Leaving My Chief of Staff Role

By Catherine Berardi, CEO of Prime Chief of Staff

Leaving any job can be difficult. Leaving my Chief of Staff role was incredibly difficult.

I served in a Chief of Staff role to the President of Ariel Investments. I had a very close relationship with my boss. She often described me as not only her right hand, but her right arm and hip, too. We experienced many things together from professional challenges to personal feats. Through it all, I learned more during my time as Chief of Staff than I had in all my years as a professional to that point. That is how monumental this role was for me.

I decided to leave my post for two reasons: first, I had an idea for my own company (Prime Chief of Staff); and second, I knew I did not want to run Ariel. Unlike some principals, my boss was vocal about my career path. She made it clear she wanted me to succeed her. Of course, I considered it seriously. Being afforded that kind of opportunity is not one you take likely. But at the end of the day, I knew it was her dream, but not mine.

I made the final decision to leave my Chief of Staff post shortly after my boss had her child. I felt as though she would be entering a new phase of her life and Ariel was doing really well (and still is).

Delivering departure news is never easy, but my boss was supportive of my decision to leave. She told me I would be great in whatever I did, but her vote of confidence did not make leaving any easier. We were very close. My life became hers in many ways. To some degree, my thoughts were hers as well. As many Chiefs of Staff know, the partnership with your boss is not something you can easily unplug.

When I look back on my decision to leave, I ask myself if it was the right time to do so. I will never know, that answer, but I do know that it was important for me to carry what I learned from my role forward.

My Chief of Staff role was created when I assumed it. There was no position description. There were no guardrails or rules of what I should or should not do. My boss told me, “I need help and I need you to figure out how to help me.” I made up a lot as I went, but I understood my mission was to provide her leverage that she otherwise would not have. I knew coming to her with problems would not solve anything. I knew that my job was to empower others to do more, so she was taking on less.

I gave my boss a little over six weeks’ notice. No amount of time would be enough, but I knew when I told her my desire to leave, the time we had left would be somewhat challenging. Why? Our relationship fundamentally changed. We were hip-to-hip on everything to that point. Her goals were mine. Telling her I was leaving made it clear that my goals were no longer the same. And that is not easy for anyone to hear.

Some of the advice below I followed and some of it I did not, but I think all of it is helpful for anyone considering leaving their Chief of Staff role:

  •  Be open about your goals with your principal as much as possible. If you know you do not want to live in your current city forever or you plan to start a family in a couple of years or you simply know that the industry you are in is not your end-game, try to be open and upfront about it. You don’t want your departure from the role to come too much as a surprise. Communicate what you hope to gain during your time as Chief of Staff, so you understand when it may be time to go.

  • Consider helping your principal find your replacement, but don’t stand in the way of someone else being successful. You should want someone to be more successful than you in the role, so be sure to provide realism and offer guidance for the next person. You may even have the chance to deputize your replacement. If you are staying with the company, encourage the principal to build rapport and trust with their new Chief of Staff rather than hanging on to you. Give someone else the opportunities you had. You may need to create distance or space with your principal for some time, so they learn to adjust to someone else.

  • Have an idea of where you will go following your Chief of Staff role. Understand that your next role may not even exist yet, but you already know how to create roles from scratch (you most likely did it as Chief of Staff). Think of your exit strategy during your time in the role and communicate how long you expect to be in your Chief of Staff role as early as you can. Share what energizes you most about your work, so perhaps your principal or others can present opportunities that may fit.

  • Consider taking a few weeks off between your Chief of Staff role and whatever comes next. This role can be mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. My tenure felt like a whirlwind and sometimes I don’t even remember it all. It is nice to have time to self-reflect on your experiences and what you learned before starting the next chapter.

I think it is clear the role of Chief of Staff had a lasting impact on me. I joke that I enjoyed the role so much, I married it. It is now my life’s work to promote and empower the role around the world at Prime Chief of Staff.

When did you decide to leave your Chief of Staff role? What was your experience? What advice would you give your fellow peers?