by Edward Qualtrough

How a chief of staff can help your CIO or CTO function

Mar 12, 202014 mins
CareersIT Leadership

CIO UK heard from CIOs, CTOs and their chiefs of staff about the role, responsibilities, and value the role can provide to a technology function and the whole organisation.

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Credit: Getty Images

The chief of staff role is less established outside of the US, and is probably best known — if not entirely understood — to many for its White House connotations as the President’s private secretary. Indeed, “private secretary to the president” was the former title of the presidential assistant, gatekeeper, Rasputin, enforcer and influencer role in the 19th century and up to 1946 when Harry S Truman appointed John Steelman as his chief of staff.

Chief of staff roles have been utilised in larger corporations and goverment institutions in the US and beyond for some years, while a more recent trend has been for the appointment of chiefs of staff in Office of the CIO functions to ensure the smooth running of technology operations.

CIO UK caught up with CIOs, CTOs and chiefs of staff from the end-user technology side, as well as the CEO, CIO and CTO shiefs of staff from US integration and analytics software provider Tibco to discuss the role and responsibilities, as well as the benefits, and why your function might want to consider appointing a CIO or CTO chief of staff.

CIO chief of staff: academic and professional background

Belinda Finch is CIO of group functions and chief of staff at UK multinational energy and services company Centrica. With an MSc in software engineering, her first role after university was as a Cobol programmer in the Bank of England mitigating the Y2K bug.

She said that moving into a big consulting firm as a business integration lead exposed her more to the business and commercial side, providing the foundations to lead transformation initiatives and eventually take on the CIO and chief of staff role at Centrica.

“As a consultant you have to learn about everything from finances and resourcing to internal processes and standards along with your deep technical or functional knowledge and this is key to a chief of staff — you need to get involved in absolutely everything,” she said.

At Tibco, Lynn Esqueda is chief of staff to CIO Sharon Mandell. Esqueda was an orthopaedic technician for 20 years before a favourite patient offered a role at Tibco, which she described as an “unexpected and awesome experience”. Starting as an IT billing specialist with various other IT roles, Esqueda was asked by Tibco COO Matt Quinn to take on the chief of staff role for new CIO Mandell, believing Esqueda’s understanding of the organisational culture and relationships across the organisation would help Mandell hit the ground running.

Greg James is Office of the CTO chief of staff at Tibco, and was also a coder after studying computer science with a minor in business administration. James has been a DBA and led database teams, managed pre-sales technical teams for a software vendor, and believes that being exposed to marketing, talent management, client acquisition and at Tibco working on technology projects across departmental lines has helped him in his role as chief of staff to CTO Nelson Petracek.

Steve Hoffman is VP and chief of staff at Tibco, and his background suggests that overseeing a CEO function might require more communications and business experience. With a degree in English literature from Stanford with an emphasis on creative writing, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, Hoffman worked in product managemnt, business development, product marketing, supply chain operations, business planning and executive communications at HP for 20 years before he was appointed as their chief of staff.

CIO chief of staf: role and responsibilities

Finch described her duties as CIO of Group Functions and chief of staff at Centrica. “My role is to identify and work on how technology can deliver Centrica’s group-wide priorities, to become more customer obsesed and competitive, ensuring our people have the right tools to do their jobs from British Gas engineers to energy traders,” she said. “We have 25 million customers worldwide and a complicated technology stack. I get involved in corporate planning with our executive committee, operations, HR, finance and also customer issues if needed. We have an IT roadmap for longer-term planning and agree daily and weekly priorities.

“I have a technical background, so this helps me work effectively with senior non-IT colleagues. I have to anticipate and prioritise effectively, lead multiple teams and deal with C-suite stakeholders on a daily basis. I think a key competency for this role is a cool head as we work at pace. I’m in a lot of meetings so I am strict on the things I need to deal with. One of the drawbacks of a chief of staff is that you can end up being involved in and doing absolutely everything, so prioritising things based on executive priorities is key.”

