Chiefs of Staff: We need more in the private sector

A bunch of friends in Silicon Valley have asked some version of “what was surprising to you in govt?” or “what did you learn about govt?” This is part of a series of posts answering those questions.


One of the MANY things I learned while serving as Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer was just how amazing the folks are that have the title “Chief of Staff.” They are some of the unsung heroes of the White House and government as a whole. There is no true equivalent to the Chief of Staff job and it is pretty rare in the corporate world, particularly in Silicon Valley (but see Kris Cordle at Slack). Chief Operating Officer (COO) may be the closest analogy, and it is no coincidence that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s extremely effective COO was Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department before moving to Google and Facebook. Read on for a bit more about what a Chief of Staff does, with some examples from President Obama’s administration.

Letterhead of the Chief of Staff to the President
Managers


First and foremost, a Chief of Staff (COS) is a manager.


Data from the Office of Personnel Management
The U.S. Federal Government is extremely large. The President of the United States is a CEO of sorts for approximately 2.6 million civilian executive branch employees engaged in a mind-bendingly diverse set of jobs (including the military, that number is over 4 million). In addition, the President’s relationship to the country makes him also responsible to the more than 300 million people that make up the United States. As a result, the President’s time, and that of other leaders in government (called “principals” in government), is precious and spent on external events, relationship calls, decision making, or getting information, and, in each case, only if the principal is not replaceable with others. An example of part of that schedule for President Obama is archived here but the schedules of other principals, from the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to the Secretary of Commerce, are similar.

A COS's first job is making sure their principal’s vision is implemented effectively and that requires, in the first instance, managing their principal. They need to make sure that their principal is using their time effectively, for example that any issue that can be resolved at a lower level is resolved, and that they have the information necessary to make informed decisions. This part of the COS job requires an extraordinarily good relationship with the principal and almost supernatural ability to predict what the principal wants. A COS may have their own views but a significant amount of the COS power and effectiveness comes from being, in Game of Thrones vocabulary, the “Hand of the King.” This relationship balances a COS's management of their principal with their relatively egoless role as their principal’s direct report and executer. They are also truth-tellers who aren’t shy about bringing bad news to their principals. In my experience, the best COSes are both supremely loyal and trusted by their principal to make significant decisions without them. This gives them a dual role “staffing” their principal but also being principals in their own rights. Denis McDonough, who was President Obama’s COS during my time in the Executive Office of the President, is a great example. Denis was in sync with the President and his guidance could be relied upon to reflect the President’s. As much as anyone at the White House, he seemed to embody being in service to the President. At the same time, the buck frequently stopped with Denis, and, in those situations, he was a principal himself.

Chief of Staff to the President, Denis McDonough,
walking with President Obama, Sept 22, 2014.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
The COS is also likely to be the manager of the department. Hiring, firing, tasking, internal dispute resolution, and other managerial duties are often functions that are delegated to the COS. The principals oversee these but a ton of day-to-day management is done by the COS. For example, within OSTP where I worked, Cristin Dorgelo was the COS and would do weekly one on one meetings with each of the Director of OSTP’s reports. Cristin constantly was touching base with people across the department. She interviewed every person brought into OSTP, and she had an exit interview with everyone who left.

OSTP Chief of Staff, Cristin Dorgelo,
leading brainstorming at an NIH event, June 24, 2015
Photo by @NIH3DPrint
Similarly, Natalie Quillian, part of Denis’s COS team and a Deputy Assistant to the President, established new internal communication avenues for the White House to help spread internal communication and to create a sense that all of the employees in the Executive Office of the President were part of one team. Natalie also gave me and other White House staff regular guidance and mentoring in how to approach different processes and people within the White House.


Deputy Assistant to the President, Natalie Quillian, 
introducing her child to President Obama, Aug 27, 2014.
Process Wranglers


The Federal Government has a significant amount of process designed to improve decision making and ensure that the diverse viewpoints of departments are represented. For example, Presidential Policy Directive 1 laid out the National Security Council system for national security decision making under President Obama. A well run process can produce a good decision but, equally importantly, it will produce a decision with buy-in from the components and agencies that will need to implement the decision. While laudable, these processes are a lot of work to run and to exist within. The various COSes are the masters of them and are responsible for “shipping” a decision just as in Silicon Valley we rely on product managers to ship products.


