Chief of Staff (CoS) is a natural next step for an internal communicator, but what does it take to make the transition between these two roles? Delaney Rebernik shares her experiences and provides tips for those eyeing up CoS positions.

When my manager approached me with an opportunity to take on a fractional Chief of Staff (CoS) role for the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) of our global consulting firm, the thought of Selina Meyer skewering a hapless Ben Cafferty flashed through my mind.

Luckily, this gig—which I’d hold for a year before stepping into an expanded IC role and, later, making the leap to solopreneurship—would prove far more constructive (and less profane) than the one held by my Veep counterpart.

Make the unlikely connection

The role of Chief of Staff, though rooted in government, has been gaining ground in business over the past decade. Among the corporate set, CoSs support CEOs and, increasingly, other members of the C-suite. 

In my case, the firm’s CLO was looking for someone to help wrestle shape into a weekly strategy meeting for her team of more than 20 leaders who lived around the world, and my manager had pitched me based on my skill in project management and desire for career growth.

A CoS role isn’t the most intuitive next step for an internal communicator. But it’s a smart one.

Though the role itself can vary widely, its mandate is clear: to enable success for the supported executive and the broader organization. Often, that means transforming approaches to communications, operations, and decision making. 

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In short, it’s all about building people power. That’s why we, as internal communicators, with our penchant for wrangling rangy relationships and messages, can excel in it.

We can also see big wins: The average CoS salary globally is $158,500, according to The Chief of Staff Association’s (CSA) 2023 industry report. Nearly one in four respondents earn at least $250,000.

Dollars aside, the position can be a stepping stone to the C-suite: Facebook’s former COO Sheryl Sandberg is one of many high-profile company leaders who’s taken a turn as CoS. 

But even if your sights aren’t set C-ward—I can’t be the only ICer who’s comfier behind the scenes than on a corporate masthead—a CoS role offers valuable facetime with leaders and mentors who can help you level up however you want.  

So here’s how to make the leap—or pivot or toe-dip. The force of motion, much like the spectrum of duties, is up to you.

See the big picture

Today, some 5,000 people in the U.S. hold a CoS title, according to Zippia, though others have estimated as many as 68,000 are employed in this capacity, a testament to the flexible nature of the role.

“No two chiefs of staff have the same journey,” according to McKinsey & Company, which convenes 200 CoSs annually to discuss the profession’s state of play. “The responsibilities can range in scope from the administrative to the strategic depending on the organization’s needs and the relationship between the COS and the principal.”

Similarly, in his HBR article, “The Case for a Chief of Staff,”  leadership author and former CEO Dan Ciampa defines three CoS levels, progressing from tactical (level 1) to strategic (level 3).

Tenures are similarly fluid. CoS positions, which can be full-time or, like mine, fractional, are often designed as 1-2–year rotations, and those tapped are high-potential individuals in their second or third role at the company, McKinsey has found. At some organizations, particularly larger ones, the role is more senior, pulling a title of vice president or higher, according to BCG’s research.

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Draw the IC-CoS parallels

Don’t let the archetype of a corporate Chief of Staff—someone with an MBA and a finance or economics bent—deter you. The six modalities that CSA says drive success in the role look a lot like the qualities of powerhouse internal communications professionals:

  1. Strategy architect
  2. Network enabler
  3. Operations focused
  4. Alignment driven
  5. Outcome oriented
  6. Communication centric

Ditto the common responsibilities of a CoS, which BCG and talent acquisition company HuntClub say include:

  • Liaising between leaders and employees, including by acting as a proxy or extension for their executive in meetings with strategic partners, community members, industry stakeholders, and more.
  • Defining and driving strategic priorities, such as new product development, data analysis, and go-to-market plans, through cross-functional workstream and meeting management. 
  • Managing day-to-day operations and administrative systems.
  • Cascading strong, consistent messages throughout the organization using smart communication strategies and tools.
  • Shaping key aspects of employee performance and experience, such as hiring, capability building, organizational structuring, business reporting, and budgeting.

Envision your dream job

Based on these competencies and responsibilities, chart what your dream CoS job description would look like. My stint, for example, involved:

  • Convening firm leaders for ad hoc and standing meetings, including that fast-paced weekly strategy session. I gave these gatherings momentum by setting agendas, taking notes, and keeping people synced on decisions and next steps.
  • Shaping and shepherding core operations, including a quarterly OKR process and function-wide event calendar.
  • Distilling learning strategy into multichannel communications and talking points for the CLO and other executives to deliver to broad and influential audiences.
  • Driving special projects by, for example, designing curated in-person and virtual experiences and synthesizing insights for pitch decks and presentations.

In each of these duties, I relied on my internal communications instincts and training. My knowledge of how information flows helped me trim down complex processes, while my empathy and relationship management skills helped me manage up to get timely data and RSVPs.

Flex your muscles

To home in on what makes you a sure CoS bet, map your current skills and interests against the responsibilities in your dream job. I have a hunch that you’ll see significant overlap. Also note any areas where you could use some upskilling.

This will help you identify fractional or project-based opportunities to start flexing and growing your CoS muscles even if there aren’t any openings or the role doesn’t yet exist at your organization. Ask for your manager’s support here. Come with specific ideas about who and how you can help, emphasizing how your current skill sets make you the right person for the job.

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Leadership is a skill that can be learned and practiced, and this guide will help you be the leader your organization needs.

If, for example, you’ve identified relationship management and strategic planning as your strong suits, check your calendar for the next big cross-functional meeting and raise your hand to facilitate presentation development. Is there a recurring team or department reporting activity that always causes confusion? Offer to refine the communications plan, template, or process flow.

Also look to partner with leaders you’ve built rapport with. There’s a reason CoSs are likeliest to come from within the organization: They’re trusted entities with proven chops and deep institutional knowledge. This goes double for many ICers, who have a skybox view of teams and strategies.

Evolve your role

Once you have some CoS project work under your belt, think about how you’d like to grow, shrink, or replicate your role within or beyond your organization.

Just like the position itself, your options for what comes next are open ended. According to McKinsey, some people become serial CoSs, while others branch out into P&L ownership or line management, and still others pursue an entirely new discipline, such as executive coaching or academia.

For my part, as my responsibilities expanded, I guided the evolution of my fractional role into a rotation for early career consultants, who were thrilled at the prospect of engaging senior leaders.

To make the role right sized, I narrowed and systematized processes and coached my successors on essential skills like cross-functional management and strategic note taking.

After his rotation ended, one consultant gave me a hand-written note to thank me for helping him “grow as a professional and as a person.”

I’m just as grateful. 

Free guide: How to Be a Leader at Work

Leadership is a skill that can be learned and practiced, and this guide will help you be the leader your organization needs.