4 Reasons Why You Need a Chief of Staff
Back in January, Chiz noticed a red-hot thread running through his conversations with other leaders: burnout.
People were arriving back at their desks feeling even more drained than before the holidays began. Nobody was ready to return. Nobody wanted to return. The words torpor and resignation and exhaustion circled, unspoken, in the airspace between webcams.
“I found myself in numerous situations suggesting that people look into hiring a chief of staff,” he says. “I said, You’ll be way more effective if you have somebody who’s helping you to be more effective.”
Whether you call them a chief of staff or a #2 doesn’t really matter. The thing that matters is the work that this individual can do to make your life as a leader more bearable.
That work will look different from organization to organization, but it boils down to the same thing: creating ease and space for the leadership. The work of Roy Group Chief of Staff Nina Moroso makes our founders’ and partners’ jobs easier, more focused, and less prone to overextensions.
“We need to move away from this idea that your top person—the founder or the CEO—can provide your organization with all the leadership,” Chiz says. “We’re forever making statues to commemorate one person…and maybe a horse. But that’s not how leadership works. Good leadership is distributed. Nina is the perfect example of doing the work of a CEO, while not being the CEO.”
Since she stepped into the role in 2021 from her former role as Director of Operations, Nina has helped streamline Chiz and Anne-Marie’s time, as well as that of our Practice Leads. As a Level-5 leader herself, she keeps Roy Group—and everyone inside it—running smoothly.
A closer look at the role
In his 2020 article, “The Case for a Chief of Staff”, Harvard Business Review author Dan Ciampa notes that “a top-level COS serves as an air traffic controller, an integrator, a communicator, an honest broker and truth teller, and a confidant.”
For us, it’s also a mediator, a moderator, a mind-reader and a Mentor—although the order flips around depending on the demands of the day. And sometimes it’s even humbler than all that: at our summer barbecue last year, Nina was the only person on the team who could say where the paper towels were. Even though she was across the yard running the grill, she pinpointed the paper towels down to the container that held them and its exact placement in relation to the office door.
“Chief of Stuff,” she shrugged, and put a couple more buns on to toast.
A chief of staff—or whatever you want to call your #2—wears different hats depending on what’s needed. They assist the CEO in overseeing a company’s operations, advise on key issues, determine the appropriate team members to complete different tasks, and work in conjunction with other leaders in the organization to get projects moving or bring them across the finish line. They also act on behalf of the CEO.
Perhaps most importantly, a chief of staff increases the overall effectiveness of the CEO.
But it’s not an executive assistant role. A chief of staff’s purview is wider than organizational and administrative tasks, to the point of acting in the stead of the founder or chief executive. “The chief of staff role is an extension of the CEO,” Chiz says. “Communicating with them is as good as getting information from or providing it to the executive. It’s actually giving somebody the clout they deserve.”
It can be a tough position though, and Nina says that operating both calmly and impeccably is the key to doing it well. “I am often at the vortex of all of the chaos,” she says. “Either that’s happening internally, externally, or the combination of both. And approaching that calmly is the only way that you can get it done.”
The mother of preparation: When life itself is your training ground
Preparing for a role as complex and as diverse as this is challenging, and not something everyone can manage. There’s no path to follow per se inside an organization to get to chief of staff. Often people arrive at it organically, by demonstrating the competencies that a founder or CEO needs in a number two.
But what Nina says helped her best prepare for the role? Becoming a mother.
I had the chance to be home with my son until he was three. When he was two and a half, I started to look at going back to work. The Olympics had just ended and every communications professional in BC was looking for work. I remember applying for a job and getting a discouraging email back from the hiring manager that said, ‘We’ve had 109 applications for this job’.
I didn’t have a ton of credentials or qualifications. And from a hiring manager’s perspective, I now had this three-year hole in my resume. Which didn’t sit well with me, because with the growth I’d experienced through parenting, I felt so much more prepared to be amazing at these jobs.
I could multitask. (I know there’s a question about whether people can actually multitask or not, but let me tell you: mothers of three-year-olds multitask like machines.) I had my head on straight about values and what was important for the world in a way that I didn’t before. My ambitions were stronger than ever for what was purposeful to me. And now I knew that I could do important work on four hours of sleep.
I knew that I could do it all, but I didn’t know how to convey that. Like, actually, I have superpowers now.
As luck would have it, a bunch of stars aligned for me, and I ended up working at Pearson College UWC. It was the perfect thing for my life and for my career.
