Yet despite the position gaining in popularity — there are 16,000 listings on LinkedIn for chief of staff jobs — there's still no one direct route or a specific career path for it. "There's no class to take to become a chief of staff," said Parris. Some people, like Berardi, have worked with the CEO in another capacity or even at a different company and have developed a good rapport. Others start off in the job, needing to establish trust and open communication within the first few months.
The latter describes the dynamic between Myla Skinner and Jeff Nelson, co-founder and CEO of OneGoal, a national college-access organization that works with students in low-income communities through high school and their first year of college. Skinner has been Nelson's chief of staff since February and said the role allows her to be involved with every aspect of OneGoal's operations.
However, before she was able to be effective in the job she and Nelson spent a lot of time talking. "I didn't know Jeff before I took the position," she said. "But in those early days, we had to be very thoughtful and intentional in getting to know each other personally first and then building the work from there. He probably knows more about me than some of my closest friends."
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In addition to making sure Nelson is focused on his most important priorities within the organization, such as fundraising and hiring, Skinner said she provides him with below-the surface intel that he might otherwise miss. For instance, while helping Nelson prepare his opening speech for an upcoming company retreat, Skinner is able to let him know the points he needs to go deeper with and where he might be missing the mark. "I know how to read a room and understand how people are reacting to him or let him know how his delivery is perhaps impacting his meaning," she said. "I wouldn't say we're work spouses. We're more like work siblings."
Caroline Pugh is chief of staff for Aneesh Chopra, president of CareJourney, a health-care data analytics firm based in Washington, D.C. While in college at Virginia Tech, Pugh formed a health-care tech start-up and was familiar with Chopra and his work. (He was also the first chief technology officer of the U.S. under President Barack Obama.) She eventually folded her company and moved to Washington, D.C. There she connected with Chopra as he was starting CareJourney and he offered her the job of chief of staff.
"He did a good job of explaining his life and all the different aspects of his position in the company but then said, 'Why don't you just follow me around for a day,'" Pugh recalled. "One day in his world made me see how complex it was." In the two years that she's been Chopra's CoS, Pugh said she's learned how to prioritize his time, putting off conversations and meetings with various stakeholders that can happen later to make room for ones that he needs to have sooner.
"I think the most important task of a CoS is predicting the next thing that's going to happen," Pugh said. "At this point in my time with Aneesh, if he calls me early in the morning, I already know why he's calling and what he's going to need me to do. We're on the same page."
Beyond her work with the boss, Pugh has also seen her responsibilities expand into business development, marketing and public engagement. "I feel fulfilled and challenged every day in my role with this company and in the effect it can have in reshaping health care," she said.
Her role as CoS also made Pugh realize that there was no network for these professionals to share best practices or even work lessons. "Before I took the job with Aneesh, I cold-called 100 different chiefs of staff, asking to learn more about what the position entails," she said. She's since created a CoS peer group in D.C. and is working with Berardi to launch an online membership network for prospective and current chiefs of staff. The site is scheduled to go live on Oct. 1 and will connect local groups from all over the country and possibly in other countries.
Of course, being a chief of staff isn't a job suitable for everyone, Berardi noted. After all, "it requires that you prioritize someone else's wants and needs above your own," she said. But if you're looking for one-of-a-kind exposure into how a business operates and the ability to develop a robust skill set that can set you up for any leadership position, it might be hard to beat.