Chief of Staff Spotlight: Katie Aholt
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: Katie Aholt
Location: New York, NY
Current title: Chief of Staff, Understood for Parents 2017-present
Former Titles: Chief of Staff, Teach For All (2015-2017), Special Projects Manager, Harlem Village Academies (2014-2015), Senior Associate- CEO Support & Special Projects, Teach for All (2010-2013)
Industry: Non-profit management, Education
How did you find your Chief of Staff role, and how did your background help you prepare for it?
I discovered the Chief of Staff role with Understood through Prime Chief of Staff. They reached out to me, asking about my interest based on my background in education, non-profit management, and experience as Chief of Staff to an executive.
Throughout my career, I've pursued roles that have at their core been about enabling people to live into their full potential and become their best selves. Starting out as a fourth grade teacher in a public school right outside Washington D.C. was by far the hardest job I’ve had to date; seriously! And while it was incredibly fulfilling , I couldn’t help but ask myself if teaching was the best and only way for me to have the most impact. After graduate school, I started thinking about my interest in resources and helping teachers. I wanted to do program management, but I was offered a position in the CEO’s office at Teach America. I started as an administrative assistant to Wendy Kopp, the CEO, but it evolved in to a role taking on special projects when she transitioned to the full time CEO of Teach For All. From there, it grew in to her chief of staff .
The role was humbling to see all that it takes to run a CEO’s office. I had to know the nitty-gritty details as well as keep in mind the big picture. I never saw myself as too good for any type of work, but also learned to work at an executive level. Building relationships was a huge part of my role. I am a people person and believe in the “you catch more bees with honey” approach to build allies and influence. I saw myself on everyone’s team, which connected me to the impact of everyone’s work.
Tell us a little bit about your responsibilities in your roles as Chief of Staff.
Now I serve as the Chief of Staff to Kevin Hager, Managing Director of Understood. I am the support structure for our team’s leadership team by serving as a liaison for Kevin on a regular basis to others inside and outside the organization; overseeing all administrative, financial, and operational activities for Kevin, and acting a thought-partner and pro-active problem-solver and communicator for Kevin and the team. My strengths lie in execution so I am always thinking: “Let’s figure out the action items and make sure it all gets done.” I share feedback on ideas, and help Kevin think about “what does it take to get that done?”
How long did it take you to feel comfortable with Kevin, and what helped you establish that trust and rapport?
We are such a great fit. Our first meeting was very conversational and we’ve had a great rapport ever since. Although we get along very well, it took some time to learn the context, the organization, and Kevin’s workstyle. Kevin is incredibly approachable and thoughtful, and so from day 1, I have always felt that I could be open and honest with him as I learned the organization or had questions about how things had been done in the past.
How would you describe the overall mission of your role at Understood.org?
Supporting our Managing Director to provide operational oversight over the team so that major goals and objectives are constantly moving full steam ahead. I’m working with team members across functional areas and program teams to coordinate shared project goals, to identify a clear division of labor and to create efficiencies wherever as well as establish cadence of the work. Additionally, I am focusing on building relationships and understanding the needs and challenges of the team(s).
Give us one lesson you learned from your experience in this role.
When you work closely with an executive, it is your responsibility to figure out how he or she works best and what sort of support they need to be effective and adapt accordingly. In my last position, I corresponded quickly and frequently with the CEO via email. In this role, email is not always the best way to communicate, but our face-to-face interactions are much more productive. I just had to figure out how get in rhythm with a new way to operate.
What advice would you give someone considering a role as Chief of Staff?
To be really successful in the role of Chief of Staff you must truly enjoy whomever you are supporting as a human and be able to practice deep empathy at every corner for him/her. Their priorities are your priorities, and if those priorities don’t align, it will be a long road to hoe for you, the leader, and eventually the organization. Professionally, you want to work in an industry or for an organization you are passionate about. Personally, you want to work for someone you are proud to represent and to advocate for their vision.