Tyler Parris of Tyler Parris Coaching examines a common problem leaders face when they reach the top and how a chief of staff can help solve that problem.

Do You Need a Chief of Staff?

It’s Lonely at the Top

Without a chief of staff, you risk experiencing the negative effects of one of the core truths of executive leadership: It’s lonely at the top. You will rarely receive direct, constructive criticism or positive feedback from above or below you—about your performance, about specific decisions that you made or about your strategic direction. Plus, information from the lower levels of the organization tends to get filtered through several layers of management on its way to you. That information is frequently so sanitized by the time it reaches you that it omits pertinent details or trade-offs that would make for better decisions on your part. The result is negative surprises.

In a recent survey of 300 chief executives, Chris Wells of Kapta Systems found that “38% of CEOs were blind-sided by a negative surprise in the past 90 days.” According to Harvard business professors Michael Porter, Jay Lorsch and Nitin Nohria, the number three surprise for new CEOs is that it is hard to know what is really going on. Granted, you can’t know everything. But as you climb, the consequences for not knowing are more significant and the tolerance of boards, founders and even courts or juries might be lower. As an officer of the company, you might have fail-and-go-to-jail responsibilities for certain aspects of your business. And we all know how well the “we didn’t know” defense worked out for Jeffrey Skilling and his cohort of Enron executives.

Still, not every crisis ends up with someone in jail. You might simply think everything is moving along just fine when costs suddenly jump or revenue falls short for the quarter. Or you go into a board meeting thinking your key leaders are aligned and moving forward, when all of the sudden you find out they’re all over the map and each of you loses face with the board. In many levels of an organization, you can solve your isolation problem through having more, or more focused, information channels, but the higher up the ladder you go, the more filtered the information becomes. You have to challenge it constantly. It’s the chief of staff’s job to know which doors to knock on so that you get what you need and avoid negative outcomes.

Maybe your crisis is that one of your superstar staff members—one of your favorites—is meeting or exceeding his or her target results numerically but leaving a trail of broken relationships, burned-out people or other misery along the way because everyone is afraid to tell you how the star behaved. A chief operating officer I interviewed recounted just such a time:

I had transferred from one business unit to another and brought along an HR person with me. That person stayed with me for about a year and then left. Only then did I start hearing that the person I had brought with me was widely regarded as a jerk. As I solicited more stories about this person, I realized I had brought along with me someone who was behaving like a jerk, and nobody told me. I was so disappointed that nobody felt they could say it. It’s important to have people around you who feel free to say, “You know, I know you like that person (or issue), but there’s a problem….” Then I can decide the appropriate course of action for that person or issue.

Gaining an accurate picture of what is really going on in your organization, beneath all the filters that people put on the information to “help” you digest it, is an effort worthy of heroic mythology. Many obstacles stand in your way. First, your leaders and staff might not always be transparent about or even aware of their own agendas, career aspirations and goals. Second, it’s not easy for your executive team to speak truth to your power. Regardless of your assurances that there won’t be retribution for unpopular opinions, most people have experienced retaliation of some sort in their past and it takes a tremendous amount of courage for your subordinates to move beyond the defense mechanism that comes from those experiences and bring the truth to you. It takes trust, and trust takes time, which you don’t often have a lot of. Finally, all of these issues take time and effort to get to the bottom of while you’re addressing operational issues, managing fire drills, being the public face of the company and, oh by the way, trying to focus on the strategic, visionary portion of your job that you were really hired for.

This is where your chief of staff comes in. The right person in this role will help you avoid the problem of isolation by doing these things:

• Monitor the periphery of activity in your team, looking for warning signs and investigate when necessary

• Invest more time than you can walking the halls, where he or she can get the input, feel and mood of employees in different corners of the office; in other words, someone who can “read the tea leaves” in the organization accurately

• Serve as an information filter, previewing information and applying critical analysis and coaching to the teams under you so that before you see information, it’s been fact-checked and validated

About the Author

Tyler Parris Tyler Parris is a Hudson-certified executive and career coach, former corporate chief of staff, and author of “Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization.” His career has spanned operations management at Intellectual Ventures, program management at Advaiya, Inc., technical editing at Microsoft and computer networking in the United States Marine Corps. While much of Tyler’s time is spent helping organizations successfully use the chief of staff role, his broader focus is creating coaching interactions with senior leaders that create capacity, raise awareness and change behaviors.

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