Becoming a Successful Chief of Staff in Any Sector
The Chief of Staff Association runs a number of discussion groups for chiefs of staff in different sectors and/or different stages of their careers. Here, former chief of staff Cynthia Visot summarises the findings of a series of meetings she facilitated with new chiefs of staff, which reflected some of the themes of this report.
Often referred to as the right-hand person of the CEO, President, or Principal, the chief of staff (CoS) is a pivotal role that carries an extensive portfolio of responsibilities. One aspect that distinguishes the CoS role from others is the phrase, ‘other duties as assigned’. While in most positions these additional tasks might account for 5–10% of the job, for a chief of staff, they amount to much, much more. Embracing these ‘other duties as assigned’ is not just a choice: it's a fundamental aspect of the CoS role, and here's why.

The CoS as the architect of efficiency

An effective chief of staff is the catalyst for leadership efficiency. They create a protective shield around the CEO, allowing them to focus on the overall health and strategic direction of the organisation. To accomplish this, the CoS takes on the responsibility of providing both strategic and operational leadership based on the needs of their leader. The effective CoS helps the leader achieve sharp gains in productivity and impact of the organisation.

Building a flexible role

The ability to reshape your role allows you to evolve and grow along with your company. To harness its full potential, it's essential to define parameters but also remain adaptable. The key lies in optimising and sustaining processes that enhance productivity and efficiency. Additionally, the CoS acts as the eyes and ears of their principal, providing an objective gauge of the organisational climate and/or culture. They keep a finger on the pulse of critical and cultural issues, helping the leadership team make informed decisions.

Temporary tasks, permanent impact

‘Other duties as assigned’ can take various forms. Sometimes these duties become permanent responsibilities. However, more often than not, they are temporary tasks that the CEO needs accomplished. For example, on three occasions I was appointed interim for vacant vice president positions. These temporary assignments lasted from 6 to 14 months allowing for consistency and easy transition. Note that during these temporary assignments, my CoS duties continued. This allowed me the opportunity to provide my own team with temporary assignments to enhance their skills and expand their knowledge. Who would be better to handle these assignments than the CEO's strategic and operational advisor?

The CEO–CoS partnership

The CEO–CoS relationship can be a dynamic force that drives both success and challenges. This partnership is critical in ensuring a successful tenure for the CEO. Having a strong trusting relationship allows the CoS to navigate through complex issues, to grasp and add value to the leader’s vision, and anticipate problems. For instance, in my 18 years of serving a dynamic leader as her CoS, we developed a partnership that went beyond the professional sphere. My CEO often referred to me as her ‘significant other at work’ because we spent so much time together, which also allowed us to be able to work in sync. I often travelled internationally with my CEO to ensure that her time abroad was efficient and of great value to the institution.

Flexibility is key

Our success as a team (CEO – CoS) was rooted in our ability to embrace flexibility, especially in the face of ‘other duties as assigned’. If you're looking for a clearly defined CoS role, you might be disappointed. Each CoS position is tailored to the needs of the principal. The role is ambiguous by nature, and ‘other duties as assigned’ can be both a positive and negative statement depending on how it's managed. Embracing this early on when defining the role will alleviate stress, frustration, and issues down the road.

The rewards of embracing change

I welcomed ‘other duties as assigned’ because I had the trust of my CEO, and these tasks allowed me to expand my leadership skills and excel. It also added excitement to my role. Sometimes, these tasks became a permanent part of my position such as overseeing major events and ceremonies, while at other times, such as serving as an interim vice president, for a defined timeframe.

Key traits of a successful CoS

To thrive in this ever-changing role, our discussions narrowed down a list of key traits:
  1. Patience: Understanding that change is constant, and that some tasks may take time to evolve or conclude.
  2. Flexibility: Being adaptable to the shifting demands of the role and the organisation.
  3. Relationship-building: Cultivating and maintaining relationships with senior leadership, board members, and community leaders to foster collaborative networks.
  4. Multitasking: Managing multiple tasks and priorities simultaneously.
  5. Communication skills: Articulating ideas clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing.
  6. Active listening: Being receptive to feedback and insights from colleagues and stakeholders.
  7. Collaborative spirit: Fostering a sense of teamwork and cooperation within the organisation.
  8. Integrity: Being truthful and trustworthy and having the ability to use your best judgment when addressing issues.
  9. Strategic and operational: Ability to focus on both the long-term and short-term objectives of the organisation.
  10. Negotiator: Being able to connect with others and negotiate complex issues.
In conclusion, the role of chief of staff is far from static. It's a dynamic, ever-evolving position that demands adaptability, flexibility, strategic thinking, and the ability to embrace change. Those who thrive in this role understand that ‘other duties as assigned’ is not a burden but an opportunity to make a lasting impact.
About the author
Dr Cynthia Visot
Senior Strategist & Advisor to CEOs
Dr. Cynthia S. Visot has more than 35 years’ experience working in higher education administration. During her 31-year career at the University of South Florida (USF), Dr. Visot served for 20 years as the President’s Chief of Staff and Assistant Corporate Secretary for the Board of Trustees. During her higher education tenure she received national recognition for her orientation programs, was selected as an EXCEL Fellow, and for the 2005 Leadership Tampa Class. Upon her retirement, the City of Tampa’s Mayor honored Dr. Visot for her service to USF and the community with a proclamation for "Dr. Cynthia S. Visot Day". Currently, Dr. Visot spends her time working with CEOs and Boards in enhancing their administrative and governance structures. Retirement has also provided her the opportunity to give of her time, talents and treasures spending time volunteering in the community, mentoring, and serving on Boards at her undergraduate and graduate institutions as well as her international fraternity.