What the President Looks for in a Chief of Staff

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Here is what a president looks for in a new chief of staff – the three qualities that matter most.

In this series of articles, experienced chiefs of staff offer critical advice on managing the chief of staff role. We will share their answers to questions such as these:

  1. How do you make yourself available as a liaison to faculty without appearing as a gatekeeper for the president?
  2. What words of wisdom would you want to offer to a chief of staff who has been in the role for a while?
  3. We know the chief of staff position can feel isolating at times. Thinking back, what were some of the most helpful resources to you in getting up to speed?
  4. When considering hiring a chief of staff, what are some absolutely crucial competencies or traits that presidents look for in a candidate?
  5. What does a new chief of staff most need to know, and which relationships do you need to build from the first day of your job as chief of staff?
  6. What are key skills that chiefs of staff need to build in order to best handle crises on campus?
  7. What are one to two key steps chiefs of staff must take in order to best serve their institution during presidential transitions?

Contributors to this series include:

We hope you will enjoy the series and share each article with your peers. If you find these articles useful, please consider attending and learning from these and other experts at these virtual trainings:

Today, here is the fourth installment in our series:

4. What Do Presidents Look for in a Chief of Staff?

Academic Impressions. Karen, from your vantage point as a president emeritus, could you share a president’s perspective with us? When considering hiring a Chief of Staff, what are some absolutely crucial competencies or traits (beyond the basic, obvious ones) that you look for in a candidate?

Image of Karen WhitneyKaren Whitney, Clarion University. As a president, when hiring a chief of staff (COS) it is about “the fit” with my approach to leadership and management.

To be hired and to succeed as a COS, the 3 must-have competencies are:

Trust | Judgment | Disposition

The chief of staff must be highly trustworthy and be able to build trust with others throughout the university/system. Trust is hard earned and easily lost. Trust is built by doing what you say and saying what you do—one conversation, meeting, or email at a time. Trust is the COS being the “steady rudder” in a sea of chaos. A COS trust builder is able to convey in a positive and assuring manner the president’s position/action at any given moment. The most important trust is between the COS and the president. In fact, that trust-relationship must be so strong that it is known throughout the organization.

Judgment is key to a successful COS appointment. Much of the work of the COS involves independently working the gap between the president and others. Given the speed of leadership and management in higher education today, there will be moments that the COS will have to make a decision and/or act without “checking with the boss.”

Disposition may be the most crucial and challenging quality, in that the COS often speaks for the president and is not the president. The COS has to present an executive gravitas while not acting in a way that conveys “a shadow president” status.  They are an extension of the president. The COS is working on behalf of the president. Therefore, the COS must have an extraordinary understanding of the president, so that talking/working with the COS is an effective extension of working with the president.
Image Credit: The photo at the top of the page is by Thomas Drouault on Unsplash 

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If you find these articles useful, please consider attending and learning from these and other experts at these virtual trainings:

If you’d like to join a cohort of chiefs of staff and chief strategy officers to delve into the issues impacting higher education, join us in Denver for Driving Institutional Strategy as a Chief Strategist or Chief of Staff, taking place July 22 – July 23, 2024.