The chief of staff role has been a mainstay in politics for years and has risen in the corporate sector over the past decade. But there's another domain where a chief of staff can have a major positive impact on an organization: the startup world.
Why would a startup need a chief of staff? I'm glad you asked. For one thing, entrepreneurs often start their companies alone and are thereby deprived of a team with whom they can weigh and exchange ideas. The first weeks (and months and sometimes years) of a startup can also leave a startup owner feeling perpetually busy and overwhelmed with duties large and small. They certainly need the extra help, but a chief of staff isn't a position they usually consider.
"As a startup CEO, there are so many needs that you are trying to fill. Our vChief, Ami, has come in and filled so many gaps. She is my right-hand when it comes prepping for board meetings. She has stepped in and built processes for us around operations and finance that has allowed us to step up our game in a major way. Ami is also a great sounding board - sometimes you need someone to knock ideas against for feedback. If we didn't have a vChief we'd still be trying to tread water as an organization." -Aaron Walker, Founder & CEO, Camelback Ventures
That's a missed opportunity because a chief of staff often makes the very best teammate for a founder, particularly in a company's early days. A chief of staff typically shares the "bootstrap" mentality of a startup environment and is willing to jump in and do whatever is necessary to support leader. This servant-leader mindset is key when starting a business, where there are a thousand anticipated (and frequently unanticipated) tasks that require the founder's attention—from finances and operations to sales and marketing. Such tasks often require a young organization to meet with a number of vendors, including attorneys, insurance agents, graphic designers, and accountants, to name just a few. Like herding cats, arranging and meeting with vendors can translate into days or weeks of lost work for a founder, who needs to maximize his or her time on developing the business. As a reliable generalist, the chief of staff can take things off the owner's plate so that he or she can focus on the important planning and strategizing needed to get the business off the ground.
And speaking of developing the business, a well-hired chief of staff will also have some background in your professional field and can thus serve as a high-level sounding board for strategic planning, operations, finance, and/or a host of other specialties. Ideally, he or she will have been integral in launching a business or startup in the past and may thus be able to share key learnings from that experience.
Finally, a chief of staff can be a practical low-cost, low-overhead investment for a startup. He or she can be hired for as many hours per week as you'd like, for as many weeks or months as needed. The commitment doesn't have to be permanent, although a chief of staff may be ideally suited to take on more as he or she grows with your business.
If you're a startup owner struggling to complete the many tasks that come with launching a company—not to mention trying to maintain a reasonable work-life balance! —I urge you to consider a chief of staff. You may look back and realize it was the very best decision you make when launching your business.