Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

The CIO’s chief of staff: A force multiplier

Sep 26, 2019
CareersIT Leadership

CIOs can’t do everything themselves. They need someone to help manage strategy and innovation. Enter the chief of staff.

collaboration meeting talking discussion corporate
Credit: Thinkstock

The CIO role in the digital age is more demanding than ever. According to MIT’s George Westerman, “There has never been a better time to be a great CIO, nor a worse time to be an average one.” Great CIOs know they can’t do it all alone, though. We’ve discussed the HR business partner and communications lead, but no role is more vital to a successful CIO than the chief of staff.

Wait a minute, some readers might say. Doesn’t the chief of staff just schedule meetings and take notes and stuff?

That’s outdated thinking. Without question, the chief of staff is sometimes lead wrangler and head logistics officer, but leading IT organizations are filling this role with talented leaders who manage strategy and innovation, not calendars.

The Estée Lauder Companies’ CIO, Michael W. Smith, swears by the value of a good chief of staff: “This role is a natural extension of the CIO and allows him or her to work with other stakeholders and executives across the business,” he says.

Chief of staff core skills

If the role is so often restricted to functional administration, how can CIOs define a larger, more strategic scope — and fill it with the right partner? Talking to a trio of stellar chiefs of staff, I learned there are three core skills, plus a key secret ingredient, that define the kind of chief of staff who can help a CIO lead IT, and the business, forward.

Resilience: Never a dull moment

Effective chiefs of staff readily adapt to a changing business environment because the rug will get pulled out from under them.

“Somebody once described part of this role as being like a Roomba,” says The Estée Lauder Companies’ Kimberly Saxton. “You hit an obstacle and then you back up and try again from a different angle until you get around it.”

Saxton held three chief of staff roles with Michael Smith — and she says even with the same executive, circumstances shaped both the overall role and the day-to-day, every time.

“It shifted tremendously based on the organizational needs, the strategy needed, the unique nuances of the organization’s culture, and where the IT department had been in its evolution,” she says.

Stephanie Seugling is chief of staff to TIAA Head of Client Services Technology Darrell Fernandes, and though she has carved out a sizable scope of responsibility, she also faces — and embraces — unpredictability. She says that while 60% of her time is spent on defined responsibilities around workforce and financial management, and a focus on stability, governance and accountability, there’s also “this other, kind of random 40%, which I love.”

“I know that’s definitely not the case with a lot of folks,” she says, “but I like problem solving. I like the energy and being able to execute.”

Niki Allen, who was chief of staff to Boeing CIO Ted Colbert, says about 25% of her day-to-day felt structured and predictable, with as much as 75% of it requiring that up-for-anything MacGyver adaptability.

“This role requires pure perseverance,” she says. “You’ve got to be a little bit of a utility player who’s not afraid to deal with a lot of white space.”

“Be open to be falling in love with the problem,” Seugling says, “and just roll up your sleeves, dive in and have fun with it.”

Strategic mindset: Trusted advisor and force multiplier

“Critical thinking is huge,” says Allen. She specifically defined her chief of staff role in terms of strategy and says she quickly was seen as “chief strategic advisor.” By the time she left the role, she led a 90-person team with responsibility for global sourcing and data strategies, M&A integration, and IT operations.

That’s considerable growth for a position that was entirely functional under her predecessor, but it’s exactly what Colbert needed to lead a high-tech company through an ambitious digital transformation.

You have to have the confidence to lead even when there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Niki Allen, former chief of staff to Boeing’s CIO

Effective problem solving and the ability to think creatively not only make the chief of staff a reliable advisor and partner to the CIO, but they make the role a force multiplier, as Kim Saxton puts it.

“I knew that for Ted to be able to lead our digital transformation successfully, he couldn’t be everywhere,” Allen says. “The more a CIO can position the chief of staff to be a proxy, the stronger the opportunity to not only set a foundation and a vision for the organization, but to actually deliver on it.”

Relationships: Leadership and influence

The chief of staff often must influence without direct authority. Fostering collaborative relationships and building consensus in a matrixed, networked environment requires a lot of emotional intelligence, tremendous empathy, and an ability to be both an ally and an inspiration.

“I like to say I have a thousand people working for me, because that’s who’s under Darrell,” Seugling says. “But how I lead is through influence, direct communication, and transparency.”

All three women told me that a chief of staff also has to be able to lead from the front.

“You have to have the confidence to lead even when there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Allen says.

Chemistry: The secret sauce

Strategy, leadership, and resilience are important in many strategic roles. But a unique quality that every chief of staff cited was the specific dynamic with their executive.

“It’s a unique relationship,” Seugling says. “I haven’t seen chiefs of staff succeed without that chemistry, and without a lot of trust, which is earned by delivery. That trust ensures that you can be candid and clear with each other and supportive.”

Trust and a strong relationship, says Saxton, which means being able to walk up to your executive and say, “No, your idea doesn’t work, and here’s why.”

“I would never contradict the CIO in a meeting because I was there to support him,” she notes. “But outside of the meeting, I was always willing to have conversations like, ‘Hey, maybe we could have handled this another way,’ or ‘Here’s where maybe we want to think differently.’”

Developing new leaders

When you put such remarkable players into this key position, you’re also helping to create future leaders for your organization.

Case in point: Boeing’s Colbert was a chief of staff earlier in his career. “Serving as a chief of staff to the CIO allows you to see much broader dimensions of leadership as it relates to relationships and company strategy,” he explains. “When you move on to the next role, your decision making has better alignment with the strategic intent of the company.”

It sure seems like it. Allen is now Boeing’s vice president of HR transformation, leading rollout and adoption of new HR systems that touch 155,000 employees in 65 countries, as well as the company’s extensive alumni network. Saxton is vice president of Estée Lauder’s Clinique brand operations, helping to shape and execute strategy for that global line. And Seugling, in her current high-profile role as both chief of staff and director of production services portfolio operations, is eying her further evolution as well.

“This role gives you the depth and the breadth of running a business, and the exposure is amazing,” she says. 

Today’s CIO is called upon to be many things: An innovator with an eye for business, as well as technology; a leader who drives change; and an inspirational magnet for talent. But no executive is an island, and the most successful CIOs know that it takes a trusted lieutenant to both personify and execute on these ambitious goals.

Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."