Too Many Chiefs In The Kitchen

Executives want a good rapport with their staff, but there's something (or, more aptly, someone) standing in the way.

Does your company have too many chiefs in the kitchen?  Having a “C-Level” position doesn’t mean what it used to, as title inflation has rapidly expanded the ranks of organizational “Chiefs.”

 

Gone are the days when you could count the number of Chiefs on one hand – CEO, CFO, COO, CMO, CIO.  Now there’s pretty much a Chief for everything – Ethics, Risk, Diversity, Technology, Administration, People and more.  Just when I thought the proliferation of Chiefs couldn’t get any worse, I saw a job posting for a “Chief Office Employee.”  I hadn’t heard of that one before.

 

But a new front has opened in the job titling arms race, because it now seems that for every Chief, there needs to be a Chief of Staff.  Even people who aren’t yet a Chief – Vice Presidents, Managing Directors and the like – are appointing Chiefs of Staff.

 

The allure of having your own Chief of Staff is unmistakable.  The title is linked in the public consciousness to the American presidency – where the position was created decades ago to help the most prominent chief executive in the world manage his affairs.  If you can’t have Air Force One, having your own Chief of Staff is the next best thing.  It exudes presidential significance.  Anybody who has one must be incredibly important and busy.

 

And tone deaf.  Because the appointment of a Chief of Staff within the corporate ranks is precisely the type of action that inserts a wedge between executives and everybody else in an organization.

 

Chiefs of Staff are, by definition, gatekeepers.  They are the arbiters of an executive’s schedule.  They are the buffers that insulate the “Chief” from all the staffers and stakeholders seeking his or her attention.

 

Which is why the presence of a Chief of Staff is completely at odds with the image of accessibility and openness that so many executives work to promote.  No matter how innocuous an executive’s intentions were when appointing a Chief of Staff, employees will invariably view that individual as a barrier, segregating them from their leader.  In this twisted reality, an open door policy means “check with my Chief of Staff and he’ll decide whether to open the door.”

 

The optics are even worse for managers and supervisors, who (at least for now) don’t have the luxury of appointing their own Chiefs of Staff.  Incessant interruptions are a common frustration for these folks.  No matter what’s on their plate, they’re supposed to put on a happy, helpful face to anyone who wanders up to their door looking for help.  What they would give to have a Chief of Staff who preempts most of those interruptions.  But from their perspective, that’s just another executive perk that isn’t available to them.

 

With employee satisfaction at historic lows, with workers embittered by the stresses of the Great Recession, executives need to be especially sensitive to the signals they’re sending.  While they may view the Chief of Staff role as a legitimate management tool, the rank and file see it very differently.  For them, it’s just another sign of executives’ inflated sense of self-importance.  An illustration of their desire to appear – but not really be – accessible.

 

So if your focus is on looking presidential, then by all means appoint a Chief of Staff, schedule morning briefings, and request regular intelligence reports.  But if your goal is to engage your workforce with credible, authentic leadership, then consider putting one less barrier between you and your people.

Note:  An abridged version of this commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on December 31, 2010.