How to be a better chief of staff

| Podcast

Confidante. Consultant. Convener. The chief of staff (COS) in companies and organizations is typically the trusted right-hand person to principals and CEOs. On this episode of The McKinsey Podcast, McKinsey senior partner Andrew Goodman joins editorial director Roberta Fusaro to discuss the highs and lows of this consequential job—and how to do it right.

In the next segment, meeting with CEOs felt daunting when McKinsey senior partner Carolyn Dewar started her consultancy career until she realized: CEOs are people, too.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The McKinsey Podcast is hosted by Roberta Fusaro and Lucia Rahilly.

Key elements of the COS role

Roberta Fusaro: Andrew, when I think of a COS, I think of the government or the White House. But we’re increasingly seeing COSs in the business setting. What do people in this role do?

Andrew Goodman: There’s a wide range of different types of COSs in business. The most common feature of all COSs is that they typically support a principal. In business, that’s typically the CEO. We found that almost 50 percent of the companies we see have some form of COS working with the CEO.

They take a wide variety of different names. They can be called “COSs,” “business executives,” or anything in between. But the core of their job is making their principal, the CEO, their boss, as effective as they can possibly be. And that includes helping to manage the information flow, board presentations, or key decisions to be made in meetings.

People in the role typically speak in public quite frequently. They also help to manage the organization as effectively as they can at any given time. In some ways, great COSs play the air traffic control role, helping a CEO manage their workflow and flow of actions and activities.

The road to COS

Roberta Fusaro: What qualifies a person for this position? What type of personality traits or professional experience do you need to be an effective COS?

Andrew Goodman: We see in quite a few companies that the COSs are high-potential individuals, often in their second or third job at the company. They’re often in their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s.

They usually come from within the company because their expertise and intimate knowledge helps make for better performance in the position. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the world’s largest companies have COSs who may be in the last two or three jobs of their careers. They may have run very large parts of the business previously. They may have had significant P&L [profit-and-loss] responsibilities. And when you see people doing that job, they’re often acting, in some sense, as a proxy for the CEO. They might have very deep expertise. Some of the big banks, for example, have historically had COSs with very deep regulatory expertise.

Dynamic days

Roberta Fusaro: Andrew, what does a typical day in the life of a COS at a large Fortune 100 company look like?

Andrew Goodman: What we’ve learned from running our COS forum over the past decade or so, and through the time we’ve spent with several hundred COSs, is that there isn’t a typical day. But I can illustrate a few things a COS might do in their day.

Many chief executives have busy travel schedules, and many COSs travel with them, sticking to their sides like shadows. COSs play a pivotal role during this time. That might mean joining the meetings that the principal is in to ensure that they’re fully prepared for it and to take a record of it. It might include preparing the presentations or the dinner speeches the principal is going to give later that night.

When COSs are in the office, they’re typically doing a couple of things. They might be looking at and preparing the materials, the core paper flow, for the CEO. They are often spending a lot of time with other members of the executive team and other people in the organization, partly building trust with them, partly understanding the challenges that they’re facing. The COS also keeps a finger on the pulse of the organization to help give a bit of a “Spidey sense” or peripheral vision for the CEO to understand what’s going on in the company.

The COS also keeps a finger on the pulse of the organization to help give a bit of a ‘Spidey sense’ or peripheral vision for the CEO to understand what’s going on in the company.

Getting to know your CEO

Roberta Fusaro: How should a COS build trust with their principals or the leaders that they serve?

Andrew Goodman: Trust is incredibly important in any relationship, particularly in a relationship that’s often as close as a COS and their principal. There are a few things we’ve seen over the years that help in building that trust.

The first is delivery. If there isn’t an existing relationship between the COS and the CEO, the COS is often judged over those first two or three months based on their ability to prepare their principal to execute their mission in a variety of ways and their ability to produce high-quality external presentations.

