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I've always found that struggle and adversity are always fraught with opportunity.
The Great Resignation has actually turned out to be an amazing opportunity for those in roles that are critical to the organization but often overlooked by those with shinier titles. My bias, of course, is toward C-suite Executive Assistants as I had been one for almost 3 decades before becoming a Chief of Staff.
The Great Resignation has forced companies to intentionally rethink their org structures. All of the bloat is being rectified in this round of mass layoffs. Those layoffs are forcing the remaining employees to shoulder the burden of executing on accountabilities and timelines with less team members. What I'm finding is that CEOs are starting to leverage that ninja just outside their door, their Executive Assistant, in ways they hadn't in years past, mostly out of necessity. Also, Executive Assistants at that level, accustomed to being constantly back-burnered, began taking their professional development into their own hands years ago. They educated themselves beyond their job descriptions. They attended conferences with the express intent to grow their networks. They found online communities like my trīb to force multiply themselves. And they doubled down on increasing their business acumen, mastering the plays and players, and preparing themselves to, at some point, leave once they'd bumped their head one too many times on the glass ceiling that has, historically, been the EA-to-CEO role.
When I set out to become a Chief of Staff my intentions were clear. I wasn't all that "gassed" on the title. Truthfully, I've been doing a deconstructed version of the Chief of Staff role for decades so the title felt akin to receiving your personalized college diploma in the mail after you'd already walked across the stage. However, that title does come with a high level of respect. Conspicuously, far more than the Executive Assistant title. Real talk, once I officially got the title my professional world opened up seemingly overnight. I've owned my own businesses numerous times as a "CEO" so, truthfully, this was more of a social experiment for me. What I found was that people received and approached me differently with Chief of Staff in my email signature. The boolean searches on LinkedIn for Chief of Staff are mighty because everybody and their mama ended up in my email feigning interest in me when, obviously, they were trying to get to my unicorn CEO via what they (mis)perceived as the easiest route. The new attention was equal parts fascinating and pathetic, really. I've always been this dope. I've always been this effective in my role. Absolutely nothing changed from the last day with the Executive Assistant title to the first day with the Chief of Staff title except the perception and social capital the new title held.
This is one of the reasons I'm going so hard in the paint trying to transition that subset of comprehensively experienced, highly capable, passionate, woefully underleveraged, C-suite EAs into a role that finally fits their abilities and professional aspirations. It's an absolute embarrassment that EAs at this level are still being chained to the position because the compensation band either doesn't exist or the people with the power to empower choose not to put the effort into creating it. All too often I've fielded the frustrations of EAs I've coached who have all but begged for versions of the Chief of Staff title only to be told that it doesn't exist and, in no uncertain terms, wouldn't be created as an exception just for them because it would throw off the balance for the entire org. (read: we're too lazy and you're "just an EA," so...) And, without skipping a beat, I coached every single one of them to quit. And they did. And 100% of them found roles at other companies that allowed them the respect, autonomy, and compensation they'd been asking for and summarily not getting at their former companies.
Not all EAs are cut out to be Chiefs of Staff. That's understood. However, this is the first time in the history of business that the Chief of Staff role has been presented with levels. I liken it to the journey in Law, making your way from Paralegal all the way up to Partner of the firm. Not everyone will make Partner. However, there is a definitive track that allows those interested a vision of what could be. That journey has historically been missing in the Chief of Staff role. That role has always been presented as having one flavor...white, male, MBA, ex-consulting firm alum, ex-failed CEO, blah blah blah. That's not to be disparaging, it's truth. And, let me be clear, some of the most effective Chief of Staff in history fit that archetype. And that archetype is still relevant and ruling the Level 3 and Level 4 ranks of Chiefs of Staff. Fine...for now.
It's time for a little seasoning in this stew, tho. I was so inspired by the diversity of Chiefs of Staff during my attendance at the inaugural cohort of The Chief of Staff Association's Oxford University program. So many incredible women and men, of numerous ethnicities, levels of experience, and professional walks of life converged for, easily, one of the most life-changing weeks of my life. It actually made me double down on my intention to help create a funnel of future Chiefs of Staff from the amazing, top-producing C-suite Executive Assistants ranks still hoping for that one, last door to be kicked in. Well, I've donned my steel-toed boots and I'm more determined than ever to create that clear, first step toward becoming a Chief of Staff. We start with Level One.
