Why You (Mostly) Shouldn’t Combine the Roles of Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant

In my typical Q&A session with potential clients and other professionals—somewhere after “So, what exactly does a chief of staff do?” and “How is a chief of staff different from an executive assistant?”—I’m often asked if it makes sense to combine the role of Chief of Staff (CoS) with Executive Assistant (EA). On the surface, it seems logical that you’d consider combining these two positions into one. After all, both roles directly support the CEO or leader, and it may seem superfluous (or expensive) to support both a full-time CoS and EA.

My general recommendation? Don’t do it. Here’s why.

First, as I’ve discussed before, the roles of COS and EA have fundamentally different skill sets. While it’s true that there are some similarities between the two positions—hyper organized, good with structures and systems, great at executing, and not dropping balls—there are also key differences in their mission, vision, and day-to-day tasks. To summarize:

  • An Executive Assistant tends to be focused on logistics, such as travel, scheduling, and expense processing—things that require a very strong eye for detail. It's an incredibly important role as the smallest mistake can have huge implications for an organization's leader. An EA must be driven to dive into logistical details and be motivated by administrative work.

  • A Chief of Staff is a senior-level strategic partner and analytical thinker. A CoS might manage projects across the entire organization, working with a variety of stakeholders and staff. He must be seasoned enough in his career to be able to go toe-to-toe with a leader, pushing back against her when necessary and acting as a true equal thought partner.

The problem in combining these roles is that if you're doing both tasks, one inevitably falls short. Because organizing the calendar and travel are critical to ensuring the CEO can operate successfully, those tasks most often take precedence. And if a CoS has enough career experience to be successful in his role, he isn't likely going to be excited or motivated by the administrative work. When I talk with individuals who are employed in this type of combination role, they feel like the bulk of their work is administrative, and it leaves them feeling unsatisfied.

However, there are exceptions to every rule, and there are circumstances where combining a CoS and EA might make sense. Once in a while, you may have a very high-performing EA, one who is often earlier in their career and willing to do the administrating work, but also has an analytical and strategic mind able to take on more complex tasks. Sometimes this individual will be able to grow and stretch in their role to take on leadership of special projects. Over time, this person may ultimately act in some ways like a CoS for the leader.

Searching for the right candidate for a CoS/EA combination role is a bit like a unicorn hunt. The likelihood of finding someone who is great in both roles—and willing to stay in the role for a long period of time—is very slim.

My recommendation for leaders who are looking for both some CoS and EA capacity is to hire two individuals. If two full-time positions aren’t possible for your organization, hire two part-time positions. Over time, as both you and your company grow and develop, you may potentially expand these positions into full time roles.