Why chief of staff is the newest step on the marketing career ladder

The chief of staff role is becoming a more prominent step on the marketing career ladder, writes Jude Blankfield, chief of staff and head of marketing at Slyp.

Often associated with military and government environments, chiefs of staff (CoS) are lauded in political offices and newsrooms for their ability to create order from organisational chaos.

Both on the battle ground and on the office floor, CoS act as advisors to and trusted confidants of the CEO, and are highly skilled at navigating delicate strategic matters and calming storms before they reach the executive office.

In corporate environments the position has never been a staple, but as the Australian startup ecosystem has grown, so has the popularity of the role – especially amongst founder-led companies. Founder-CEOs typically start out with a lean team and must balance individual contribution and corporate strategy, often whilst experiencing explosive growth. Through this, CoS have become critical in protecting the founder’s vision whilst scaling the business and the individual themself.

For many fast growing businesses, the tipping point for this change is a significant capital raising event, which gives companies more scope to sharpen and tune their thinking.

Following the path less travelled

The role is not one-size-fits-all by any means. A CoS wears many hats — dictated by the size and scale of a company — though principally they are a conduit between leadership and the wider team to anticipate issues or sensitivities the C-suite may not be tuned in to.

Understanding what makes a leader tick, interpreting their direction, knowing where to interject, or taking the lead on matters they don’t have capacity to deal with, all fall within the remit. Importantly, a CoS also filters what information flows between the CEO and the rest of the company.

Though it’s not a well trodden path, there are a number of Aussie startups establishing the case for a CoS.

Perhaps the most visible example has been Atlassian’s Amy Glancey. Appointed chief of staff from director of communications in 2018, Amy is recognised as a trusted advisor to co-CEOs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, and works alongside the pair to alleviate noise and create space for more of the decisions which led the company to achieving unicorn status.

More recently, the runaway growth of hospitality payments platform, Mr Yum, saw Mads Hallett appointed CoS to the chief operating officer. The former head of marketing had led communications activity for funding rounds as well as the company’s expansion into UK and US markets, lending her the business oversight needed to step into an advisory role.

Though responsibilities of the role differ case by case, the CoS is emerging as an important component of startups’ enduring growth.

The marcomms effect

While there’s no single prerequisite for stepping into the CoS role, it is becoming an increasingly common pathway for marketers as the perspective gleaned through marcomms experience lends unique insight to the role.

Marcomms practitioners innately understand their company’s value proposition and are adept at leveraging external influences on the business to drive success in-market. We spend significant time learning the voice, thinking and vision of the CEO and business as a whole, and can communicate this with both tact and finesse.

Internal communications experience lends visibility across a business, building a deep understanding of employee sentiment and political blindspots within a business. Equally, softer skills built through project management and client servicing qualify marketers for greater business oversight.

Where marcomms is traditionally siloed in an organisation, the rise of the CoS changes this and lifts the marketing ceiling beyond chief marketing officer. Cross-functionality is inherent in marketing practice and CoS is an almost natural evolution towards greater operational and strategic involvement in growing a startup.

Over the past decade, the likes of Canva, Atlassian and Afterpay have proven the credentials of Australia’s tech ecosystem time and time again. This success across the sector has quietly ushered in the case for a CoS, with marketing practitioners whose nuanced skillset makes them a perfect candidate for the role topping the hiring list for many up-and-coming businesses.

As Australia’s startup ecosystem continues to grow, founders will look for a confidant who can protect the integrity of their vision, filter the internal flow of information and act as a second pair of eyes across any weaknesses in the business. We can expect the role of CoS to become a more prominent step on the marketing career ladder in 2022 and beyond.

Jude Blankfield, chief of staff & head of marketing, Slyp


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