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The Chief of Staff Alternative To a Chief Operating Officer

July 7, 2017 0 Comments

       Doug Eadie

The May 19 post at this blog explored the CEO-chief operating officer leadership structure, which has proved very effective in freeing up CEO time for direct interaction with the governing board and with key external stakeholders, while ensuring adequate attention to internal operations. However, dividing the chief executive office into a CEO and a COO is not a viable option for many  nonprofit and public organizations, either because the CEO directly supervises too few executives to justify a COO or the organization’s culture militates against the CEO-COO structure.  If your transit authority falls into one of these categories, you might want to consider a pretty powerful half-way house:  the Chief of Staff to the CEO.

According to Clark S. Judge’s review in the April 15 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Chris Whipple’s new book The Gatekeepers argues that  the  “chief of staff has been the key to the success of every modern president – or a big reason for its failure.”  Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but there’s no question chiefs of staff have loomed large in all presidencies since Dwight Eisenhower’s, and I’ve frequently encountered chiefs of staff playing a key role in the chief executive offices of nonprofit and public organizations of all shapes and sizes over the past quarter-century.

In a nutshell, the chief of staff is typically a senior executive (not an administrative assistant of some kind!) who provides high-level assistance to the chief executive in carrying out her leadership functions, both internally and externally. The chief of staff might supervise one or more employees, such as an executive secretary and the director of the board support office, but never has direct line authority over executives reporting directly to the CEO.  However, the chief of staff exercises considerable indirect authority, as I learned during my five years as a vice president and chief of staff to the president of a three-campus community college serving some 40,000 plus students 25 years ago.

In my experience, the chief of staff normally closely monitors – and channels – the flow of information to the CEO, often providing an analysis of incoming documents and re-directing documents not deserving CEO attention to the appropriate offices. The chief of staff also usually exercises a large dollop of control over the CEO’s calendar: determining who actually ends up on the CEO’s agenda – and for how long – providing the CEO with a meeting agenda, drafting a CEO memorandum confirming follow-through actions agreed to in the meeting, and monitoring follow-through.  The chief of staff’s bottom line?  Ensuring the maximum return on the CEO’s investment of her finite, extremely precious time while also freeing up CEO time to devote to the highest priority CEO leadership challenges, including maintaining a close and productive working relationship with the board.

In a future article on the CEO-Chief of Staff structure, I’ll examine the skills and attributes that make for a successful chief of staff, and I’ll share a couple of amusing anecdotes from my tour of duty as a chief of staff.

Doug Eadie