Chief of Staff Spotlight: Kathryn Roos
What is a Chief of Staff and what do they do? There are none better to ask than the Chiefs themselves. In this series, we talk with current and former Chiefs of Staff about their role as well as their personal motivations and secrets to performing it well.
Name: Kathryn Roos
Current title: Strategy Consultant, Gallus Consulting, 2016-present
Former Title(s): Chief of Staff (2013-2015), Deputy Chief of Staff (2012-2013)
Organization: Office of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, City of South Bend, Indiana
How did you find your Chief of Staff role, and how did your background help you prepare for it?
I had worked as the Director of Finance & Operations on Mayor Buttigieg's political campaign in 2011, and when he won election, he asked me to transition to the mayor's office with him as Deputy Chief of Staff (and then, eventually, as Chief of Staff).
I earned my undergraduate degree in architecture, which really wired my brain to think about things in a three-dimensional way, and from various perspectives. If you look at a floor plan, you need to be able to evaluate how that plan impacts things like elevations and how a space will be used. Similarly, in the Chief of Staff role, I had to think about how political decisions we made in the mayor's office were going to serve all our constituents.
My background in urban planning helped me when the mayor was planning for his first term in thinking about economic development. He made two issues particularly important to his platform early on: what to do with vacant and abandoned housing and how to revitalize the downtown area of South Bend, which was being bypassed by one-way streets. He wanted more people to utilize downtown restaurants and businesses. As his Deputy Chief of Staff, I could pull from my experience in urban planning and its best practices to help him work on these issues.
Tell us a little bit about your responsibilities in your roles as both Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief of Staff.
In both roles, it was my job to provide strategic advice and work with the team to implement the Mayor’s priorities (though the Chief of Staff role had a heightened level of responsibility and accountability). I made sure things ran efficiently and effectively. Over half of my time was really spent dealing with whatever was incoming from departments, constituents, and employees—and this varied from day to day. I also served as a liaison between department heads and the mayor, in addition to serving on several boards and commissions in the community.
While I performed many of the same duties in both roles, there were some key differences between the two. The Deputy Chief of Staff role was more inward facing and concerned with internal operations, and it was during this time that I helped establish a system of procedures and processes to deal with incoming requests. I also managed the Mayor's executive assistants. The Chief of Staff role was more strategic-based and outward facing as I was out working in the community more. As Chief of Staff, I managed the entire Mayor's office, overseeing procedures and processes from a higher level, ensuring things ran smoothly and adjusting as needed, and focusing on strategic implementation.
How would you describe the overall mission of your role in the mayor's office?
I provided strategic guidance and insured that priorities were implemented, and managed internal and external communications for the mayor. I often refer to using my "ninja skills" in this role, which largely revolved around looking at the entire board and staying ten steps ahead in identifying challenges and opportunities so that we could avoid challenges and take advantage of opportunities. Beyond that, it was my job to make sure stuff got done, working with various departments to implement the Mayor’s priorities.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable with the mayor, and what helped you establish that trust and rapport?
We had worked on his campaign for a full year together before I started as Deputy Chief of Staff. And those days on the campaign were full 12-15 hour days. So, I really got to know him well as a person and a candidate, which was a huge advantage when it came time to governing. Several us who worked on the campaign transitioned over with him to the mayor's office, and we all worked well together. We knew one another's strengths and weaknesses, and how we all functioned. That went a long way to establishing trust and rapport with the team in the office. We established daily roundup meetings to go over the day, what meetings were coming up and which required follow up. We talked about the day ahead and who would be staffing the mayor at various events. These were informal meetings, and they helped us get to know one another and establish a rapport.
What was the most challenging part of your job?
A key moment came for me when the mayor was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in 2014. He is a reservist in the U.S. Navy and was called up while he was mayor. South Bend had a Deputy Mayor, but as Chief of Staff, it was really my job to bring continuity to the office and to make sure that his agenda didn't hit pause in his absence. It was my biggest challenge in the role, but also my most rewarding. It was my duty to serve at home so he could serve abroad. We touched base about once a week while he was overseas (when he was available), so we could keep him up to date, but legally, he left all decision-making to the team in his office in South Bend. Because we had worked together for two-and-a-half years by this point, I knew what his priorities were, and we had a good team to help us stay on track.
Did you feel like you had ownership in your work as Chief of Staff? If so, how did you establish that?
I felt ownership because the job was so personal to me; South Bend is my hometown. When I am in South Bend, I can see the projects and improvements that I helped make. The architect Daniel Burnham said, "To love one’s city and have a part in its advancement and improvement is the highest privilege and duty of a citizen." That sums up the ownership that I felt as Chief of Staff. To help make transformations in the city was really a highlight of my career, and I had the opportunity to do it with a team of amazing people. I don't take it for granted.
How did you define success in this role?
At a basic level, when you're working in a city, success is defined in the delivery of real results to people. Clean water, safe streets, taking care of residents' basic needs so they can focus on their education, work, and families. We always asked ourselves if we were using resources in the most effective way because that's what the people there deserve.
Give us one lesson you learned from your experience in this role.
I learned that process really matters. When you're a person who is focused on getting stuff done, engagement in process is critical. Processes provide results people can take ownership of and makes you much more successful in reaching your goals.
I have to ask: Were you ever compared to Leslie Knope (on the television show Parks and Rec?)
[Laughs.] You know, I've never watched Parks and Rec. I think the idea of it hit too close for me. Maybe I should watch it now that I'm no longer in the mayor's office. But based on what I know about the show, I would define my role of Chief of Staff as 50% Parks and Rec, 20% Veep, 15% West Wing, and 15% House of Cards.
What advice would you give someone considering a role as Chief of Staff?
Establishing rapport and trust with your principal is key. Strategic advice and guidance is important, but you're often the eyes and ears for your principal, and sometimes you must give the feedback that no one else is willing to give. It takes great trust to be able to do that and still get on with the day-to-day work. The better understanding you have of your leader's priorities and the thought processes behind those priorities, the more effective you'll be as Chief of Staff in providing strategic guidance and making sure priorities are implemented.
What are you currently doing and how did the Chief of Staff experience help you get to this point?
My experience before becoming a Chief of Staff was non-traditional. I came from architecture and didn't have a political or business background. So, graduate school was always on the list for me. The time felt right for me to do this after the mayor won his 2015 primary re-election bid. So I left that role and earned my Masters of Public Administration, which gave me the opportunity to look at my role as Chief of Staff as a case study. What had I done well? What pivots did I want to make? Where could I be of most help in my next career?
I'm now a strategic and operational consultant. This was a large part of my work as Chief of Staff, and it's helped in my ability as a consultant to jump into these various environments with clients in the private sector. Many are early-stage startups and they are at a point where they have some critical decisions to make. My ability to look ahead—to weigh pros and cons, to evaluate implications and possible scenarios, to help them think through how they want to accomplish their goals—has been invaluable. It's those same "ninja skills" I used as a Chief of Staff.
If you were to hire your own Chief of Staff, what qualities would you look for?
I'd look for someone who was different from me, a good complement. I'd look for someone with a good combination of strengths and weaknesses that are opposite of my own and who could identify the blind spots. I wouldn't want a duplicate of me—I think people work stronger together as complements to one another rather than as carbon copies.