THE BLOG
07/19/2011 10:09 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2011

Why Every (Enlightened) Chief Executive Needs a Chief of Staff

All organizations are complex organisms, in that the sum of the entire unit is comprised of multiple sub-units that may not be entirely reliant upon one another, but their state effects the whole and they are ever changing and evolving because, at the heart of it all - they are comprised of people. More often than not, particularly in MBA programs, we're taught to view the organization first as a structure filled with people rather than a combination of skill sets and experiences that collectively supports an organizational body. It's not wrong, it's just overly simplistic and more often than not, it is this belief that leads to desensitized decision making that doesn't fully account for the human quotient. We inherently believe the structure prevails and that the people should and will follow chains of command, hierarchy and protocol.

But the reality is, companies are not clocks and people are not cogs. There is no rigidity, there is no guaranteed consistency (although there is some predictability) and there are no corners and walls to people. To stack them up like bricks in an organizational chart is silly, it goes against human nature and anyone who isn't completely asleep at the wheel can recall a situation where one individual (or a group of individuals) was able to derail a significant effort despite not having any formal authority to wield. The fact is, like it or not, the fluctuating nature of people is material, no matter how large your organization may be. Don't believe me? Visit the California Department of Motor Vehicles - one giant "Stage 2" sludge of an operation that drives efficiency the way molasses fuels a Maserati. It doesn't. If you don't know what I mean by "Stage 2", I'm referring to the different stages of corporate culture described by best-selling author of Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan http://www.triballeadership.net/.

It's easy to say that part of the internal role of the CEO is to provide the vision, set strategic direction, structure the firm to efficiently and effectively execute the strategy, allocate resources, etc. But there's management of a company and then there's management of the people. As good as they are (and most are), CEO's are frequently frustrated as they seek to lead change in their firms and frequently, particularly in complex organizations, feel as if they are "pushing on a rope". Their inspired and talented human resource team is consumed by regulatory compliance, health care issues and other necessary distractions, leaving the CEO to find creative ways to instill culture and lead change - including the important, popular and necessarily superficial "management by walking around". It's unexpected from the employees to see the CEO walking around the halls, winding through cubicles because that's just not what he/she is supposed to be doing. It's below the CEO's pay grade. And frankly, the cost of the CEO's time, literally, can't be plugged into any meaningful formula that yields cost benefit of such activity. But, we all sense that it's meaningful when he/she does, which is where the value of a Chief of Staff (COS) becomes apparent and critical.

The COS position isn't one that is clearly recognized, understood or embraced in the private sector; it is inherently a position most frequently found in the office of political officials, who have incredible and competing demands for their time yet understand that listening to the voices of their constituencies, influencing their colleagues, building coalitions and navigating the "machine" of government is essential to delivering value (and by delivering value, I mean getting re-elected). There's no refuting that the purpose of a Senator's office is different than that of, say, a mid-size technology company. But the purpose is immaterial for the sake of this argument because ultimately, in any organization, with any purpose, people get you there. Or worse yet, they can keep you from getting there. And in all organizations, particularly the more complex their organizational structure becomes, the increased likelihood for cracks through which things; important things, can fall. You see, people let "things fall between the cracks", not organizational structures, but incorrectly, the structure is blamed if the cracks are not mitigated and sealed because the cracks are the space between the silos of responsibility. The CEO should care because at the end of the day, it's always their responsibility - that is where a good COS comes into play. But because organizations are comprised of people, cracks can appear and emerge at any given moment as people's lives change (family emergencies, illness, car accidents, hitting the lottery, heck - a bad mood) and a good Chief of Staff's job is to be aware of when and where those cracks appear and to know how to fill it in. It can and would be argued that a good CEO should naturally have their finger on the pulse of their senior managers and that those senior managers should have their finger on the pulse through their managers and their managers should have their finger on the pulse through their directors and so on and so forth, but in any structure, the more joints in the line, the greater the probability for error. A good COS is like the thermostat of an organization. He/she takes the time to build the trust and confidence of the team and is constantly reading the temperature of the people. As the right-hand, trusted partner of the CEO, the COS advises the CEO to turn up the heat, cool things down and perhaps opt to oscillate the fan accordingly (see the incredible work of Harvard professor Chris Argyris). Further, a COS works with the CEO on messaging, what's top of agenda, and making sure that the CEO's commitments of time actually move the needle. The biggest challenge for a CEO (or any leader) is being "overtaken by events." A COS makes sure the CEO stays ahead of the curve.

What's that? Sounds like more overhead than we can afford in our company? Consider this...if people are a company's greatest assets and likely one of the largest expenses (investments) that a firm makes each year, what better place to focus one incremental resource than on a thermostat to monitor the soul of your talent and increase their likelihood of success.

It's high time for the private sector to consider the role of the Chief of Staff. While COO's drive efficiency and CFO's drive return on equity, COS's enable the vision, mission, values, and enable change in complex, dynamic environments. The role should be focused on keeping a watchful eye on the moving parts and maintaining the integrity of the strength and flexibility of the company - indeed the talent people ...who are critical to the creation of shareholder value.

Special thanks to (one of the most impressive corporate COS, CEO, COO, CFO & CIO ever) my intellectual collaborator, the Accountant Formerly Known As Ron