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Chief of Staff vs. Executive Assistant: Which Do You Need?

Chiefs of staff and executive assistants both support CEOs and other management positions, but a chief of staff takes a more strategic and proactive approach.

Key takeaways: 

Chiefs of staff:

  • Ensures the CEO’s scheduled activities align with their vision.
  • Optimizes processes to save time and improve organizational efficiency.
  • Nurtures relationships with internal and external stakeholders.
  • Ensures the CEO focuses on the right questions and acts as an experienced sounding board. 
  • Helps the CEO shape their strategy and purpose.

Executive assistant:

  • Helps the CEO manage the minutia of their calendars. 
  • Performs and oversees administrative tasks for the CEO.
  • Acts as a gatekeeper to the CEO.
  • Helps with research when the CEO needs to make a decision. 
  • Supports the CEO’s strategy and purpose. 

A Chief of staff (CoS) and an executive assistant (EA) both support the CEO and optimize their efforts. Because of that similarity, people often use these terms interchangeably. Important distinctions exist between these roles, however. It’s critical to understand these differences if you’re looking for additional support at your organization. 

In practice, there is often an overlap between what an EA and a CoS do. An analysis of these roles at 94 companies indicates that some CEO-support tasks are shared between the EA and the CoS. 

Despite these overlaps, there are still clear differences between these roles. A CoS works independently while an EA generally works under the supervision of an executive. More significantly, EAs tend to focus on day-to-day tasks and tactics while CoS’s focus on overarching goals and strategies. 

So, which role is the right hire for you? Let’s take a look at the key differences between a CoS and an EA. 

Time management

Both CoS’s and EAs help a CEO improve their time management skills. EAs help manage the executive’s daily calendar. They also help the CEO prioritize which meetings they should take or emails they should respond to. 

Rather than getting mired in daily calendar management, CoS’s take a more strategic role. They ensure that the overall calendar reflects the CEO’s long-term goals and vision for the organization. 

Help with administrative workflows

EAs often take care of administrative tasks in the background to ensure that the CEO’s day moves smoothly. They may deal with urgent requests, answer emails, and attend meetings for the CEO. This frees up the executive’s time for critical processes. 

A CoS may do some administrative tasks for the executive but that isn’t their focus. Instead, they strategize ways to get these tasks off the CEO’s to-do list for the long term. They look at all areas of the business from marketing to finance. 

They find ways to automate workflows, integrate processes, or improve efficiency. This boosts productivity across the organization, and it ensures the CEO isn’t weighed down with tasks that should be handled by someone else. 

Relationship management

EAs work with the CEO’s partners and personnel. They often act as the gatekeeper to the CEO, and in some cases, they may communicate on behalf of the CEO. This reduces interruptions and allows the CEO to stay focused. A CoS is more than a gatekeeper. They help to nurture relationships between internal and external stakeholders. 

Externally, they manage strategic partnerships, and they often act as an extension of the CEO in the marketplace, the community, and the industry. Internally, the CoS helps your leadership team to collaborate more effectively. They ensure that each department is run in a way that aligns with the organization’s long-term goals.

Decision making

An EA can help a CEO gather the information needed to make a decision. They can do research, pull reports, survey staff or leadership, and perform other tasks. An experienced EA may be able to pre-empt what an executive needs to make a certain decision, but in most cases, they act under the direction of the executive, gathering information as requested. 

A CoS, in contrast, plays a higher-level role in the decision-making processes. They often decide which questions reach the CEO. They ensure that the CEO is dealing with mission-critical decisions and not weighed down with questions that could easily be handled by department heads. 

They also guide the flow of information between the CEO and the company’s leadership teams. They ensure the CEO has the optimal information to make effective decisions. The CoS can also act as a sounding board for the CEO. They help the CEO get ahead of potential issues, and they shine a light on their blind spots. They leverage their executive experience to help the CEO assess the effects of their decisions in different scenarios. 

Strategy and purpose

In a nutshell, EAs focus on tactics while CoS’s focus on strategy. EAs typically handle what needs to be done now or in the future. Their to-do lists are driven by the urgent demands of today or this month.

In comparison, CoS’s are looking at the future. Of course, they also have tasks that demand their attention right now, but in general, they focus on big-picture issues and long-term strategies. Their to-do lists guide the growth of the organization and support the success of the CEO. 

In big organizations, you often have people in both of these roles, but start-ups or small organizations typically just need one. It’s critical to make the right decision. Turning to an EA when you need a CoS can prevent you from reaching your full potential. It can also compromise the growth and success of your organization. 

We provide CoS support to take your business to the next level 

At Chiefly Consultants, we know that organizational growth needs the right support. We provide fractional CoS’s that optimize processes and set up organizations for long-term growth. If you’re frustrated with stagnant growth, just know that the opportunities are there, and you can leverage our CoS services to reach them. 

To learn more about how our services can help you reach the next level of success, contact us today.