Motherhood made me good at that job and every single job I’ve had ever since, but none more so than the chief of staff job. I can sit in an organization the way I sit in the job of motherhood, with that owl head-turning: being able to look all around me and be observing and acting at the same time. I notice things I didn’t used to notice. I don’t necessarily feel the need to act without purpose. I don’t necessarily have to act at all. I can watch something unfold and just be there to help pick up the pieces afterward, if that feels like the right thing to do. I recognize that everybody is growing all the time, that it’s all a journey and we are all in this process of evolving. And being present in the moment is sometimes the most important thing.
We’ve put together a few compelling reasons why you might want to consider the Chief of Staff role for your organization.
* * *
A chief of staff puts the CEO’s time to the best use
CEOs are notoriously busy, and few are actually happy with how they end up spending their time. The chief of staff aids in driving priorities from start to finish, and helps the CEO maximize their time by focusing on those areas where they add the most value.
Without being pulled in a million different directions every day, the CEO is able to maximize their effective working time and focus on what really needs their attention.
“I’m keeping track of not just necessarily who is the best person to be on each piece of work,” Nina says, “but also, are we using all of the people to the best of their ability and taking care of each other in a way that makes sure that people are satisfied, happy, and taken care of?”
This means keeping tabs on other team members and supporting them through difficulty. “Being able to put down whatever project you’re working on because somebody needs a 15-minute chat? That’s imperative,” Nina says.
* * *
They prevent communication bottlenecks
The chief of staff also acts as a gatekeeper of irrelevant information, which in turn prevents bottlenecks. Managing the flow of information is crucial, as is managing any ongoing assignments. And this doesn’t just benefit the CEO—it benefits everyone.
As the chief of staff connects the dots across the organization, they become the trusted communicator linking the leadership team and the employees. A good relationship between the CEO and the chief of staff is imperative for this reason. Look for complementary qualities that enable these two key leaders to work effectively together. “For Nina and I, our Lumina profiles show that we are complementary in a number of ways,” Chiz says. “Nina is very blue-green, meaning grounded in objective, organized, and collaborative. Whereas I’m very yellow, which is big-picture imaginative thinking, and a fair amount of red, which is purposeful, direct, and bold.”
Trust in the relationship is essential, too. “I don’t think I could be in a role like this if I didn’t trust the founders, if I didn’t have common ground with them and share their values and believe in the vision,” Nina says.
* * *
They represent the executive
The word of your chief of staff is as good as your CEO’s. “They know the way that the principal thinks,” Chiz says. “They know what’s important to the principal. They know what that person is trying to accomplish. They have access to that person’s schedule. They can make decisions with a high degree of autonomy on how the principal will use their time.”
This also prevents burnout—arguably the greatest threat to founders and CEOs. By acting as the CEO’s proxy and by gatekeeping irrelevant details, the CEO isn’t dealing with individual concerns from a large number of people; they are free to complete the tasks that do require their full focus.
Acting as a proxy also allows the chief of staff to keep a CEO’s ego in check. “They have to be really brave with the person that they’re working for, because they are the last line of defense between a leader and their own ego,” Chiz says.
By asking tough questions, the chief of staff helps bring big dreams down to an operationalizable scale. “I sometimes call myself the queen of the reality check,” Nina says. “And it doesn’t feel good all the time. But I often sit in meetings just poking holes in things.”
* * *
A great chief of staff forms part of your succession plan
Because they know so much about the organization and its optimization already, your chief of staff can occupy the runway for a leadership role that they’ll move into months or even years down the line: your own. “It’s an incredible position,” Chiz says. “The chief of staff basically gets to see the organization and the markets that you’re in from the same perspective as the CEO.”
It’s almost like doing an internship for the role of CEO. And it stems from being able to see the leadership in everyone, and distribute that agency accordingly. “Once you know what people can do—sometimes better than they themselves know—then you can challenge them,” Nina says. “It comes from the noticing. It comes from hearing what people say to you. Whatever piece of this organization people are entrusted with, they’re the leader of that. They have to treat that like they’re the boss of their own company.”
The Swiss Army Knife of your organization
A chief of staff’s job isn’t an easy one to navigate, nor is it easy to define. But the beauty of the position is how “everywhere and everything” it is.
“I used to be envious of my son’s dad and other people who had a piece of paper that could tell them what they were,” Nina says. “He can go anywhere in the world and be an electrician. There’s something so clear and distinct about that. But the thing with being a chief of staff is that it’s so many things. And that is actually what I love about it. Because I’m not an electrician, or a teacher, or a board secretary. I am a chief of staff; I get to do all the things. HR, governance, vision crafting, writing communications, administration… I want to be in all those things. I’m a Swiss Army knife.”