Accelerate your strategic goals with a chief of staff: the latest trend in independent schools


Accelerate your strategic goals with a chief of staff: the latest trend in independent schools

Our independent school partners often ask us about the latest developments in higher education operations and management, as university trends often foreshadow how independent schools will evolve in the not-so-distant future. The most progressive independent schools frequently adapt ideas from higher ed, which is what we’re seeing with the rise in the number of chief of staff roles.

As independent schools’ operational complexity begins to mirror that of universities, a chief of staff can help heads move beyond daily tasks and effectively manage competing strategic priorities to focus on the work that only they can do to successfully lead their institutions into the future.

One of the key principles of EAB’s latest research “Applying Design Principles to Evolve the Independent School Leadership Model,” is that heads must recalibrate their workloads and delegate tasks that are no longer head-worthy to effectively lead schools in today’s market. Some heads are employing a chief of staff, rather than an executive assistant, to support this work. Here are two reasons why:

  1. New technologies mean that many heads no longer need executive assistants for daily tasks that can be automated; instead, a chief of staff helps with bigger duties like managing key schoolwide initiatives.
  2. A chief of staff also manages important relationships with the board and senior leaders, freeing up some time in the head’s busy schedule.

“We added a lot of students in recent years, along with more systems and structures to sustain the larger size. My executive assistant was leaving, and it was a good time to rethink the role to support me in managing the complex structure of the school.”

Head of School

In our conversations with schools that employ chiefs of staff, heads describe the role as being more generalist than specialist: the chief of staff must possess excellent critical thinking and communication skills and be able to manage an array of key projects and stakeholder relationships across the school community. Due to the increased responsibilities of the role, a chief of staff typically requires more education and work experience, and higher pay, than an executive assistant.

What does a chief of staff do, and how is this role different than an executive assistant?

For schools that want to employ a chief of staff, the role typically replaces that of an executive assistant by automating office tasks where possible, unless budgeting allows for two distinct roles.

To outline the differences between an executive assistant and chief of staff, the table below provides a comparison of how much time each role may devote to different tasks.

Executive Assistant Chief of Staff
Manage day-to-day operations of head's office Primary responsibility Secondary responsibility
Coordinate calendar, travel, etc. Primary responsibility Secondary responsibility
Greet visitors and help them navigate the office Primary responsibility N/A
Manage projects for key schoolwide initiatives N/A Primary responsibility
Act as administrative liaison between leadership team, board, and head N/A Primary responsibility

Think a chief of staff role may be helpful at your school? Consider the following:

Assess your current staffing and workload to decide whether a chief of staff is necessary

Some questions to consider:

  • If you have an executive assistant, do they provide sufficient support with managing key school initiatives?
  • Are you able to devote enough time to your strategic priorities?
  • Has the complexity of school operations outgrown your current administrative roles?

Clearly define where additional support is needed

Whether you are going to restructure an existing position or hire someone new, you need to be clear on what exactly this role will entail to ensure you get the support you need. You must also clarify how the responsibilities are different from those of a typical executive assistant. We have included a few job descriptions to help you define the role at your school:

Determine whether you have existing staff who can take on these responsibilities, or if you need to hire someone new

Many schools might be able to repurpose existing roles, particularly as needs and technologies change. Only if this is not possible or realistic for your school should you hire a new FTE. For example, one head noted that he hired a chief of staff when he determined that his executive assistant had too many day-to-day tasks and was not able to devote enough time to supporting big-picture, strategic work.

Consider budget constraints and decide on an appropriate salary range for the position

Salaries for the role at independent schools vary depending on responsibilities and cost of living, anywhere from ~$60,000 to over $100,000 per year.

Once you decide to create a chief of staff role, prepare others at the school to work with the new role

Much of the chief of staff’s role involves working with others at the school (e.g., the board or senior leadership). Not only should you make the chief of staff’s responsibilities clear to these stakeholders, but also make clear their responsibilities toward the chief of staff.

Whether you are reorganizing your leadership team, rethinking the role of an executive assistant after a vacancy, or reexamining how best to prioritize your time, heads may want to consider the benefits a chief of staff could provide to their schools today or in the future.

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