As a new chief of staff in a federal agency, you have one of the toughest but most rewarding government jobs. As you are presented with a dizzying array of issues, having a clear game plan for your first few months will be critical to establishing the right pace and tone for your tenure.
This article outlines seven best practices followed by successful agency chiefs of staff, emphasizing recommendations that will help you lead the agency toward its strategic objectives. Additionally, every agency chief of staff will also have to develop and hone keen political instincts, including a detailed understanding of what issues are most important to senior policymakers in the administration.
These best practices are written assuming that you are new to the agency and that your principal is new to the position. However, most still apply even if one or both of you are agency incumbents. They are tailored to helping you—an incoming chief of staff who may have developed valuable insights in and out of government roles—leave a positive impact on the agency’s work and the staff that you will lead.
1. Understand what your role entails and where to prioritize your time
The most important aspect of the chief-of-staff role is your relationship and working cadence with your principal, which is typically encompassed by five different elements,1 each of which should be given varying weight. Work with your principal to outline what your responsibilities will be and to align on which of the following parts of the role you should prioritize over others:
- Administrator. As an administrator, you are responsible for coordinating your principal’s “top team” and managing logistics. Your duties could include overseeing organizational processes, clarifying decision rights, and serving as an “honest broker.”
- Gatekeeper. The gatekeeper part of your role involves actively managing your principal’s time and shielding your principal from unnecessary and, at times, difficult conversations. That includes mediating disputes and firing personnel.
- Counselor. As a counselor, you provide insights and advice on the organization and strategic goals. Your duties could include serving as a sounding board and advising on urgent issues.
- Implementer. A part of your role involves monitoring, coordinating, and driving your principal’s priorities internally and with external stakeholders, for example, by working with internal leadership to drive initiatives or by ensuring accountability between agencies and teams.
- Proxy. Chiefs of staff often communicate and act as their principals’ proxies by representing them in meetings or convening people on their behalf.
2. Understand and communicate your principal’s strategic priorities and ensure that time commitments align with those priorities
Leaders of large organizations are faced with intense competition for their time and attention. Early in a leader’s tenure, particularly, the senior team will be looking for signals as to what that leader wants to be personally involved in and what the leader simply wants to be kept updated on. Ideally, chiefs of staff can work with their principals to write down their priorities, which can be the basis for a conversation with the senior team. While there is no precise formula, realistically, the list of items that principals are personally involved with should be manageable enough that they can consistently focus on and communicate around those same themes. If the senior team and employees hear constantly shifting messages, the organizational focus will suffer. Dedicate your attention to both deflecting lower-priority issues and detecting when high-priority decisions are being made at too low of a level and need to be elevated.
It can also be useful to periodically check in with your principal to look at the key priorities and compare them to the overall time commitments on the calendar. There are often good reasons for misalignment (for example, intense press cycles, hearing season), but the discipline to do the analysis—even if not precise—is nonetheless valuable.
3. Strike the right balance in dealing with other direct reports
Your responsibility to the agency leader is just one part of being the chief of staff. Leading and influencing an entire staff is also your responsibility. Be visible, engaged, and sensitive to the particular needs of your team; take time in your first few weeks to leave your office and hold formal and informal meetings with staff to listen and learn. Particularly with members of your top team, small gestures like scheduling one-on-one touchpoints or periodic team meals and modeling a culture of accessibility can go a long way.
As chief of staff, you must perform the tricky balancing act of managing staff while recognizing they report to your principal, not to you. There are a number of effective strategies for maintaining this balance. First, be explicit about when you are expressing your own opinions versus expressing those of the principal. Second, work with your principal to minimize the number of situations where you carry contentious messages to direct reports. Now and again, that is to be expected, but it becoming a pattern is likely masking a larger issue that needs to be addressed. Finally, look for opportunities to be a problem solver for the other members of the senior team, even when not acting on your principal’s behalf.