Former CIO 100 leader, Richard Corbridge, had a chief of staff for the Office of the CIO when he was CIO for the Health Service Executive in Ireland. He described the chief of staff role as “an extension of the CIO role”.

“My CoS in Ireland brought new thinking to the leadership team, created a culture of design thinking and growth mindset, introduced the use of social media as a force for good and ‘connected, connected connected’,” Corbridge said. “The CoS found the right connections to make and because of this added to the credibility of the CIO role. But, the CoS focused internally at the same time, and that for me is the key and what was needed, a reminder to turn around and make sure the team were running behind the CIO.

“The chief of staff kept the CIO on the straight and narrow around process and reminded the wider organisation of the need for change.”

Tibco CTO Petracek said his chief of staff “manages most of my team’s day-to-day activities, and is also key in driving forward many of our strategies and programmes”.

“In general I’d say a huge part of the role is simply covering many of the details I just can’t cover — whether these details are related to rolling out a new idea or collaborating in technology areas in which we are going to focus,” the CTO said.

CTO chief of staff James echoed that “a large part of my job is taking care of the staff within the organisation”.

He added that being focused on both the team and the back-office function could help Tibco CTO Petracek be more customer-facing.

“The main role of the chief of staff is to drive the vision of the executive that you work for,” James said. “That can mean many things and is sometimes as simple as aligning the team underneath you. However, it can also be as complicated as bringing multiple departments and multiple groups together and getting alignment, driving consensus. In summary, my main job is taking care of the people that are part of the organisation underneath us and executing the CTO vision.”

CIO chief of staff: competencies

Tibco CIO Mandell’s chief of staff, Esqueda, sees the core professional competencies as problem solving and being a good manager of people.

“The competencies are vast and range from being politically savvy, able to simplify complex issues, being adept at developing talent and having excellent communication skills, all the way through to be able to anticipate issues, recognise the root causes of problems and applying creative problem solving,” she said.

Operating at the CEO level, Hoffman believes it’s crucial to understand the financial and operating cadence of the business, as well as being a trusted confidant and a quasi-pastoral leader for the organisation.

“You must understand the financial model of the business,” he said. “Every function has its own set of metrics and analytics. Each function will have its experts, and you need to be able to dive into details with them. You’re always learning, so whatever you don’t know can be handled with lots of curiosity and good listening skills.

“Your success ultimately comes down to how much your exec, their leadership team, the whole organisation trusts you. Can they count on you for accurate information? Can they vent to you knowing it doesn’t go further? Productive relationships are built on trust. Those relationships are key to your effectiveness. You have the opportunity to really get to know people in this role. It’s a privilege and one of the more rewarding parts of my job.

“If you’re doing the job well, you’re working with an incredibly wide range of people. You have to be able to Slack anyone in the company and get a quick answer. It helps to share why you’re asking for whatever it is you’re searching for. You’ll likely get a better answer than you expected. In that universe, one of the most important relationships you’ll have is with the executive assistant. Be clear about who does what and it will be a fantastic partnership. I try to remember to end every encounter by asking: ‘How can I help here?'”

CIO chief of staff: Does your CIO function need one?

Tibco CIO Mandell believes that “the key benefit is scaling my voice, perspective and priorities across my organisation, and outside of it, when I can’t be everywhere” and added that the role makes sense in organisations of a certain scale.

“With respect to having a CIO chief of staff, I see size of the organisation only as a proxy for complexity, capacity and pace of change,” Mandell said. “Organisations of a larger size require more coordination and communication to make cross-functional initiatives happen. One person struggles to do that on their own. And the size of the IT function tends to grow with overall company size, driving more siloes within the department itself, so some horizontal functions emerge that require management, or perhaps an Office of the CIO.

“The notion that you can easily have all the visibility and influence you need on your own is a bit naive — even in organisations I wouldn’t describe as huge. A strong chief of staff, and other supporting players, can really be invaluable to keep your arms around things.”

