Chief of Staff Spotlight: Tenzin Khangsar
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 interview current and former Chiefs of Staff about their role as well as their personal motivations and secrets to performing it well.
Name: Tenzin Khangsar
Location: Vancouver, Canada
Current title: Principal, Snowlion Ventures, 2014-present
Former COS positions: Government of Canada: Chief of Staff, Office of the Minister of Industry (2011-12); Chief of Staff, Office of the President of the Treasury Board (2011-12); Deputy Chief of Staff – Director of Multicultural Affairs, Office of the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism (2008-10); Chief of Staff, Office to the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity (2007-08); Special Advisor to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (2006-07)
Industries: Government, Corporate, Nonprofit Organizations
Tell us about your business, Snowlion Ventures, how you got there, and the type of work you do.
All my business practices fall under Snowlion Ventures, the main part of which is what I describe as Chief of Staff as a Service. It's something I launched about a year and a half ago because of my background as an entrepreneur and political COS and the relationships I'd developed in that role. Politics and big corporations often go hand in hand, and being a COS in the Canadian government gave me deep exposure to a community of entrepreneurs. Through my work as COS, I developed some real, positive human relationships with people working in business who needed to collaborate with government. I never sat on a high horse in my role as “powerful” COS when I was dealing with people. I always got back to people, even when we couldn't fulfill a request. When I left government, I continued to have positive relationships with people in the private sector based on how I had interacted with them while I was in government.
Today I work mostly with businesses in the Chief of Staff as a Service capacity. Ultimately, people need help. I tell people that whether you're Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Mark Zuckerberg, everyone needs help. And because of my diverse background working in government, business, and nonprofit sectors, people refer me to others. When people trust you and they like you and they know you have experience in diverse industries, they trust that you can get anything done.
How does your background experience help you in this current role? Do you notice any difference in working with leaders in different sectors or countries?
When I look back at my career, most of my experiences have been in that role of the right-hand confidant. My first formal COS role was to a federal cabinet minister in the Canadian Government. In the first company I co-founded, I served as Vice President of Business Development and Marketing. In an early role in the non-profit sector, I was the #2 there, responsible for taking the organization to the next level. The list goes on. It wasn't what I set out to do, but it's been a rather karmic path to serve in the #2 role.
The differences I've found in working for leaders apply to the individuals, not to their industry or country. Being the COS means that you're ultimately a leader's alter ego. You must let them talk about what makes them happy and what makes them unhappy. It's all about the individual.
You work very much with the idea of serving the entire person, not just the "executive." Why is that important?
I'm very influenced and proud of my Buddhist background. Our religion teaches us to look at things holistically. Business is a subset of human relations, so I believe my job is to serve the entire individual. As an example, one of the best things I accomplished for one of my clients was finding him a family doctor. My client was so busy and he was not taking care of himself. He had gained a good deal of weight and was moody with his staff. I knew there was something wrong health-wise, so I set him up with an appointment with my own family doctor. My client then learned that he had severe sleep apnea, which was responsible for his weight gain and behavioral changes, and potentially very dangerous. It was my job not only to think about results for the business, but to get this executive back on a healthy track to improve his life overall.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I think it's helping clients understand what a Chief of Staff does. Some people view the COS role as a glorified Executive Staff Assistant, which it isn't. You also need to know when you are not a good match for a leader, when you're not a good alter ego. One of the most difficult things is when you realize that fit is not there. For that reason, I don't accept all clients and I try to end relationships that aren't working early. I think it's fair when I begin a relationship with a leader that we interview each other. The COS-leader relationship is a form of marriage, really. You become the work spouse in many ways. And like marriage, there's more to it than chores; it's about supporting another human's emotions and well-being. As a COS, I'm supporting the well-being of the company and the person to add value to business and humanity.
Very successful Type A entrepreneurs often don't think they need help of a COS. I remind them that it's impossible to be 100% objective about yourself, and that you need to balance your career with family, faith, and health. After all, what's the point of business success if you're unhealthy and you have unhealthy relations with family and friends? Entrepreneurs often hire for sales, marketing, development, etc. to drive corporate results but they often neglect about hiring for themselves to drive personal well-being.
Do you work with clients in person or remotely?
It's a combination of both. I've found that sometimes, the more sensitive the situation, the more that working with a leader in person matters. It can be lonely at the top for an executive, who usually only has family, investors, board members, and employees to talk to. Sometimes they just need someone outside of the company and family to talk with about business and life. They want to know the person they're hiring is there to help them with all the issues. I think people work with me because I'm likeable, credible, and resourceful. It's not uncommon that even in an initial phone call with a potential client, I hear about some of the problems they're working with, and we'll start brainstorming solutions right away.
What do you think defines a successful relationship with a client? How do you establish trust and rapport with a leader?
For me it's about the fit with the individual. I also like someone who is likeable and whose values align with my own. I particularly like working for a mission-driven organization.
I take a lot of pride in my background and track record. I've worked in non-profit sectors with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, at the highest level of government in Canada, for large corporations like Deloitte, and for myself. I think this track record earns me some amount of trust, but it's not until we sit down together and talk about our journeys, challenges, and vulnerabilities that you can really build trust. Anyone can flash a resume, but once you sit down with someone, you connect. It takes time to build.
What's one piece of advice you would give to someone who is considering a career as a Chief of Staff?
Listen much more than you speak. I like the saying that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak. As a COS, it's your job to listen, perceive, and analyze before you act. You're often going to be working for a Type A leader who moves quickly. As the alter ego to this individual, part of your job is protecting the leader from himself or herself. I think that 90% of the job of a COS is getting the job done before the boss asks or realizes a task is needed. The other 10% is giving fearless advice. You're a disservice to your client if you can't speak honestly. You must learn with every leader you work with how and when it's best to deliver news, good and bad. Take the time to learn your leader's patterns and analyze when it's best to deliver these messages because it matters.