ODCoS Fellow Kirstie Marsh shares her experience of finding a lifelong community of trusted Chiefs of Staff while living in a country where almost none exist. ODCoS connected Kirstie to a trusted peer network that allowed her to gain confidence in the early stages of her Chief of Staff career.
Becoming a Chief of Staff wasn’t my plan.
I graduated from the University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Laws before jetting off to Europe in 2009 to work as a legal counsel at a high-growth tech startup.
It wasn’t until I moved back to New Zealand in 2016 that I landed my first job that didn’t revolve around law. I was a COO at Wipster and fell in love with the energy and rhythms of running a business.
Right before COVID struck, I joined Narrative, an AI software company, as a Chief of Staff. It took me years of experimentation within my professional career to get to this point, but it was worth it. Once I settled into the new role everything clicked.
Thanks to my decade of career-dabbling I had a large pool of general knowledge to draw from. Seeing the big picture of the company came easy, and I was able to whip up a strategic direction. Becoming a CoS felt like the perfect fit for my super generalist skills and broad business experience.
This is what my career was building towards all along.
Enter On Deck
Here’s the funny thing about being a Chief of Staff in New Zealand. There’s not many of us out there. Tell a New Zealander you’re a Chief of Staff, and they think you work for the White House.
Luckily, I knew one other Chief of Staff in New Zealand. She urged me to check out On Deck’s Chief of Staff Fellowship.
Eager to surround myself with a community of people who could understand me professionally, I investigated. What was missing was a kind of lighthouse that could help me navigate my career. On Deck’s CoS Fellowship looked as though it could be that reference point.
Why I chose the Chief of Staff Fellowship
You can’t go on Google and search, “How to do a good job as a Chief of Staff.” In practice it is a subjective role, and no two days are the same. Duties depend completely on the organization’s size, goals, products, and growth stage.
I was looking for a community where I could receive personalized feedback. I was seeking customized resources that could indicate to me whether I was headed in the right direction. I wanted access to other Chiefs of Staff who’d been there, done that.
On Deck’s CoS Fellowship promised all this. But once I realized it also emphasized peer-to-peer learning, I was in.
I’d be able to participate, learn, and share alongside diverse and accomplished leaders from Reddit, Chime, Dropbox, and Founders Fund. Knowing the community could provide curated solutions to the unique everyday challenges CoS faces was a huge selling point.
The On Deck experience
Going from calling on only 1-2 other Chiefs of Staff to a few dozen was a breath of fresh air, and a huge relief. Many things stood out about the experience, but here’s what I loved the most.
Weekly group meetings: I jokingly call our weekly group meetings “Chief of Staff therapy,” but it was during these calls we’d make breakthroughs about our careers. We’d listen to the industry’s best share their strategies and viewpoints, which created a rich learning environment.
For instance, when Katie Szeto, Dropbox’s Chief of Staff for seven years presented, she provided useful analogies that spoke close to my professional heart. To her, the CoS plays the role of the band aid, where it’s their job to stop the bleeding but not be an all-encompassing solution. As a CoS, you’re expected to be useful, but at times we trick ourselves into thinking we can solve everything. Katie’s chat was a reminder to set boundaries, including when it’s time to walk away.
Naytri Shroff, Github’s CoS, also presented an amazing talk on ‘How to Build Strategic Influence Without Authority.’ She introduced the EIE approach (Edit, Influence, and Execute) which gave us a practical toolkit on how to build trust during executive onboarding as well as strengthen partnerships through consultation (and not decision making).
Community: In many cohort-based courses, communities are only as strong as the course’s duration date. Once the program closes out community members tend to drift apart. On Deck takes the time to maintain, nurture, and grow its Chief of Staff community. Since the CoS position can rapidly evolve, having access to continuous professional guidance is a blessing. It’s reassuring to know that as my career as a CoS expands I’ll have a community to advise me on new challenges that may arise.
Real World Applications: On Deck's Chief of Staff Fellowship gave us the chance to share what was going on at work and get feedback about our decision making. One week, I was dealing with a specific issue. I devised an action plan and presented it during one of our ODCoS weekly peer group meetings. Having seasoned industry executives listen to my game plan and offer modifications made me feel like I was leveling-up in real-time.
Confidence through vulnerability and validation
Sharing our professional roadblocks and navigating ambiguity wasn’t always easy. But there were times where I’d listen to other peers open up about the challenges they were facing, and respond with what I might do in their place.
At first, it felt daunting, considering Narrative is a 25-person startup. But having people respond with, “Great! I’m going to apply this to my 100-person company,” was validating. It represented that I did know what I was doing, and was a qualified resource for my company.
It’s every Chief of Staff’s dream to take their company through a hyper-growth stage. Narrative is rapidly approaching that stage, and I’m eager to help it navigate through its Series A.
If and when Narrative hits that milestone, I know I’ll be able to develop the appropriate strategic game plan to empower both my principals and team members. Being a Chief of Staff is a unique role, but On Deck’s peers and personalized tracks based on my career growth make me feel supported navigating the terrain.
Even without many Chiefs of Staff here at home in New Zealand, On Deck makes it feel like I’m not alone in my path of professional career growth.