To be a senior executive in any sizable organization means that you probably have a staff of people to undertake a broad range of activities essential to your front office and, therefore, to your company’s or organization’s success. Staff members carry a range of titles: Chief of Staff, Business Executive, Budget Officer, Chief of Communications, Director of Strategic Planning, Ombudsman, etc. Moreover, the larger the organization, the more likely each of these individuals will have staffs of their own; all, ostensibly, working in your service.
But are they always working in your service and how certain are you that you can answer this question? In my experience, I am fairly certain that many top executives I have encountered had only a minimal sense of the activities being undertaken by their staffers directly in their name.
To be a senior executive, is to live with the fact that day-to-day, most of what goes on in your organization lies outside your direct knowledge and influence. But of all the activities a senior executive needs to have a handle on, I would place the activities of his or her direct staff at or near the top of the list. I say this for the following reasons.
First, because your staff members act in your name, subordinates throughout the organization have little choice but to take their requests for action seriously. Thus, in a busy organization, it is imperative that their requests and tasking be kept to an essential minimum, involve only matters of demonstrable importance, and above all be non-duplicative of other requests or previous tasking. The alternative risks burying your organization in a welter of time-consuming, bureaucratic busy work that serves neither you nor your organization well, and invariably leads to little or no constructive problem-solving or action.
Second, because your staff members will often wish to please you by demonstrating their creativity and initiative, some will, at times, ask for things from others you did not even know you needed, let alone wanted or asked for. While it is near impossible to stop this from happening entirely, making it clear to your staff that they should clear something of potential importance with you first, before tasking someone else with a time-consuming need to respond, will help keeping this potential time-wasting activity to a minimum.
Third, it is only natural for staff members to develop a rather protective orientation toward the boss; protective of her or his time and protection from the intrusion of people or issues they deem below your threshold of interest. While some degree of protection and sound judgment on the part of staff is essential to helping you stay focused on matters appropriate to your level of responsibility, over protection can also shield you from people and information inputs you need to see and hear. This is especially true when you are being shielded from the input of your direct reports and key line managers. Staff is staff. Those who directly manage critical portions of your organization need to know they can gain your unfiltered attention when necessary.
Finally, because your staff members derive their importance directly from their connection to you — a senior boss — some occasionally develop a sense of self-importance –and a related sense-of-entitlement, behavioral style –that impacts others in ways that does not serve you well. A direct talking to about the appropriate role and behavior of a staffer usually helps reign-in all but the worst offenders.
If staying on top of your staff’s activities seems like a daunting task in addition to all your other responsibilities, it can be. This is why my advice is always to keep your staff as small as possible, restrict the number of sub-staff members as much as possible, and meet with your staff as often as possible to keep yourself informed and them operating on the same page and message as you. A periodic review of staff size — given the apparent natural tendency of staffs to grow rapidly — is also a good idea. The larger your staff grows, the more likely overlapping responsibilities will develop, as will rivalries for preeminence among staff components and competition for your attention.
Above all, when it comes to creating and directing your own staff, I believe SMALL IS ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL and infinitely more manageable.