Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 11, 2020
In 1972, I was working in Hollywood as a writer when the movie, “The Godfather” came
out. It changed the world in at least one way — by calling attention to a new word:
I have liked that word ever since. It suggests a relationship to the CEO that spans all levels
of the enterprise. A business adviser and former CEO himself, Dan Ciampa, has recently
written about that role and where it should fit in a company, and he calls it Chief of Staff
Many CEOs have an executive assistant (mine has been with me for 27 years) — but
Ciampa argues that corporate challenges and complexities today require a new job
description, Chief of Staff. The job title originated first in the military and then in politics.
Generals and presidents always had a CoS. Their job was to facilitate, manage and keep
the head guy focused on the stuff that matters. Like an air traffic controller, all the planes
get to land eventually, but the order of arrival needs to be managed, so that the ones on
fire get priority.
The classic organization chart has a bunch of C-level jobs, operations, finance, technology,
marketing, etc., reporting to the CEO. There may even be an executive VP title flopping
around, but to my way of thinking, the role of CoS needs to be considered sooner than
later in the growth of a company.
Ciampa defines a CoS as someone who serves as “an integrator, a communicator, an
honest broker, a truth teller and a confidant.” His job one in a startup is to keep the CEO
from spending time on the wrong things. In my mind, this is the primary failing of firsttime or novice CEOs. It is the inability to effectively prioritize and delegate. The phone
rings, our CEO picks it up, someone needs/wants something. Pavlov, stop the madness.
An additional role of the CoS is to wear “the black hat.” (I have several in different styles).
Don’t discount the politics involved here. A good CoS also can disagree or challenge the
CEO without running the immediate risk of being fired. A key characteristic of the CoS
must be familiarity with the culture of the company along with the strengths and
weaknesses of the boss. This person should have a personal history with the CEO. He/she
cannot just be hired off a résumé. Ciampa points out a potential risk in terms of optics and
egos — will a CoS make the CEO appear “imperious or unavailable?” By the same token, a CoS cannot be just a toady who praises the boss relentlessly (anyone you know come to
A good CoS finds a role working on alliances, partnerships (second drafts, before engaging
the CEO), acquisitions (separating the goofballs from the real deal), and “learning,” which
is code for reading everything from scientific journals to The New Yorker, from the
Harvard Business Review to Bloomberg Business. The CoS needs to collate disparate data
points at a high level, while, by contrast, a chief operating officer’s job is to keep the
existing trains running on time on the right tracks.
What a good CoS really gives to a CEO is “white space” — time to cogitate. This person
needs to have skills in both psychology, behavioral economics and management. Ciampa
defines three levels of the role, starting with only a part-time organizational effort; then to
the next level, which would include strategic thinking and episodic, project-oriented work;
and finally to the highest level, where the individual understands the entire company and
serves as the avatar/adviser to the CEO.
While Ciampa describes that role as CoS, personally, I prefer the original word itself,
consigliere. It is a nuanced position. A really good one is devoid of ambition, dispenses
disinterested advice, can be trusted with the secrets, can be a mediator and, finally, is a
confidant to the “Boss.” But, regardless of how you define the job, don’t try to build a big
company without one.
Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were together for 33 years. Ballmer was not a co-founder. He
was employee number 30. He wore a lot of titles, they were close friends, and they both
became billionaires. Ballmer always described it as a “brotherly relationship.”
Rule No. 658
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
— The Coen Brothers