What is the Career Path for a Chief of Staff?


Since our mission involves providing chief of staff support to leverage the time of busy executives, we’ve covered a lot of ground in regards to the chief of staff role specifically: what a chief of staff does, how to write their job description, and even the different archetypes within the role. But how does a chief of staff acquire their role in the first place--what experiences and education are ideal for candidates pursuing this position? And once a chief of staff has established themselves in their role, what is the next step on their career trajectory? While every single person’s career path is as individualized as a fingerprint, here are some typical roadmaps for people interested in the chief of staff role.


New to the Chief of Staff Role

If you are looking to start out in your very first chief of staff role, we’ve found a few key attributes that will lend well to the position:


Education

In regards to education, candidates applying for a chief of staff position usually have a bachelor’s degree, and many come to the table with advanced degrees (e.g., MBA, JD, MA/MS or MPA/MPP). There is no requirement for any sort of specialization in a particular field or degree. Rather, the role tends to promote diversity of experience and bringing a cross-functional background is one of the best tools you can have.


Experience

While there are some situations where hiring a junior-level chief of staff may fulfill the needs of an organization, most executives will be looking for a chief with 8-10 years of professional experience. Again, this experience can be in a variety of fields and organizations--often the resume of an ideal candidate for the chief of staff role will look more like a jungle gym than a ladder--but having sound knowledge of overall business operations and processes will prove key to being an ideal candidate for the role.


Skills

Since a chief of staff usually takes on a myriad of responsibilities, there is an equal myriad of skills that they should possess to be efficient in their role:

  • Versatile: think “jill-of-all-trades” persona, with cross-functional or varied experiences, and willing to jump in and learn new skills when necessary

  • Analytical, data-driven in their approach to solving problems

  • Strategic thinker

  • Strong written and verbal communication, with ability to communicate in someone else’s style and voice and communicate to diverse audiences

  • Emotionally intelligent: understands people on a deeper level, anticipates unspoken needs, influences desired outcomes, and builds strong relationships

  • Organizational genius: loves creating order out of chaos, building systems and process thinking

  • Prefers offering support from ‘the wings’ over being in the spotlight

  • Extremely loyal and trustworthy with confidential information

If you are interested in pursuing a chief of staff role and want to get an edge on what employers are looking for, check out our post on Hiring a Superstar Chief of Staff.


What's the next step in your Chief of Staff career?

Perhaps you’ve been in the role of chief of staff for several years and are wondering where to go from here. Since you most likely came to this position with quite a respectable and diverse resume, to which you have now added more skills and achievements, you are in a prime position. Your options are open and the route you take next depends on your bigger career goals and objectives.


Moving to a different organization

While some individuals experience burnout after one gig in the chief of staff role, others absolutely thrive in the role. With a role as diverse as chief of staff, every day on the job can look a little different. You may have no interest in climbing the career ladder and enjoy the stability of fulfilling a role in which you are competent and skilled.


But if you’ve been in the same organization working towards the same mission with the same people, making a move to a new business working for a new executive may be just the refresh you need. In fact, your role with organization Y may look totally different from your former role with organization X. Alternatively, if leadership has shifted at your current organization and you’re not meshing like you were before, it’s a good time to make a change.


Your new executive will appreciate the experience you have already gained as a chief of staff, feeling confident that you’ll know how to support from day one. However, your former executive may harbor a grudge, which can have unfortunate consequences. Also, very few people have what it takes to be ‘lifers’ in the chief of staff role, so your long-term career plan should reflect some alternative options for when you’re ready to move out of the role altogether.


Moving into a leadership role

If you have a strong connection with your executive and feel extreme loyalty to your organization (as the two often go hand-in-hand), you may consider how you can grow into a role with even more responsibilities and accountability. Oftentimes, this is the step that your executive was also working to help you achieve all along.


Many chiefs of staff are well-suited to positions in senior operations or strategy, like Chief Operating Officer or Vice President. You are already a familiar face with both internal and external stakeholders and are intimately aware of how the organization operates at multiple levels. You can also maintain your strong read on your former executive to help influence decisions and plan strategy.


However, some former chiefs of staff find it hard to remove themselves from the role completely. Your executive may have a hard time letting go of their reliance on you as their right-hand, and others within the organization may follow suit. Establishing boundaries from the beginning of your new leadership role is critical.


Moving into a leadership role somewhere else

This is a common next step, because many former chiefs of staff find it hard to distinguish themselves in their current organization, as many of their colleagues may struggle with their transition to higher leadership. At this point, you know your executive and the other stakeholders within the organization to know how they will react to your promotion within the organization. If you think there is a risk that letting go of you as the eternal chief of staff is probable, it’s time to move on and find yourself a leadership role somewhere different.


Even if you think your colleagues will handle the transition respectfully and responsibly, now that you know all the ins and outs of the organization you may realize it is not the place for your continued growth. You’re a different person than you were when you first stepped into the chief of staff role and, most likely, the organization has undergone some transition in vision and decision-making. If you find your values are no longer in alignment with those of the company, it’s time to look elsewhere. Or maybe you are looking to grow in a certain area of interest and you find there is no opportunity for this at your current employer. Again, it’s time to seek out an organization that will be a better fit to help you achieve your career goals.


Becoming your own boss

As a chief of staff, you have gained unique and valuable perspectives on how a business functions, how leadership makes important decisions, and how to build lasting, impactful relationships that help an organization grow. You may have recognized a unique challenge that you are ready to solve, on your own terms. As someone that has been willing to take on any task for the greater good of the organization, you have already been initiated with the entrepreneurial spirit. Because entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. But you already know that because you’ve worked side by side with busy executives, many of which may have been entrepreneurs themselves. You’ve already seen and learned how to cope with various business failures, and you’re going in with much more business savvy than most. You may find you love being your own boss and never look back. Or you may decide working for someone else wasn’t so bad. Either way, you’ll have a strong skill set and unparalleled experiences that will make you employable and compatible to whatever pursuit you take on next.


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