“I’ve gotta keep the knucklehead stuff off of his desk, and this is worse. This is actual hot-button knucklehead. This could be a thing.”
John Spencer as Leo McGarry
“The West Wing”

Sometimes starting out at a new leadership position can feel like this!
(Image courtesy U.S. Government archives)

Congratulations! You’re now a CEO. The leader of an organization. (Large or small, nonprofit or for profit. It doesn’t matter)

But your time seems to be taken up with decisions that aren’t worth your time. Your calendar is full of meeting with department heads, other executives, maybe the media, and community leaders, but by 9:30 or 10 a.m. it’s been blown to hell with “crises” and problems that other C-Suite or director level positions can’t handle, or people who demand to speak to you “right now.”  It’s the classic argument of what’s “important” to you as a leader, and what’s “urgent,” jumping up and down demanding attention.

As the CEO, you naturally feel responsible to handle all of your organization’s issues. It’s an understandable slippery slope trap which leads to you never being out of your office because you’re being called on to deal with every “urgent” issue, regardless of how small it is. You need a “Chief of Staff,” someone whose job it is to handle the smaller issues that will start to clog up your schedule.

If it’s possible, this person needs to be someone you trust, because they are going to be calling a lot of the shots for you on the smaller things. It’s up to them to direct traffic for you. To keep the knucklehead stuff out of your office and out of your mind.

In some situations you won’t be able to bring on your own Chief of Staff. When this happens you need to block out an afternoon with your current Chief of Staff or Administrative Assistant and talk about how they can fill this role. Don’t rush through this meeting, it will take understanding from both parties of their roles and responsibilities. For the Chief of Staff/Administrative Assistant, there needs to be a level of empowerment given to them. They need to realize that it’s OK for them to take charge of some of the knucklehead things and make those decisions for you. This can create a positive shift in their thinking and how they approach work.

From time to time you’ll run into problems where your chief of staff should have passed the baton up to you. Don’t panic. These things will happen and it’s a great chance to help them realize which issues are not just important, but important to you. And by showing this person the kind of dignity and grace that can be achieved in a crisis will help them develop as a leader.

Because when the knucklehead stuff does show up on your desk… well

2 thoughts on “Why Do You Need a “Chief of Staff?”

  1. The military model works well here. Most general and flag officers have an executive assistant or chief of staff who usually is a mid-career officer (or higher) officer on a fast track. The corporations I worked for sometimes used executive secretaries in this role — some were equal to the task and others were not.

    • Hi Jim! Long time no see, hope things are going well for you!

      That’s one model I was thinking of when I wrote this. Larger companies should want to promote those fast moving execs and get them trained so they can run with the ball in their own departments (mixing metaphors, I know). Were there any qualities that stood out among the successful executive secretaries in your companies?

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