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Chief of Staff: The Unsung Heroes of Tech Start-Ups

What does a Chief of Staff actually do?

The role on everybody’s lips in start-ups right now is ‘Chief of Staff’ and as far as job descriptions go, we’re seeing many variations across global markets! Naturally, we wanted to throw our two cents in to share its origins, its evolving journey to its sole purpose today and the significant impact it can make on a tech start-up, as well as the necessary skills and responsibilities to fill a Chief of Staff role. 

The Chief of Staff role origin story 

There aren’t too many types of people who can survive working closely with start-up founders. One who can? Ex-founders! They’ve been there, done that, and got many t-shirts out of it. They understand the challenges, ups and downs that every founder will experience. They also possess the skill set to fill gaps and provide support. 

This is how the Chief of Staff role was born; In Silicon Valley, ex-founders were willing to partner with current founders to create a seamless way of working in order to align operations and drive certain projects and growth initiatives. More than that, they gave founders the support and means to focus on their own core strengths and vision. 

In summary, the Chief of Staff could essentially take the lead of the business if the founder/CEO was suddenly absent. 

How the Chief of Staff role has evolved to what it is now  

One of the reasons behind this article is that we wanted to make something clear: A Chief of Staff should not be a Head of Operations or a glorified secretary acting as filler, doing the fluffy stuff that no one else wants to do. You are doing yourself a disservice in that role or as a founder hiring that role if you believe this. 

This is what we understand a Chief of Staff role to be in the current market; 

They are the glue that holds everything together in the business. They are in touch with every function, navigating the projects that should be prioritised and ones that need to be killed in order to drive growth and achieve the business’s key objectives. 

If the COO is the founder/CEOs ‘right-hand person’, the Chief of Staff is a second brain. They assist in the decision-making, even the toughest ones. They take on responsibilities from the founder/CEO and act as a trusted confidant, from business development to managing KPIs to building relationships with customers. They have a clear overview of the entire business, giving them unique perspectives that propel them to act accordingly in order to keep the business not just surviving, but thriving. 

While they don’t tend to have direct authority over the team, they need to act with authority and be uninfluenced, and master balancing duty with humanity. This means not just being a sounding board for the founder/CEO, but being able to take control of any difficult conversations and situations that emerge from the decisions being made. 

What type of human will thrive in a Chief of Staff role? 

It’s a great question as this role is unique and at times, will be challenging. Here’s an (extensive) list of what we find to be ideal skills and traits for a Chief of Staff role to make the impact they are designed to: 

  • They are proactive and reactive with their game plans: In sports, every team has a number of go-to strategies they can flit to and from based on how the game is unfolding. Chief of Staff must have something similar up their sleeve in case of a crisis (and as we know, start-ups can create many crises). 
  • A silent orchestrator and executor: Chiefs of Staff are best working autonomously in the background, diligently ticking off their responsibilities without causing drama or fuss. It’s not uncommon for other employees to be completely unaware of what the Chief of Staff actually does day-to-day. 
  • Compatible with the founder/CEO: If they are to survive in the role, the Chief of Staff needs to complement the skill set of whom they’re working most closely with; the founder/CEO. 
  • A deep understanding of start-ups; how they work, their challenges, and how they succeed: This is reflected in the origins of the Chief of Staff role being ex-founders. The only way this role will achieve the impact it has the potential to is if the human who fills it is as knowledgeable about the business as the founder/CEO. 
  • Content working on their own: Similar to the founder/CEO, this role isn’t part of a function or internal team. This is why we believe there are such rapidly growing Chief of Staff communities across markets – they finally have like-minded others whom they can share experiences, gain insights and professionally grow with! FYI, we regularly host roundtables and networking events for Chiefs of Staff 😁
  • Must be able to embrace change and adapt: This goes for anyone working in a start-up environment due to the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of them. But, as someone who will be taking a front seat to all the potential upcoming changes, the Chief of Staff role can’t be afraid to tackle anything new that comes along (without much warning). 

The impact a Chief of Staff role can have on a tech start-up 

As a founder/co-founder/CEO, it can be incredibly hard to gain a true vantage point over the business, so you will always have blind spots. A Chief of Staff role understands the intricacies of the business as well as how the founder/CEO can best spend their time to maximise output. 

They are a double-edged sword, providing assistance strategically and operationally. They are a driving force in the business and behind the founder/CEO and a trusted advisor that has a knack for conjuring solutions to new and recurring problems. They put out unwanted fires as well as create sparks for opportunity.

If you are a founder or CEO who believes that the Chief of Staff role is just an ops person ‘who does some extra bits’, you are sorely downplaying the potential you can create for yourself, your team and your start-up.

If you are a Chief of Staff looking to connect with a community of other Chiefs of Staff, connect with our team for exclusive event invites: De’Angello Harris in Singapore, Paul Marks in London, Vinisha Rathod in Australia. 

If you are a founder who is now looking for the kind of Chief of Staff we’ve described, connect with our Co-Founders: Jonathan Jeffries (JJ), Anthony Sochan


ARTICLE by Jonathan Jeffries (JJ), Co-Founder, 5 March 2024

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