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Leadership

What White House Chiefs of Staff Can Teach About Running Your Business Better

The federal government dwarfs every corporation in size and complexity. Anybody who can make it work is worth learning from.
What White House Chiefs of Staff Can Teach About Running Your Business Better
Image credit: Bloomberg | Getty Images
- VIP Contributor
Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor
5 min read

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They say the White House Chief of Staff is the president’s president. He or she is responsible for overseeing White House personnel, and for ensuring that the president’s policies are implemented.

Although the American people by-and-large aren’t familiar with the role, it is one of the single most important executive branch appointments and can determine presidential success or failure.

Being a White House Chief of Staff isn’t easy. The average tenure is just 18 months. It is both a public and private role that receives intense scrutiny from the press and from vying political factions. Successful Chiefs of Staff can teach business executives valuable lessons about management, communication and prioritization.

Here are a few management lessons learned from some of the most successful Chiefs of Staff.

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Chain of command matters even in “flat” organizations.

Startups and small businesses can both benefit from and struggle with scenarios where chain of command doesn’t exist. Small organizations are by nature less hierarchical, which can present unique challenges when it’s time to implement an agenda.

The White House can also be a relatively flat organization. Other than the president, department secretaries and their assistant secretaries oversee billion-dollar budgets and manage thousands of people. As a result, it can be hard to establish a clear hierarchy that ensures a presidential directive is carried out with enthusiasm.

But as Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, wrote in his book Present at Creation, “The most important aspect of the relationship between president and the secretary of state is that they both understand who is president.”

Senior executives should be especially clear on how this point applies to business. Encourage new ideas and feedback but be ready to put disagreement aside and implement initiatives set forth by the CEO.

This can be achieved by outlining project expectations in advance. By discussing project timelines, senior leaders can help other employees understand when it’s appropriate to voice feedback and when it’s time to execute with enthusiasm.

Related: 3 Reasons Holacracy Isn't a Good Fit for Most Businesses

The flow of information should be controlled and vetted.

President Trump appointed a new Chief of Staff on July 31st of last year. John Kelly, the former head of Homeland Security and a former Marine General was brought in to clean up an administration suffering from disorganization.

One of Kelly’s early directives, as reported by multiple outlets including the New York Times was to create an orderly flow of information to the president. By carefully controlling what information Trump received, Kelly hoped to help the Commander in Chief stay focused and make better informed decisions.

Similarly, businesses should employ organizational design principles that focus on resolving issues before they reach the senior leadership team. By developing an efficient flow of information, senior leaders can be protected from hearsay or small problems so they can focus on the work that only they can resolve.

Related: Ever Had a Boss Who Seemingly Thrived on Endless Chaos?

You must surround yourself with straight shooters.

In her book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of a divided cabinet during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. While Lincoln did not have a Chief of Staff in the same way modern presidents do, he did assemble a cabinet that featured strong-minded experts with opposing viewpoints. As a result, Lincoln ensured that ideas were forged in the fires of heated discussion before being put into practice.

To be successful, businesses should ensure that employees are motivated to share feedback be it positive or negative. And organizations should be designed in such a way that senior leaders are encouraged to engage with internal and external experts to receive a range of feedback. This will help companies root out weak ideas in favor of stronger ones that can stand the test of intense scrutiny.

Related: Why This Co-Founder Keeps His Calendars Public to His Employees

There is no substitute for experience.

James A. Baker is considered the preeminent example of a Chief of Staff. So much so that other Chiefs of Staff have turned to Baker for advice.

By the time Baker became Chief of Staff to president George H.W. Bush, he had already graduated from Princeton University, served as a Marine, worked in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and served as Secretary of State.

In short, a notable reason why Baker succeeded was he had ample relevant experience. As a result, he was respected and could execute the president's agenda in ways that might have been difficult for a less experienced leader.

Just as there is no substitute for experience in the political world, the same is true in business. Business leaders must ensure that at least some members of the leadership team have long and successful professional track records. This experience will help organizations avoid mistakes, and weather adversity.

Though it isn’t heavily publicized, presidential Chiefs of Staff have an enormously difficult job. As a result, much can be learned from those who complete the role successfully.

So take a hard look. What does the flow of information in your organization look like? Do you encourage debate? Are you hiring people who demonstrate they have learned from experience?

Here’s one other thing to think about. Maybe you need a second in command yourself. When it comes to designing an organization that is built for success, ensuring that the CEO has a reliable “go-to” capable of implementing difficult directives can help ensure the long term health of any company.

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