Why Every Organization Needs a Chief of Staff Like This One

By Stan McChrystal

I wiped the dust off my uniform as I entered our Special Operations headquarters in Iraq. After walking 200 feet from the room I’d called home for the better part of five years, I was covered in the powder-like sands of the Iraqi desert. We were under the thick blanket of a haboob, a fierce and unforgiving sandstorm that had arrived without notice and cut visibility down to just a few feet.

This was the worst of days for a sandstorm to arise. I needed to take a helicopter to Baghdad for several critical meetings for which face-to-face was always best. As I walked between buildings, there was an eerie silence on the normally busy runway that hugged our compound. No aircraft could fly in these conditions, and our travel plans were now impossible.

“OK, Sir, here’s the recommendation…” I was greeted by my Aide de Camp, Chris Fussell, as I walked in. He’d been up for several hours, talking with pilots, synchronizing with the staffs of other senior leaders, and looking at key tasks that I needed to accomplish. The unexpected sandstorm had ruined several days of planning, so Chris had reviewed what the impacts were, rescheduled the day based on the known priorities, and put a new plan together. A roundtable with senior leaders would be replaced by a video teleconference; meeting a new member of our team in Baghdad would be rolled 24 hours out; and a critical visit to one of our outstations would be pushed by six hours, once the sandstorm was expected to recede. The list went on.

Listening to his brief, I’d learned the impacts of the storm, the alternative plan that was in motion, and the priorities that we could now fit on the schedule since we were no longer traveling. He wasn’t asking permission; he was informing on what was happening — decisions that he’d made based on a clear understanding of both my, and the organization’s, priorities.

What would have taken three hours of thought and coordination on my part was over in less than five minutes. The seamless reprioritization of the day before I’d even arrived was the sign of an informed staff, and of the effectiveness of what many in the business environment would refer to as their Chief of Staff. From my experience, the position is a crucial efficiency hack that many don’t fully leverage.

All leaders have one thing in common — there is never enough time. You want to be involved in every aspect of your organization, but you are physically limited by the number of hours in the day. As with the day I described above, I was keenly aware of this constraint when I was in Iraq.

I had only 24 hours in the day, but 35 hours’ worth of issues coming at me each day that required decisions on my part. What I needed from my staff was for them to buy me time on my schedule, freeing up white space so I could focus on strategic thinking and managing critical relationships. And more than any one person, my Chief of Staff kept me constantly focused on spending my time where it counted most so that I wasn’t the limiting factor in pushing our organization forward.

When used effectively, this person quite literally feels like an extension of your own brain — constantly reviewing strategic priorities and indexing against actual time expenditures, anticipating when you’ll have bandwidth, and guiding your focus toward areas requiring attention. In short, the Chief of Staff doesn’t just keep the train running on time, he or she keeps the train on the rails.

But no individual can jump directly into the position of trusted confidant. Organizations are composed of humans and complex networks of interlocking relationships. To be fully effective, a Chief of Staff must understand these networks, and must be seen as a trusted agent. If you’re considering such a position for your own team, here are the four major steps I’d recommend so that the Chief of Staff can become a thought-partner and facilitator — and a true productivity hack.

  • She must know the network. If she’s constantly answering your every need, she’ll have no bandwidth to develop an understanding of the organization. Give her time to connect with the organization.
  • He must be seen as a force multiplier. Allow him time to develop trust-based relationships throughout the organization, and to bring you insights you wouldn’t otherwise receive. Allow that information to shape your thinking and create wins.
  • Be transparent. My rule of thumb was, I want this person to think up to the 85% mark for me (the top 10-15% was mine to own). But if the Chief of Staff isn’t deeply exposed to your strategy and priorities, she can’t possibly triage information and focus your energy.
  • Don’t create a Rasputin! Don’t put your Chief of Staff in a position where others believe he is driving your decisions, or the position will lose its trust. Be very clear with the staff where information flow stops and your own decision cycle begins.

As a leader, this transition is easier said than done. You want to feel connected to the organization and you want to do the things you’ve been trained to do, whether that’s shifting logistics or overseeing product development. But as you climb the ranks of seniority, what I like to call “functional excellence” becomes less and less important.

While you may have expertise in a certain area, your time as a senior leader is truly best spent doing the things that only you can do: serving as the face of the company, creating the culture for your employees, meeting with important external parties, and providing strategic direction for the future.

Leave product designing, meeting running, or logistics planning to your team — empower them to do the jobs you hired them to do and leverage your Chief of Staff as your conduit to all areas of the business, your finger on the pulse of your organization. Once up and running, the Chief of Staff position will become like a networked thread of copper wire — creating informed synapses across your organization and making you a much more productive leader.

This is an area for great growth in industry. The Chief of Staff is much more than just the latest “CEO accessory”; it’s a vital productivity hack that can dramatically boost your impact as a leader. But the position has to be more than just a title — and it is only effective if you leverage it correctly.

Stan McChrystal

Founder and CEO

Stan McChrystal founded McChrystal Group in January 2011 to deliver innovative leadership solutions to businesses globally in order to help them transform and succeed in challenging, dynamic environments. As Founder and a Partner, he advises senior executives at multinational corporations on navigating complex change and building stronger teams.

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