast.