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The Chief of Staff role isn't one that's new. A critical role that has long been a mainstay in the political, non-profit, and Fortune 500 landscape, the Chief of Staff was often viewed as a role that helped serve as the eyes and ears for the CEO. The right hand person capable of serving as a fill-in or voicing the opinion of leadership when they may not be present in the room. When executed at a high-level, the role can amplify the presence and impact of a CEO exponentially across the organization.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that the role has recently gained significant traction in the SaaS world. For an industry always looking for an edge or growth hack, the Chief of Staff role provides just that to time-strapped CEO's looking to replicate themselves across the business.
The Harvard Business Review had a great article outlining Chief of Staff duties and responsibilities across many of the traditional companies looking to structure the role. However, one thing you will commonly hear about the Chief of Staff role is that no one role ever looks the same.
Sure, there will absolutely be some similarities and fundamental pillars that help set one up for success. But success in the role and what the overall job should look like is contingent on so many other factors. Things like industry, company size, leadership team structure, and the experience of the Chief of Staff.
At Elate, we have the opportunity to work with some of the leading SaaS companies in the world. And one common theme we've seen across these businesses is a rise of the Chief of Staff role and the impact they are having on these companies. So today, we wanted to focus on how to be a great Chief of Staff at a high-growth SaaS company.
Let's start by first understanding what the Chief of Staff job description should look like and how you can set yourself up for success in hiring for the role.
First and foremost, if you look at any Chief of Staff job description it will almost certainly have some variation of the following: Extension of the CEO. The Chief of Staff to CEO job description isn't just one of the most important parts of the role, it can ultimately be the make or break component.
The level of communication, collaboration, and day-to-day interaction a Chief of Staff has with the CEO makes this the jumping off point for any other Chief of Staff responsibilities. As an incoming Chief of Staff or current CEO, you have to spend time and effort early on in the interview process understanding the potential fit. Personality types, potential time constraints, or any other intangibles should always be vetted beforehand.
Additionally, the Chief of Staff job description will also have an enormous responsibility placed on effectively being able to work across multiple departments or teams throughout the organization.
One of the most critical qualities of a successful Chief of Staff is the ability to build trust. However, for anyone stepping into the role, it can be easy to make the mistake of only focusing on building trust at the executive level. Don’t overlook the importance and value of creating trust with employees throughout the company.
Finally, it's critical that a Chief of Staff understands the company's long term vision, and is able to transform that long term vision into tactical execution. Whether through implementing an operating framework or taking on ownership of an existing framework, the Chief of Staff has to be able to take the CEO's long term direction, and distill that into goals, objectives, or initiatives that can be taken to different departments.
Now, you might be thinking how does someone step into this role without any prior experience? While the Chief of Staff role can look overwhelming on paper, we've found that the right strategy and ops candidates have already been taking on similar responsibilities in their own departments. Even if they don't know it yet.
The career path of any current or potential Chief of Staff can be full of twists and turns. The professional development for Chief of Staff roles isn't a one size fits all model. So when thinking about what that trajectory may look like, here's a couple of things to keep in mind.
The Chief of Staff is regularly asked to flex between all areas of the business, looking for opportunities, while also identifying weaknesses. To say that it is a highly dynamic role that requires a high degree of context switching is an understatement.
As strategy and operations leaders, this is precisely what makes the role challenging, but also so rewarding. While you may not be experts on every specific challenge we face, the ability to adjust our thought process and apply problem solving skills for any unique situation is what allows our companies to solve the complex challenges they face each day.
So with that in mind, as you think about Chief of Staff training, first look inwards towards your own background and experience. Being honest about environments you've thrived in will help determine your long term success in the role.
However, there are also a number of other outlets for learning. From communities like the Chief of Staff Network to podcasts like Aspiring Ops, there are plenty of forums to help you as you step into the role of Chief of Staff. Also, these communities might be a great source for helping to understand common questions like 'Chief of Staff salary' as it will so often be based upon the stage of the company.
Now, this question is one that we get all the time. What's the difference between a Chief of Staff vs Executive Assistant? Let's start by saying that oftentimes one can't do their job to the highest level without the other. So often these roles are tied together in what success looks like for each of them as they serve a CEO or leadership team.
However, there are a few key differences to point out in the roles.
The Chief of Staff definition is often tied to the ability to serve as an extension of the CEO, which isn't necessarily different from an Executive Assistant. But unlike an Executive Assistant who might be more tied to scheduling meetings, coordinating calendars, ensuring their CEO gets the right information or briefing before an important meeting, or even just creating a list of contacts and following-up on action items, the Chief of Staff is often working independently from the CEO.
The Executive Assistant is often coordinating directly on the CEO's behalf to help give them more time in their day or make them more effective. The Chief of Staff carries the weight and approximate input of the CEO not only in meetings, but also in taking on a portfolio of projects that they've identified and taken on as a way to further execute the CEO's long term vision.
The Chief of Staff is highly independent, yet highly collaborative. So working throughout the business and striking the balance of high impact, yet high independence can be difficult, especially if you don’t have a team dedicated to seeing out projects and initiatives.
With time, many Executive Assistants actually start to gain this level of visibility into the inner workings of the company and find themselves in a position of evaluating how to transition from Executive Assistant to Chief of Staff.
Some of the best Chiefs of Staff actually start as Executive Assistants who realize they can increase their impact across the business by making this transition.
Similar to the Executive Assistant role, often the Chief of Staff can have some overlap with the COO role at a high growth company. Some early stage companies may actually be looking for other names for Chief of Staff and fall on the COO title as one that makes sense at their stage. Regardless of title, the true definition and responsibilities of the Chief of Staff vs COO role are important for an organization to understand.
First, as we've discussed throughout, usually the Chief of Staff does not have a department or team that they directly oversee. This is significantly different from a COO. While the Chief of Staff org chart may be relatively empty, a COO can oversee everything from Product and Revenue Operations to Customer Success and Finance.
The COO responsibilities three models are contingent upon the stage of the company, and the current team construction. The COO often takes on the true day-to-day operations tied to the financial health of the business. While a Chief of Staff is often moving into areas of the business that are being built or going from zero to one, the COO is often coming in afterwards to supplement the foundational work.
Think of the Chief of Staff as the explorer, blazing a new trail, finding new opportunities, and understanding what are viable paths for the business to grow. Once those opportunities start to take shape and gain momentum, the structure a COO can provide becomes pivotal in allowing for sustainable growth.
So there you have it. As a high-growth SaaS company or an early stage company looking for a startup Chief of Staff, it's important you understand what you are looking for in the role and how you can set the position up for success.
As more and more startup Chief of Staff jobs become available, companies will need a way to set clear expectations and define success in the role from day one. Over the coming years, this role is only going to grow in popularity, especially when you think of the impact a Chief of Staff can have on a business.
The Chief of Staff role is unique in that it often sits at the leadership level, yet doesn’t have any direct reports. The position works across every department and takes on a portfolio of projects, but they don’t manage a team or may not have dedicated resources to allocate. The role usually doesn’t come with complete oversight into any one area of the business, and the responsibilities vary from company to company.
Yet even without a dedicated team or oversight to a specific area, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has a better pulse on what’s happening across the business or has more impact on the direction of the company.
So when you are writing your Chief of Staff job description startup, you also need to ensure you are setting them up for success from day one.
If you are interested in learning more about the Chief of Staff role or in how you can set your Chief of Staff up for success, feel free to reach out to our team at Elate. We're always happy to share how we are working with some of the best Chiefs of Staff across SaaS companies today!