Will a Chief of Staff be a Wedge in Your Organization?

In this third installment of Tyler Parris’ three-part series on the chief of staff role, he takes a look at how your new chief of staff may be perceived by the rest of the organization and how to avoid the potential ‘wedge effect.’ You can review part one here and part two here.


The Wedge Effect

Is a chief of staff just a wedge between the CEO and the rest of the organization? At a recent speaking engagement, a participant asked me if the chief of staff (CoS) role would simply divide a CEO’s staff or be received by the leadership team as a wedge between them and the CEO. Whereas yesterday the staff worked directly with the CEO, the thinking goes, they would now presumably work through an intermediary: the CoS. At the same time, I’ve heard from a number of chiefs of staff through my research and coaching who have found themselves in exactly this situation, where the value of the CoS role is not apparent to the team. In these situations, the wedge effect threatens to undermine the staff’s confidence in the CoS, and thus the CEO as well.

What causes the wedge effect?

The wedge effect is not always accidental or a reflection that the CoS role isn’t needed or valuable.

In some instances, the CoS role has been poorly thought through before being rolled out. An executive recognizes the need for help but has difficulty articulating precisely what that help might look like, or can articulate what kinds of help are needed but not which kind would be of highest value. Not wanting to show weakness to the board or staff, the executive might not ask for assistance in crafting the role or getting buy-in. So the executive hires someone with operational chops or people management expertise or whatever skill or behavior offsets his or her gaps to help cope with work and life at the top. The person gets a CoS title and figures out the roles and responsibilities along the way—which means others do the same.

In other instances, the role might have been well thought through by the executive and a trusted partner (a head of HR, a board ally) but communicated to the staff without addressing their concerns. In either instance, even if the CoS is the right solution for the executive and staff, the rollout causes more organizational churn or friction than necessary, increasing the wedge effect.

The wedge effect is not always accidental or a reflection that the CoS role isn’t needed or valuable. In fact, it might exist precisely because of need or value. In his foreword to Terry Sullivan’s “Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff,” James A. Baker III says, “There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of claimants on the president’s time, and someone has to say, ‘Not now.’ That someone is almost always the chief of staff. So, it’s no wonder that chiefs of staff sometimes feel as if they walk around with targets on both their fronts and backs.”

The point is not how long it takes to develop the partnership, but that the partnership needs to happen for the role to be effective.

In an ideal world, a CEO trying to implement broad, sweeping strategy, process and culture change would take the time to get buy-in from key staff and let them drive the effort forward, giving them room to make—and learn from—mistakes until a satisfactory result is achieved. In turning around a struggling business, on the other hand, especially under the aggressive timeline of a private equity firm or other investors, the CEO might not have time for such processes to play out. Acting somewhat autocratically, the CEO might view some of the existing staff as part of the problem and rely on a chief of staff to ensure that what he or she says is what goes. This is what I call the bulldog model of chief of staff, and it is rare in the organizations I’ve looked at.

Mitigating the Wedge Effect

Assuming the wedge effect is not intentional, there are two relatively simple ways to mitigate it: define the relationship and ensure the chief of staff partners with the staff.

Defining the relationship

The reason for creating the role must be crystal clear to the executive, the team and parties outside the CoS-executive tandem. Everyone needs to know where the respective authority of the CoS and the principal executive lie. Some effective ways to draw lines of responsibility between the CoS and the executive (the proxy relationship) are:

• Money. The chief of staff is authorized to make a decision on behalf of the CEO as long as the dollar amount doesn’t exceed $X.
• Function or department. The CEO makes most decisions about finance, sales and operations, whereas the CoS handles people matters and communications unless escalation is absolutely required.
• Perceived or measured risk. To what extent does the chief of staff make decisions or act where lives are at risk, where action or inaction could shift stock markets or where other extreme risks are present?

Ensuring the chief of staff partners with the staff

Remember that the title is chief of staff. This is about the CoS not asking anything of the staff but working with them to solve problems before they reach the executive and helping them pitch their ideas to the exec. One chief of staff for a managing director of technology services at a global bank tells this story:

At the beginning, I was viewed as a stranger with no technology profile and working from home. This very technical team, under my boss, weren’t supportive. They didn’t understand the role, thought it was a kind of threat. It felt like a crisis from the very beginning, and the lack of trust threatened to derail the success of this position, which would undermine me and my executive. For the first six months, I established a routine where I had working meetings with my executive’s direct reports so they could get to know me and the role and we could talk about possibilities and expectations. I also offered that they could send info any time, and I’d help work on the content before the boss saw it. I was someone who could help them instead of just pushing them to deliver. I offered solutions and not just requirements. It took me one year before I had their respect and support. Six and a half years later, they often come to me before going to my boss and we drive major, global changes more effectively together.

The point is not how long it takes to develop the partnership—that learning curve can be shortened by getting early buy-in on the decision to hire a CoS—but that the partnership needs to happen for the role to be effective.

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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