CTO Petracek and chief of staff James both referenced speed and change as why CTO functions should include a chief of staff post.

“Having a chief of staff is very important,” Petracek said. “Given the rate at which things change and the speed at which we must operate, it is very difficult for a CIO, CTO or CEO to be everywhere and manage all aspects and details of their day. These details cannot be dropped or forgotten — they need to be carried forward and executed against — something that a chief of staff can help achieve.

“In my opinion, the role is essential — it’s critical that you have someone that can almost act as an extension of yourself, so you can be in more than one place at the same time. I don’t know how I’d manage without the role.”

James added that the chief of staff role is showing up more and more: “[It’s] impossible for C-level titles to keep up with everything that’s going on, and to also be mindful of their staff, to be mindful of the tactical things that need to happen every day to drive their strategy.

“If executives don’t have a chief of staff, or similar role, given the speed of business today, I would guess that they’re falling behind, and that the company is slipping. The role is critical.”

Centrica’s Finch also espoused the benefits, and recommended the role for organisations of a certain size.

“Creating a role like this brings many benefits, especially when you’re delivering a large-scale technology transformation,” Finch said. “Every organisation is different, but in my experience, it means the chief of staff can deliver directly on key issues, supporting the leader by deputising, making decisions, leading key programmes or building a big and stronger network to deliver. If there are busy times, having the support in place for the leader leads to accelerated results.”

Corbridge agreed, recalling that at HSE the chief of staff became one of the “heroes” of the organisation.

“The creation of the chief of staff role was originally met with resistance in Ireland,” he said. “The moment this changed was with the realisation that the role meant access, a way to now get to the CIO more quickly, with more clarity, with more immediate impact, when this dawned upon the team they accepted, embraced and fell in love with having a CoS. The CoS could deliver these functions for the wider team and therefore the speed of the digital agenda increased tenfold, the team could achieve its goals. At this point the CoS became the hero role!

“My CoS became an extension of the brain with a new and different diversity ‘chip’ inside it, simply by virtue that the CoS has a different value system and not having to focus on the C-suite demands. My CoS was one of the kindest most people-focused people I have ever worked with and enabled me as the CIO to focus up and out, whilst the CoS made sure I was present in the right internal conversations.”

Corbridge, though, warned that the chief of staff role should not become generic and recommended avoiding making a modish chief of staff appointment. “It has to be recruited to match the skill set, culture and leadership style of the CIO,” he said. “If the role becomes a generic role then I believe it will simply become a more senior administrative role.”

CIO chief of staff: final thoughts

Beyond recommending that CIOs consider hiring a chief of staff, Mandell said that she believes the position will become increasingly strategic and important.

“The pace of change is increasing, along with complexity,” she said. “Speed wins, so becoming an individual or departmental bottleneck degrades business results. As a result, I believe the chief of staff role will become increasingly strategic, with the internally focused, ‘keep the trains running on time’ duties becoming less and less important to the job.

“This will require the chief of staff to deeply understand the company’s strategy, how all the work IT does contributes to it, and then perceive how the CIO would likely respond to questions and changes in the plan to execute that strategy — all when the CIO can’t always be in the room. Having their own voice be respected in those situations will require significant confidence, as well as leadership and communications skills.”

Hoffman, a chief of staff for half a dozen years, linked the position with the ‘Information’ part of the CIO role.

“A chief of staff helps bridge an organisation, starting at the top,” he said. “One colleague described it as being the ‘copper wire’ of the organisation in that you conduct maximum information with minimal loss. That flow of information sets context which helps an organisation make better decisions sooner.”

For further reading about the job of chief of staff, Hoffman recommend Chris Fussell’s One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, which includes an appendix specifically on the chief of staff. Another great read, according to Hoffman, is Captain Class by Sam Walker.

“His characterisation of the ‘water carrier’ is a powerful metaphor for servant leadership,” Hoffman said. “It’s a helpful mentality in this role where you’re often essential but not always in the spotlight.”