The second is building that trust over time. Mutual trust is a very natural outcome of spending many hours together on a weekly basis. One of the things we’ve noticed as part of the interpersonal relationship is that the COS is one of the few people who can give feedback to their principal. That doesn’t start with huge, earth-shattering kinds of feedback on day one, but it typically builds over time to the point where a CEO or principal says, “I really value this person’s opinion.” They’re telling me things I don’t necessarily hear from other people in the organization on a day-to-day basis.”

The third thing that we often see as part of that trust-building relationship is being able to provide advice and judgment. At the executive level, the COS is seeing pretty much everything that goes on in the organization. Great COSs can use that experience to build pattern recognition and to provide the principals and CEOs with that advice and judgment, which is often powerful.

Also, great COSs build trust-based relationships, not just with the principals they work with but also with the rest of the executives on the executive team. That comes from spending time with those individuals and helping them to succeed. The mindset that great COSs often have is that this is a team sport, and they see their success as making the other executives in the business successful as well.

Lonely near the top

Roberta Fusaro: Do COSs tend to deal with loneliness a lot?

Andrew Goodman: That’s a great point. It is, almost by its nature, a little bit of a lonely role. It’s also a very intense role. We shouldn’t forget that chief executives, by and large, work very hard. If you imagine being the COS to a CEO, typically you’re working the same hours as that CEO, and often more because you’re often doing a lot of the preparation outside of those hours.

It is, almost by its nature, a little bit of a lonely role. It’s also a very intense role.

There are a few things that we’ve seen over the years that help alleviate some of that loneliness. The first is that great COSs build strong networks within the organizations that they work in. The network is often not just with the executive team members; the COS can reach one, two, three levels down in the organization to find the great people who can help them deliver and who they can partner with to achieve some of the things that the chief executive is trying to do.

The second thing that we typically see is that it’s an amazing role for being able to meet people externally. COSs will often travel with their CEO. They’ll sometimes meet the COSs of other principals they’re working with. Finding opportunities to meet and spend time with other COSs is an interesting way of finding people who are dealing with some common challenges. It helps to provide a bit of kinship, as well as friendship.

Grit or quit

Roberta Fusaro: Andrew, in our research on COSs, you note that many choose to leave the organization after 12 to 18 months in the role. Did that short tenure surprise you?

Andrew Goodman: We found it surprising that many COSs left the organization and their role. If you think about it, the COS role gives you this incredible visibility across the company or the organization that you work for.

But to some degree, the 12- to 18-month time period didn’t surprise us that much. For a lot of people, the job is deliberately designed to be a one- to two-year role. It is often structured to be rotational, although some people do it for longer. So we spent some time talking to COSs about why they chose to leave. And there’s a couple of themes that came out of that.

For a lot of people, there was a natural transition point with the principal they were working for; the principal had either changed roles or retired.

We also asked, why choose to leave the organization rather than stay and do another role? And part of that came from this feeling that they’d had this wonderful experience where they had incredible access and exposure and that going into another role in the organization, at least in the immediate term, might feel like a bit of a letdown. One of the COSs we talked to called it a “graceful dismount” from their role. COSs typically start planning for the next job early—maybe six months before they transition to the next role.

They often ask the principal that they’re working for, “How can I start to take on some responsibilities that aren’t directly part of the COS role but are going to prepare me for the next thing I want to do?” Those individuals are often spending 15, 20, 25 percent of their time for the last three to six months in the role building expertise in their favored area, building a network, and preparing to make that transition.

Life after COS

Roberta Fusaro: Where do they typically end up? I know that this can probably differ based on the COS and their own career goals, but are there particular roles that the COS position prepares these folks for?

Andrew Goodman: We’ve followed between 200 and 300 people who’ve done this role over the past ten years or so, and there isn’t a single role into which they go. But there are a few different buckets for those who leave the organization.

There is a set of people who love the COS role and go on to become serial COSs. Now I have to say, having done this job for over a year, I found that a little bit surprising because I needed a very long holiday after doing the job. But for some people, they love that. They love the intensity. They love working closely with the principal. So they go on and do it at another organization. We call them “serial offenders.”

