When The Chief of Staff Stays and The Executive Leaves

Your executive is departing the company and you make the decision to stay in your Chief of Staff (COS) role (for now). The average COS tenure is just shy of 3 years and the average CEO tenure is about 5 years, so you may not expect this situation to occur often, but it appears to be happening more frequently.

There are many reasons a Chief decides to stay when their executive goes. Some are unable to “follow” their leaders to a new city or new company. Others want to ensure a smooth transition and feel comfortable in their ability to build a similar partnership with the new leader. Regardless, it is important that the role of Chief of Staff is utilized effectively during such a transition. Based on research into CEO successions as well as interviews with Chiefs who experienced them, we offer the following insights for the Chief of Staff.

 

Encourage knowledge transfer.

In our research of CEO transitions, we learned all too often the departing CEO is not tapped by the new CEO for consultation during their early days. Ego and pride may play a part, but even so, there are ways a Chief of Staff can promote and provide significant “intellectual capital” that may otherwise go unmined.

The Chief of Staff can be the bridge between the outgoing and incoming executives—connecting them and their ideas, just as they do for teams across the organization already. As the “common denominator” in the period of change, it can make sense for the Chief of Staff to encourage dialogue between the two leaders. This role of conduit is not necessarily new to Chiefs, though their subjects like are.

Next, the Chief of Staff can extract knowledge from the departing leader on her own. As Chief of Staff, you likely already know the strategic priorities and current challenges of the organization, but a departure can present a renewed opportunity to speak with the leader for additional thoughts, insights, and reflective moments that will benefit the organization and its people. Think of it as your leader’s exit interview—the tone of which is candid conversation, not pointed interrogation.

When debriefing with the departing leader, consider the following questions:

  • What in-progress initiatives are most critical? Why? What should or could be done on them?

  • What initiatives or programs could be ceased without harming the organization?

  • What would you do differently in the role, knowing what you know now?

  • In an ideal scenario, what would you wish to see going forward?

Distilling this information into actionable insights for the new executive can be very helpful. If you do not have the opportunity to speak candidly with your leader about the above, auditing your own feelings on these topics can serve as a secondary option to capture at least some of this information.

 

Champion the change.

Your pulse on the organization is especially important during a time of change like an executive transition. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for opportunities to assuage concerns, or even misconceptions, about the new leader. Do the same for any misunderstandings the new leader may have as well.

Your role of Chief of Staff is designed to be more objective—free of vendettas or posturing for a specific department and, instead, more comprehensive and holistic of the entire organization. This is a critical need during any transition when employees may be more protective over what is theirs and unwilling to accept changes from a new leader. Additionally, the early days for any new leader are fragile and fraught with uncertainty. Therefore, your role should be one of positivity, seeing the bigger picture, and goodwill.  Being an “open door” for your colleagues, with transparency and continuity, during this time can be very important. Whether information is stated, observed, or shared indirectly, it can all drive your ability to be a champion for the organization and for a successful change in leadership.

Usher in a new style and early wins.

Help the new leader understand ways to work diplomatically with other leaders and teams; however, give them the space to make decisions and choices on their own. As one Chief of Staff explained, “Each leader will do things differently.” While you can play the obvious role of historian for the new leader, you must also understand that they may choose a different path. Do not be mired by what did or did not work before, and instead, look ahead to a fresh perspective—just as you likely provided when you began in your role.

Furthermore, it is important the new executive try to achieve early wins. Set your executive up for success by finding opportunities for them to check the boxes and move things forward – no matter how small in the beginning. Having tactical initiatives and projects that do not require a lot of ramp up time is a great way to get your executive in execution mode. Early wins can also be new relationships fostered for your executive to extend their reach and connection with the broader team versus them working directly through you.

Consider a coach.

A coach can be a helpful and neutral support to both a Chief of Staff and a leader, particularly through a lot of novelty. The executive is new to the Chief of Staff and the organization. The Chief of Staff is new to the executive. A lot of new relationships where proper groundwork needs to be laid appropriately. Like with any close relationship, getting off on the right foot is important and can take time. Having a coach work with both parties through the transition can be a helpful resource and alleviate any early obstacles or challenges. If you need help finding a coach, let us know.

 

The decision to stay during a period of great change and uncertainty is not easy, and neither is an executive transition. However, as Chief of Staff, you serve an important role as the backbone of your organization and can help to create a smooth transition of leadership. Leadership changes are inevitable, and often healthy and positive, so try to make it as productive as possible.

Sources:

https://hbr.org/2009/01/the-last-act-of-a-great-ceo

https://hbr.org/2007/05/surviving-your-new-ceo

https://www.kornferry.com/institute/download/download/id/18349/aid/1777