The pathway to Chief of Staff starts with linking the traditional knowledge of the EA role with new knowledge and skills, explains Melba Duncan

Today’s business leaders focus on organizational performance, strategic management and growth in an increasingly complex global economy. Disruptive technologies cause both chaos and growth. Among business leaders’ greatest challenge is the effective and efficient management of their companies’ mission and their ability to lead change and to offer growth opportunities for their existing staff. Demanding performance measures increase downward pressure on executive teams, causing and requiring an expansion of the C-suite team that, in turn, creates the need for redefinition of corporate suite accountability. Adjustments are needed and teams must align themselves around this new work dynamic.

The need for qualified people with specific management and decision-making skills through which superb results and intellectual leadership is delivered is evident.  Business leaders’ attention is focused on designing, motivating, leading and building the administrative management team, which includes executive suite support, by acknowledging those who can serve as advocate and strategist, influence policies and corporate decisions, and develop others. The CEO and C-suite Executive Assistant team is now at the center of this work environment, where technological growth and competitive world events are affecting business strategies. 

The traditional role of the Chief of Staff (CoS)

While largely prominent in government, the acknowledged talent of the CoS has gained momentum in the private sector and the CoS is increasingly perceived as a critical role in the leadership team.

An overview of the role of the traditional CoS describes this individual as someone who generally works behind the scenes to solve CEO organizational problems, spearhead new projects, and maximize the CEO’s time and focus.  This individual works directly with the CEO’s direct reports, resolving conflicts and issues as they arise. Often, they act as confidante and advisor to the CEO, serving as a sounding board for ideas. The private sector role especially requires the proactive identification of issues that could impact the successful execution of the CEO’s commitments and responsibilities, which include conducting Board meetings and a heavy reliance on frequent travel.  The CoS makes the CEO aware of and brings their focus and attention to challenging issues, providing a framework and positioning of innovative ideas to help resolve recurring problems and mitigate risk. 

The evolved role for C-Suite Executive Assistants: Chief of Staff/Director, Office of the CEO

In this shifting world of work, CEOs who are most effective at optimizing talent will recognize and offer growth opportunities and economic rewards to C-suite Executive Assistants who are capable of advancing within the role and who have an unflinching commitment to quality, the attitude to work collaboratively, the stamina to assist CEOs in meeting their business objectives, and a willingness to adapt to change. The present time offers unparalleled professional challenge alongside remarkable opportunities and marks an important new stage of challenge and opportunity in the evolution and professionalization of the role of the C-suite Executive Assistant. These increasing dictates demand that the executive assisting role be revolutionized by a new level of functioning with more complex tasks and projects, increased speed and effectiveness, and creative problem solving, all within the context of a strategic understanding of the employer’s goals.  This is the serious business of the C-suite Executive Assistant of which successful execution requires performance far beyond “the same, but more.”

Ever-evolving demands require C-suite Executive Assistants to execute flawlessly, think like managers, and act like leaders. For the C-suite Executive Assistant, it is vital to accept the challenge of this new hybrid role as support, management and strategist. This hybrid of strategic support, management, and leadership translates to a new level of business partnership and accountability between the C-suite Executive Assistant and the CEO.

This is a foundational shift that requires that CEOs and C-suite Executive Assistants redefine efficient ways to work together. The challenge and opportunity for the CEO is to reimagine the C-suite Executive Assistant role and, in doing so, create a re-fortified firewall around the CEO’s mission, management and leadership team.  

Technological innovation has ushered in a disruptive change in how business is developed and maintained. We are in a technological world and access to innovation has become, by far, its most beneficial by product. Innovation, however, as all else, must be managed.  The C-suite Executive Assistant becomes the key member within the executive suite brain trust who is tasked with transforming the challenge of change into the rewards of increased productivity and profitability. How? Through innovation. 

The pathway to Chief of Staff/Director, Office of the CEO

In my work with CEOs, I have learned that within the 21st century business environment, an ideal hire would be a Chief of Staff/Director, Office of the CEO. The quality of decisions and the ability to deliver successful outcomes, while saving executives time are what make the Chief of Staff/Director, Office of the CEO (CoS) role essential and indispensable.

A trusted advisor, the CoS/Director, Office of the CEO, facilitates the CEO’s vision while enabling other members of the leadership team to work together effectively to identify and achieve company goals. A critical member of the leadership team, the CoS is responsible for overall administrative management of the office of the CEO, internal and external communications, and coordination of company-wide efforts. This is a uniquely qualified individual who possesses the focus, flexibility, and strategic skills necessary to facilitate decisions on behalf of the CEO. It is a singularly explicit skillset that evolves from ever-mounting business pressures placed on the executive suite resulting from the advent of technology-driven business and the accelerated globalization of commerce. 

In contrast to the traditional CoS position, the Executive Assistant who has acquired the role of CoS/Director, Office of the CEO (CoS), differs in that this individual offers experience in CEO interface and support, is business savvy, mission driven, serves as a human database, with the confidence, knowledge and capability to structure an efficient operating framework to successfully implement the CEO’s directives. This individual has the added value of insight and in-depth reality of the needs, perspectives, expectations, goals and personality of the CEO; thus, decisions made on the CEO’s behalf are sustained by this competitive advantage. This individual serves as the facilitator, the counterweight, while assisting the CEO (and their team) through extensive administrative support, including the management and coordination of projects, logistics and supervision of support staff. Work is varied, challenging and fast-paced, and involves analyzing and responding to time-sensitive matters with judgment and discretion.  

The CoS effectively manages internal and external communications with the ability to be an extension of the CEO and their face to the public. This transformed role demands the ability to think about what the CEO needs to do to accomplish their goals and organize accordingly.  

How does the Executive Assistant get there from here?   

Executive Assistants must adopt a learning strategy that links traditional knowledge with the new knowledge and skills necessary to meet the challenge of this enhanced role. Managing logistics and leading projects and strategic initiatives requires collaborative solutions that reflect:

  • The organization’s vision, mission, strategic direction, and goals
  • Business and industry knowledge, including an understanding of global business practices
  • Organizational structure, decision-making, and group behavior
  • Organizational politics and protocol
  • Conflict resolution and negotiating skills
  • Foundations of teamwork and leadership

The CoS/Director, Office of the CEO, is among any establishment’s critical talent population.  Why? S/he provides administrative stability to manage systems with consistency and reliability, the discipline to do more things better, and the vital skills of adaptability and resilience to manage change through intellectual curiosity and innovation. 

This CEO/CoS team immediately responds to the high-velocity change in the work environment, to the hyper-speed of technology, and to competitive world events that affect business strategies. Executive success now is dependent upon this new talent, contrary to the reports that computers, algorithms or robots may make some workers obsolete. 

The CoS/Director, Office of the CEO’s mission is to meet the goals of the CEO and organization in the context of a strategic vision, with a focus on accountability, innovation, and organization.  

The CEO/organization has the challenge and opportunity to create this new hybrid position to fill a critical need, and the Executive Assistant has the challenge and opportunity to hone their skills and knowledge to take on the enhanced role.

Given these trends and outlooks, the opportunity to capitalize on innovation, to realize advanced technological accomplishments, and to streamline administrative strategic support are the important components of the CoS/Director, Office of the CEO position that facilitate the CEO’s vision. This is intellectual progress. As the role goes through this transformation, with its emphasis on innovation, we must think about education.

Melba J. Duncan is the Founder and President of The Duncan Group Inc. Since 1985, the firm has been advising CEOs and other corporate leaders regarding specialized senior management support resources. The firm offers expertise in four practice areas: ... (Read More)

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