Chief of staff - your next hire?

Posted by Brien Keegan

Since Sprout was established in 2018 we have seen the growth of various roles into the scale-up ecosystem in New Zealand.  The emphasis largely has been on product design, management and growth.  

In recent times we have noticed a new role emerging in the market, the role of ‘Chief of Staff’.  

Traditionally this role has been associated with the  armed forces, government or political parties and to a lesser degree, larger corporates.  In New Zealand there are approximately 50 people on LinkedIn with the title of Chief of Staff, the majority of those (35) being in government/politics or the armed forces.  

We’ve seen scaling tech companies in NZ like Soul Machines and Narrative establish this role into their teams.  Currently there are no Chief of Staff roles advertised in NZ and only two in Australia.    

Compare this to Silicon Valley in San Francisco and there are over 2,000 people in that role and they are almost all in the tech industry. 

What does a Chief of Staff do?  

A Chief of Staff is essentially someone that can take some of the responsibility of the founder or CEO in a business that is starting to scale up.

They are focused on the wider business, have a strategic lens and the ability to empower and delegate tasks across the organisation.  They may manage people directly or indirectly, but either way they are experts in collaboration and implementation. 

Ultimately, as a business scales, the volume of leadership responsibilities increases and therefore need to be shared. 

Why scaling businesses should consider this position 

We often see businesses lose momentum and focus as the founder has to juggle the role of running (and growing) the business, while attracting investment.  

This means that there can be a lack of focus on the people in the team, doing the actual doing.  Without everyone engaged and focused, the business can go backwards, rather than scaling up.  

The Scale-up Founder - AKA - 'the bottleneck’

If you are a founder or CEO, ask yourself, “Am I a bottleneck in our organisation?”

If projects are getting delayed, deadliness being missed, or hiring plans are not being achieved, you may be missing an opportunity.  Ultimately, your business may be  progressing at the speed of the founder rather than the speed of the market. You may therefore have a case for a Chief of Staff.  

Deciding if a Chief of Staff is right for you business  

There are a few ways you can assess this: 

  1. ORGANISATIONAL DESIGN:  When working with scaling businesses, we create a current, mid state and future state organisational design.  The design of your business needs to connect to your vision, ambition and purpose and as you scale it should continue to reflect your culture.  

  1. ROLE CLARITY: Job descriptions get a bad rep.  Usually they are an afterthought as you plough your way into the hiring process.  However, they can provide a lot of clarity for individuals, none more so than for the Founder.  At start-up stage Founders are typically the Chief Everything Officer (!), as a business scales they need to decide specifically what role they should play.  As a result, some aspects of the role need to be picked up by someone else.

  1. DEFINING YOUR VERSION OF A CHIEF OF STAFF:  Like any role, there is no perfect playbook -- it’s unique to each organisation.  The key question to understand is why you need this position in the first place.  In addition to defining the role of your Chief of Staff, CEO and other senior team members, it is important to define the core competencies you need to see in this person.  

Finding a Chief of Staff 

The next challenge is finding a Chief of Staff.  As mentioned, there is not a lot of direct experience in this role in scaling businesses in New Zealand, but there are options:

  1. Identify the right person for the role internally and find a mentor or peer to help them define their new role. From 2,000+ Chiefs of Staff in the San Francisco Bay Area there is likely to be someone who can help In addition, there are approximately 50 Kiwis overseas who are in, or have previously held a Chief of Staff role.

  2. Find and recruit someone overseas who has experience in that role. 

  3. Look to other senior people that have worked in a scaling business in CEO, Founder or COO roles.  It’s not a direct fit, but they will  have parallel leadership attributes and experience.  

The right Chief of Staff can increase productivity, engagement and improve momentum, whilst allowing the founder / CEO to focus on the growth of the business and what they do best.  

Interested in discussing more about your organisational design and whether the Chief of Staff role fits in with your plans to scale?  Creating the optimal organisational design, clarity and the right people to grow with your business is personally what I love most in working with the businesses we support.  Contact me on and we can discuss further!  

Our door is always open


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