Natalie was an expert at driving a process to completion. Understanding the type of decision that was required, she effectively figured out the right forum, the right questions, and the right type of information to get in front of the right set of principals to ensure an informed and constructive discussion that could produce a decision that would then have the buy-in to be implemented. She did everything from scrutinize an attendee list in order to add a person or two that needed to be included (or remove someone that was unnecessary to the decision); force lower level folks to more finely hone their disagreements or come to agreement on items that didn’t need higher level participation; push the conversation in the meeting towards an argument that was left unaddressed; and follow up to crisply articulate the meeting’s outcome and the mandate of each participant going forward. Each is an active task requiring a very high degree of understanding of the subject matter and emotional intelligence about people across government. I saw Natalie and many of the other COSes take this on across an incredible range of substantive areas from national security to communication to legal issues.  


The White House under President Obama was also a place that effectively used memos. As Jeff Bezos reportedly does at Amazon, the White House used memos to force the cogent development of argument and to allow components and agencies to resolve disagreements and to make decisions in a way that others across government and outside of government can see and understand. Working a document, with hundreds of other potential editors can be a recipe for committee-written prose and a huge time waster. The only thing worse would have been the potential for future disagreement if the various players didn’t have to come to agreement on paper. This paper process would have been impossible without the COSes. For example, on any given day, Cristin could be involved in a handful or more memos. Over her time at the White House, that meant that she was likely involved in thousands. She developed an expert sense of what was an important edit for OSTP and what might be better to let go. As importantly, the set of COSes within the Executive Office of the President and at the agencies were repeat players with strong relationships and a good deal of trust between them. Irreconcilable substantive policy differences that might otherwise disrupt the decision making process could often be resolved to the satisfaction of all through Cristin’s relationships and the creativity of the COSes.


Implementation Gurus

Federal government implementation of policy is almost always the responsibility of agencies. For example, while the President may determine that Federal data should be open, it is up to the Department of Transportation to release Traffic Fatality data to the public. This can leave execution of policy initiatives, particularly ones needing interagency cooperation without a central driver. Since few policies are successful without successful implementation, President Obama focused White House staff on continuing to track policy decisions through implementation and helping where needed. No-one did that better and across more important policy priorities than Kristie Canegallo, whose title was Deputy COS for Implementation. During her time in the position I saw Kristie ensure appropriate implementation across a wide range of topics including the Affordable Care Act, Precision Medicine Initiative, Cybersecurity National Action Plan, and the technology transformation of government more generally. And those were just a small percentage of her workload.


Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation, Kristie Canegallo (center), 
with other members of the Affordable Care Act team
giving an update to President Obama, April 1, 2014.
As with any good operator, Kristie delegated effectively but sometimes got into the weeds to better understand and debug problems. She removed obstacles for the teams. She elicited and measured teams against metrics. She kept the cross-agency and cross-functional teams focused on the bigger picture and brought her own mastery of all of the tools available to our government to get the job done. Kristie is one of the better executing leaders I have ever worked with and her focus on and skill in implementation was shared by many of the COSes.


Calm, Solution Oriented, and Without Ego

A great COS is also calm, solution oriented and without ego. Yohannes Abraham, Valerie Jarrett’s COS at the Office of Public Engagement, is a great example of this COS attitude. Like part of a startup founding team, Yo has seen it all, so nothing phases him. He does not dwell on blame but moves quickly towards finding solutions. For example, I once brought him an issue that I was working on that some said might threaten one of his core implementation projects. Yo’s project was a higher Presidential priority than what I was working on. He talked through the issue calmly and saw the tensions between the two policy objectives. Together we weighed the good that would come of each and then talked through an approach to try to ensure the thing I was working on could get done in a way that would not threaten the higher priority policy project. Then he used his relationships to broaden that understanding and ensure that others could come to the same conclusion. Yo, like the other COSes, worked on thousands of individual policies and launches. His experience showed in his calmness and in the creative solutions he was able to make happen and often he was working to push someone else’s work over the finish line. Yo is exactly the kind of person you want to be working with you on the hardest problems. No ego, all drive to make a positive impact.

Chief of Staff of the Office of Public Engagement, Yohannes Abraham
Undated Government Photo


We Need More Chiefs of Staff!


While not every business is as large or complex as the Federal Government, the Chief of Staff position is underutilized in the private sector. The skills of Chief of Staffs in managing their bosses and staff, pushing through processes, and driving implementation, all with a reassuring calmness, solution orientation, and lack of ego, are very much in need in Silicon Valley.


I focused this post on the COSes that I worked with closely over the last few years but there were many others, and all were world class. And, they also ALL tendered their resignations as part of the peaceful transition of power at the White House. They would each be well suited to be CEOs or COOs in the private sector. I can’t wait to see what they do, and I would work with any of them again.


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