To me, Level One is all about access and being fully thrown into the ring. No more hiding behind the CEO they support as an EA. This is the opportunity for the CEO to completely hand over the reins of project management and the deeper weeds they often find themselves in because of the chasm between their accountabilities, their EAs (oft limited) accountabilities, and those of their leadership team. The Level One Chief of Staff becomes the glue for the entire Leadership Team, often even more than they do for the CEO. They are able to leverage the relationships they've built throughout the organization to ensure timelines are met, the right people are in the room (which should often NOT include the CEO), develop a clear(er) understanding of projects, DRIs, and expectations, and filter all of that information to the Leadership Team and the CEO with clarity, consistency, and with their own, vetted hypotheses. This allows the leaders of the company time to process the information, circle back with specific questions, or make decisions based on the data and hypotheses provided with full confidence the information is valid and relevant. Success at Level One is having full autonomy in the role, garnering the unflinching respect of the C-suite, maintaining open, honest lines of communication with skip levels, and executing and helping others execute as flawlessly and consistently as possible. As a Level One grows in business acumen, product knowledge, and end-to-end project management, including identifying and spearheading projects of their own that move the needle for the company, they will naturally progress to the next levels of the Chief of Staff ranks which are even more strategic and linked to the success of the company.
This transition relies on trust. If a CEO is unwilling to loosen their grip on the reins enough to empower and support this transition, it will never work. Therefore, it is imperative that trust already exist between the CEO or C-suite exec in order for this transition to have a chance at success. If trust exists it's much easier to support the transition with introductions to meetings, handoff of certain project details and accountabilities, all with an element of mentorship baked in. C-suite EAs at this level are really smart kids. Their level of FITFO and curiosity serves them well and actually becomes what they'll leverage most as they quickly get up to speed. Those interactions, with the new title in tow tend to make people mind their p's and q's more intentionally knowing they are now dealing with a direct proxy of the C-suite vs. the person to whom they bitch about the quality of [free] sandwiches at the last meeting. I've experienced it. It's palpable, believe me.
I'm excited to be one of the first to double down on the EA-to-Chief-of-Staff transition. By focusing on Level One, and having already successfully proved the model, I'm able to provide a framework, the education, real-life experience, and a successful strategy to make it happen. It's not easy. Some won't cut it. Some will become discouraged. But that subset who have the self-belief, persistence, experience, relevant acumen, FITFO, network, and the trust and support of their Execs have a tremendous opportunity to grab the flag and charge up the hill with little resistance. I can say, unequivocally, that this entire evolution from EA to Chief of Staff has actually been more professionally rewarding than being the CEO of my own businesses. (Which I did/do love.) The entire process of changing perceptions, garnering respect, scoring wins, creating efficiencies, rallying teams, and helping a CEO and Leadership team fire on all cylinders, consistently, has made this role incredibly fun and rewarding and a level so deep I never anticipated. And, real talk, I love proving naysayers wrong. I eat them as snacks. It's fun.
If you are one of that handful of C-suite EAs who have not only maxed out your current role, but continue to seek new avenues to grow and evolve, consider registering for EA(3x). I've intentionally designed a workshop that will challenge you and your own self-perception and capabilities. The immersions I've created are multi-faceted and will force you into the uncomfortable, in-the-moment decision-making necessary to be an amazing Chief of Staff. Those who know me and my workshops know that I don't sugarcoat. My time is incredibly valuable (and expensive now...holy S!) as I'm currently a Chief of Staff and have personal projects of my own to help change lives. However, I believe in paying it forward...with intention...especially to those who need that push and that example of someone from their ranks who has actually done it.
I'm excited to bring EA(3x) to as many parts of the world as I can which will soon become an online course, community, and mastermind with the intent of cementing Level One Chief of Staff as the next step for EAs to the CEO. The EA community is long overdue for this opportunity. Time to right a wrong that's lasted for generations.
See you at the table!
Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.
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