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Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff?

Understanding the differences between the roles to make better decisions for your career or your company.

Running an organization takes tremendous management from a well-rounded team. Recent trends show a shift in organizational structure, with Chief of Staff positions being more and more prevalent within companies, in addition to the role of Executive Assistant. No, they are not the same!

The main function of Executive Assistants and Chief of Staff is the same: maximize an executive’s time, productivity, and impact. They naturally share many of the same qualities: organization, meticulousness, reliability, diplomacy, and resourcefulness. The key difference between the roles, broadly speaking, is that a CoS role is more strategic, while an EA’s role is more tactical.

The roles of EA and CoS are decidedly different. While they both bring sharp gains in productivity, they do so by supporting the executive in different areas:

  • The EA supports their executive directly to allow them to be better organized and perform to their fullest potential.
  • The CoS is a more independent role, more akin to that of a business partner. They work autonomously and do not handle day-to-day schedules and correspondences.

The Executive Assistant

The core responsibility of an Executive Assistant is to handle all administrative tasks to ensure the executive’s day runs smoothly: calendar management, travel arrangements, expenses, and more. They are absolutely critical role for optimizing an executive’s time.

EAs are the gatekeepers and first point of contact for their executive, reducing interruptions to their workflow. Beyond the administrative role they occupy, an experienced Assistant may create processes, manage projects, and ensure tasks stay on track. They are usually involved in event planning and team culture initiatives.

The Chief of Staff

The core responsibility of a Chief of Staff is to be a senior-level strategic partner to help an executive accomplish their work: planning, project management, communications, relationships. They usually do not handle day-to-day administrative tasks. They often come from a background in finance, consulting, or operations, and often developed into this role from being an Executive Assistant.

Unlike other executives who have their own departmental agendas, the COS usually has a company-wide perspective and often manages projects for a variety of teams. The COS works with the executive to create strategies, actionable steps, and OKRs. They also follow-up with all involved stakeholders to ensure a task’s completion.

The main part of the role is communication, as they are responsible for information flow across the organization. They often communicate and even make decisions on behalf of their executive, reflecting their ideas and style, and might stand in for them while unavailable.

Signs that an organization would benefit from a Chief of Staff

1. Concerns about productivity;

2. Poor information flow resulting in slow decision-making;

3. Wasted time in back-and-forth and follow-ups.

The role of Chief of Staff is an excellent career progression for experienced Executive Assistants who enjoy and understand business development and would like to occupy a more strategic role. However, it is important to understand the intrinsic value of both of these roles independently: they are not competition but rather the essential cogs that make the executive suite wheel go smoothly.

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