The second group of people often want to go into a P&L ownership or a line management role but choose to do so at another company. Those people often switch industries. I think part of that is because they played the COS role for a CEO in that industry and there’s a bit of a feeling of loyalty for a company within the industry.

The third category of people see this as a transformative experience, but one that causes them to make a bit of a career shift. We’ve seen people do all kinds of different things. Some people become executive coaches. We’ve seen some become academics. We’ve seen some move from industry to investing. They see this as a natural career transition point, and they will often take their time. We’ve seen people take two, three, six months to think about what they want to do with their careers because the reality is, if you’re working that hard for 12, 18, 24 months, it’s hard to lift your head above the parapet and think, what do I want out of that next gig?

Lessons learned

Roberta Fusaro: Andrew, you were formerly a COS. For how many years?

Andrew Goodman: I spent nearly 18 months as the COS. It was a very intense but enjoyable time. I think about that experience probably at least once a week, if not once a day.

Roberta Fusaro: You’ve been working with COSs, and McKinsey has been running the COS forum, for almost a decade now. What’s the forum all about?

Andrew Goodman: It meets twice a year. It’s typically a group of around 50 COSs that come together from a wide range of organizations in the public, private, and social sectors. COSs from all walks of life get together to discuss lessons and obstacles they’ve faced while on the job.

Roberta Fusaro: What are some of the key takeaways or best practices that we can share with folks?

Andrew Goodman: Let me share the two or three most memorable ones from the last decade. They’re quite practical.

One of the COSs shared this view on prioritization. He said that any COS or CEO should have five to six priorities. He talked about this idea of two or three being your “tuxedo agenda,” the outward-facing priorities that you have, and two or three being your “pajama agenda,” things that were inward facing and about how the company or organization works. I really liked that idea as a way of thinking about priorities.

Another COS told me he kept a to-do list. His CEO wanted people to be aware of the long list of things that needed to happen. The COS said he kept a list that had three columns. One column listed things needed to get done by the end of the week, if not by the end of the day. It had a column that said “soon”: the things that were in the category of importance but not yet urgent. They probably needed to happen by the end of the month. And then the most important column was the third column, which was titled “never.” And things on the never list were things that had come up in meetings that he knew were probably never going to get done, and it was helpful to shield the organization from some of those things. But it was important to the principal that they knew there was a list of those things somewhere so that they could come back to them.

I’ve always liked this idea of organizing your life and your to-do list into now, soon, and never. I think that probably resonates for many of us, whether you are a COS or whether you’re just living life.

Roberta Fusaro: Definitely—I’m taking notes! Andrew, this has been a fantastic conversation. I’m going to redo my CV right now to start applying for COS jobs. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Andrew Goodman: Thanks so much for having me. It’s an amazing job. If you’re listening, and you’re thinking about doing it, I strongly encourage it.

Lucia Rahilly: Next up, when senior partner Carolyn Dewar was starting out, she felt anxious about meeting with CEOs, until she got in the room with one.

Carolyn Dewar: I grew up in a small town. Meeting CEOs was not something I had ever done before. The first time I had the opportunity to meet a CEO, I was a brand-new consultant out of school. The senior person invited me to come along on his one-on-one with the CEO. I was really nervous.

I put on my best suit and had my hair tied back, and I was ready to kind of play the role of a consultant. And I thought I would meet this person who was playing the role of a CEO.

We got into the room, and there were formal handshakes and introductions, and then the conversation started. While being a “fly on the wall,” I realized that what I was witnessing was actually a conversation between two friends, two people who cared about each other, who wanted to understand what was keeping them up at night and who were trying to solve important problems together.

In that moment, my view of the conversation transformed. All the pretense was off. This was about people rolling up their sleeves and trying to do good work together. At the end of the day, that's what we’re all trying to do.

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