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December 18, 2023

The rise and rise of the chief of staff

From the military to Silicon Valley – and beyond – the chief of staff role is becoming increasingly common in the private sector

By Eliot Wilson

Its origin has been traced to the militaries of the early 1900s and as far back as ancient Rome, but it is only in the last 15 years that the idea of a ‘chief of staff’ has really taken off as a job in the private sector.

A study in February showed that there were 4,700 chiefs of staff in US organisations, where the concept is well embedded, and there has been a blossoming of educational books on the topic. Since 2020 there has been a professional body, the Chiefs of Staff Association, and – the surest sign of having arrived – Amazon now sells a plethora of amusing gifts and trinkets emblazoned ‘Chief of Staff’.

The private sector trailblazers

An early exponent of the role was Sheryl Sandberg, who served as chief operating officer of Facebook/Meta from 2008 to 2022, her appointment the result of having met Mark Zuckerberg at a Christmas party in 2007. Zuck was not looking to hire a COO but regarded Sandberg as ‘a perfect fit’ and followed his instincts. Her background was important: an economics and MBA graduate from Harvard, she had spent a year with McKinsey but then went to Washington as chief of staff to her former thesis adviser Lawrence Summers when he served as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury.

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The success stories are there if you look. Not long after Sandberg worked for Summers, John Rogers became chief of staff to the CEO at Goldman Sachs, serving Jon Corzine, Hank Paulson, Lloyd Blankfein and then David Solomon. He stepped back from his role, where he was known as the ‘CEO whisperer’, this year, regarded by some as the bank’s most influential executive. Last year, Lizzie Goodburn, who had been chief of staff to the global managing partner at legal giant Clifford Chance, stepped up to become the firm’s UK chief operating officer with a seat on the global leadership group. 

‘Air-traffic controller’ or close adviser?

Advancement and influence are both on offer if chiefs of staff want them. But what does the Chief of Staff job description entail?

You can find any number of disquisitions on the chief of staff role, from complementary to contradictory, claiming origins from the inter-war German army to ancient Rome. Essentially, however, the role has two discrete functions, or areas of function. One is an organisational figure, gatekeeper and planner, the sort of person who can turn a high-level idea into a concrete plan of action. Lawyer and strategist Avery Blank described these kinds of chiefs of staff as ‘air-traffic controllers’ for their bosses.

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The second figure is a close adviser, a sounding board, someone who can simultaneously be a second pair of eyes and a sense check, but also knows without asking what the chief is likely to think on any given issue. This provides what Julia DeWahl, former director of operations at Opendoor, called a ‘force multiplier to an executive’.

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These roles are not mutually exclusive, and the best chiefs of staff will work across this whole spectrum, but employers can choose which side they need more and weigh up where their organisation could benefit most from either capacity.

From the military to Silicon Valley… and beyond

This bifurcation can be illustrated by looking at the modern origins of the chief of staff role, and the divergent approaches of two pioneers of military administration: Britain and Germany. The British Army formally introduced staff officers in 1905; they were organisational figures, acting as strategic and tactical translators between general officers and their frontline commanders. Germany, inheriting the Prussian system founded in 1814, built an elite cadre of highly trained and educated officers who acted as the right hand of the general and could, if necessary, assume command functions on their own.

In the corporate world, the ‘organiser’ model is more likely to fall to active, ambitious young people who will stay for two or three years, learn as well as execute, and use the experience to climb the career ladder. This creates a virtuous cycle: a CEO who has been a chief of staff will know more accurately what he or she wants from a subordinate, and will be able to use that capability where it can be most effective in the organisation.

Lizzie Goodburn
Lizzie Goodburn, who had been chief of staff to the global managing partner at legal giant Clifford Chance, stepped up to become the firm’s UK chief operating officer with a seat on the global leadership group in 2023 / Image: LinkedIn

The ‘adviser’ role, on the other hand, can best be carried out by someone with more experience and wisdom. A more mature figure can give better-informed advice to the CEO. The battle scars they carry may mean they are a more authoritative and plausible proxy or avatar for the chief. Inevitably, the chief of staff in this mould is likely to be at a later stage of their career. These people are unlikely to covet the status (or the pressure) of the top job, preferring to pursue purpose and influence in other ways.

The role is clearly proving its worth. Having started in the military and in government and then crossed to sectors such as tech and finance, it is becoming more popular in law, and not only at Clifford Chance. Cooley, the go-to Silicon Valley law firm, has Rebecca Edgar, who advises the C-suite, helps set priorities and also integrates the comms team. In finance, Florida-based private equity firm Dynasty Financial Partners has employed a number of chiefs of staff to assist its founder and CEO, Shirl Penney, who have regularly moved on to executive and director roles.

On a more personal level, some family offices and private individuals have embraced the role as a way of streamlining life. Family offices are increasingly seeing the need for someone who can link the principal with value-adding expert advisers and manage not only time but also relationships.

Abigail Meyer went from Goldman Sachs to become chief of staff for Soros Fund Management. Lord Browne of Madingley, long-time CEO of BP, employs Patrick Milner, a former clerk at the House of Lords, as his chief of staff to work across his philanthropic and public activities. Milner runs a charitable trust and is chair of several museums and galleries.

Very few organisations will enumerate and delineate the responsibilities of the chief of staff as clearly as I am doing here. Indeed, there is sometimes an advantage in constructive ambiguity. The role will change according to the occupant and the CEO, and a single chief of staff might transition over time from being a younger ‘organiser’ to become a more experienced ‘adviser’. Flexibility is a vital part of any institutional structure. That is the key to unlocking everything, as every good chief of staff knows. 


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