Interview with a Chief of Staff to the Managing Partner.
What can we learn about creativity from a Chief of Staff? That was my reason to book a conversation with a Chief of Staff to the Managing Partner at a professional services company in Ireland who has been with the company for almost 10 years.
The role of a Chief of staff has become legendary thanks to the characters Leo McGarry and CJ Cregg in the epic TV series “The West Wing.”
As Chief of Staff you are the eyes and ears of the person you are assisting (be that the President of the United States or Managing Partner of a company). You are also the gatekeeper that filters out who and what gets through, as well as the person who is expected to be one step ahead of the person they are working for and have all the relevant information and briefs ready. In the words of my interviewee: “I make sure the MP has all the information he needs to make decisions and have informed conversations and that those conversations are happening at the right time.”
I begin by asking: “What is the most valuable skill for a Chief of Staff?” and they replied: “To build trust and to galvanize people toward a common goal or purpose. People come to me with lots of different information that they want me to share with the MP and my job is to filter that and only give him what he actually needs. So I need people to trust that I can make that decision.”
When I asked what the best part of the job was, the reply was: “That (as Chief of Staff) you have a seat at the table but without the accountability or ownership of decision – there is a beauty in that.”
The beauty is the freedom that comes from having access to all the information but without having to make the final decisions. That allows you to take a contrarian role, to think broader or wider – to put things on the table that weren’t there.
A big part of the job is to “collect, share, and sift information.” By being at the top of the information pyramid, or the spider in the middle of the information web, if you like, it’s crucial that a Chief of Staff knows how to decide what information is “need to know” vs just “nice to know”. Not only to know what to filter away, but also to be able to catch that piece of crucial information that needs to get through.
With so much information flowing towards you how does one decide what to let through?
They explained: “You are not just skimming the information, it needs to be deeper than that, but at the same time you need to be aware that you cannot afford to go down any rabbit holes and get lost in detail.”
When I asked what this technique is called, the interviewee stopped and thought for a second and then burst out laughing: “Snorkelling! I am an information snorkeler!”
And that is an analogy that I instantly understood. The ability to be totally immersed without going deep.
The way to do that, according to the interviewee, is to have the confidence of not needing to know it all and the ability to know whom to ask when you need to find something out.
I think snorkeling is the perfect analogy also for how to approach information when we are creative, so I ask them for what makes a good “snorkeler”.
The reply was: “Be aware of the purpose of your pursuit, the why…and then trust in your ability to get the right information at the right time from the right people.”
The position of Chief of Staff requires someone to be confident, agile, purposeful and to be someone who values the importance of relationships built on trust and respect – “building and then maintaining trust is an ongoing commitment. The most important thing I hold is the trust of my boss.”
The job demands a person who is hugely organized, who knows how to build relationships, knows how to read a room, and how to judge and evaluate information and think on their toes. Someone like my interviewee.
Be inspired by how a professional Chief of Staff works with information.
Have the approach of “Snorkeling through” information in order to quickly and efficiently understand which information you need for your creative project and which information you do not need.
Be your own “Chief of Creativity”.
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