4. Assess the state of play with key direct reports
Chiefs of staff are often enlisted as “recruiters in chief,” so it is important that you have conversations with your principal early on to identify key positions in the organization and understand the status of incumbents. You may then need to conduct a more thorough assessment, but at minimum, you should quickly address the following key questions:
- Are any of the key direct reports nearing the end of their tenure (due to retirement, a desire to move to the private sector, or for performance reasons)?
- If so, is there a formal leadership-succession process or identified potential successors that are considered ready to take over?
- Do you and your principal have a good network of trustworthy external advisers to suggest names if you find yourselves with a key vacancy?
Based on the answers to these questions, assess your need to be proactive. For high-profile positions in your agency, you and your principal should have a named list of potential successors, even if there is no indication that the incumbent will leave in the near future. That list is of primary importance for the top positions in the agency, as it is unlikely that you will be able to delegate much of the recruiting effort in those cases.
5. Set clear expectations on process and expand viewpoints represented
One of your most important responsibilities will be managing the flow of information for your principal, ensuring that critical matters are thoroughly thought out and quickly make it your principal’s desk. Every leader is different, and you’ll need to work with your principal to develop a process for the level of prereview of briefing materials submitted for meetings. While this can seem like administrivia, it is important that leaders of large organizations receive briefing materials that are of sufficient quality to make decisions. At the same time, care should be taken not to create a process that isolates the principal and makes key team members feel like they have to write a memo when a conversation might be more appropriate. Chiefs of staff should find a trusted and thorough staffer who can make the mechanics happen and work with their principals over time to refine and improve the process to meet their needs.
It is also important that materials reflect all relevant internal views, not just those of the briefer. Of all the agency leader’s direct reports, you are likely to be one of few without institutional interests. Take it upon yourself to think through whether or not the principal is getting a full range of opinions on issues. If your agency has a set of tried and true stakeholders that closely track the agency, think about which stakeholders may also be affected but have less of a day-to-day presence before the agency. Be on the lookout for “groupthink”; if all of a leader’s advisers are going one way on an important decision, play devil’s advocate even if you do not necessarily agree with the position. If more facts are needed on an issue, try to facilitate a conversation around what additional information would help and ensure a plan is made for gathering that information. Finally, at the end of the day, you will be the last one in your principal’s office, able to shut the door and give honest, sometimes difficult, feedback. That is the time to be courageous. Once the decision is made, the questioning ends, full stop.
6. Pick a portfolio of interests and go deep
Although some of the core functions of a chief of staff are highly transactional, try to reserve some portion of your time for projects that are of particular interest to you and go deep. Within your first 100 days, try to pick an area aligned to your skills and passions and find a way to leave behind a contribution of lasting value. Maintaining a small suite of personal projects can yield an often-needed respite from the day-to-day demands of keeping the organization running smoothly. It could be something related to the organization or to policy, but the hard work of being a chief of staff will be more rewarding if you are able to leave your agency better than when you entered it. Additionally, demonstrating capabilities beyond your core role can foster trust among senior members of the team who see that you are willing to roll up your sleeves to get things done.
7. Humbly serve the institution
Although a federal leader—or possibly even a cabinet member—has hired you, as chief of staff, you fundamentally serve the institution and have an obligation to its well-being. Managing that tension between service to the individual and service to the institution and its broader range of stakeholders is a continual balancing act. Work to develop an intuitive feel for that balance, and continually manage it to do justice to the role and its many stakeholders, including the American people.
While the job’s composition may fluctuate throughout your term as priorities shift and the needs of your principal evolve, understanding the fundamentals of what makes a strong chief of staff will position you to meet the demands of your organization and accomplish its crucial goals. As chief of staff, you are one of the most critical players in the leadership team, with a broad portfolio that will shift as your organization’s day-to-day needs evolve. In this role, you’ll likely have the opportunity to yield greater impact in one day than many have in a lifetime. We hope that these tips will help prepare you for a role that, while daunting, will be an incredible opportunity to contribute to national governance meaningfully.