Becoming Chief of Staff at Samagra - Demystifying the role from my experience
Ujjwal Relan
July 22, 2021

In July 2020, I became the first Chief of Staff to Samagra’s Founder and CEO Gaurav. I joined Samagra in 2017 and since then I had primarily worked on or managed consulting engagements with the Government of Haryana. Transitioning from typical consulting engagements to this role, that too being the first one in the firm to take it up made me both excited and anxious! But if my time at Samagra has prepared me for anything, it is to embrace the unknown and trust the journey. And with this as a personal commandment, I embarked on a year of challenges and opportunities to grow.

Wearing multiple hats

The thing about the Chief of Staff role, is that it means different things to different firms, particularly in startups. At Samagra, the Chief of Staff role meant taking on key organizational priorities internally and externally, ensuring quality execution so as to create more bandwidth for the CEO, and finally it meant being a sounding board and thought partner to him.

While building an organisation, a founder or CEO has to wear multiple hats. By extension, as Chief of Staff I got to wear these different hats as well. On the operations front, I worked with my team on streamlining the policies and processes critical to ensuring smooth functioning of the organisation. With respect to branding and growth, I got varied opportunities to shape the way the external world perceives and places Samagra within the governance and social impact ecosystem. This also directly fed into my work designing the firm’s recruitment strategy and operations for positions of varying seniority.

Beyond this, the two key pillars that maximised my learnings in this role were our programs (how we refer projects in Samagra) and people. Under programs, I did pre-work for upcoming consulting programs, managed short-term engagements and supported specific needs on our current programs. Within a period of one year, I got the chance to work on multiple complex governance problem statements across domains--education, skills, Aadhaar, digital governance, COVID response, health and more.

On the people front, I had to grapple with different elements of creating a vibrant and positive work culture at Samagra. This meant things as varied as ensuring the mental well-being of team members, understanding their concerns / suggestions with respect to policies or their professional trajectory, and identifying learning and growth opportunities for members across teams. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, mental well-being has taken on a deeper significance. Since we co-work with the government, most of our team members have to be in program locations supporting government leaders. With limited scope for working from home, it became critical to do what it takes to support the physical and mental well-being of teams by putting in the right policies / measures and providing proactive 1:1 support.

As part of an effort to ensure ongoing learning for team members, I got a chance to design leadership and skill-training workshops embedded in the governance context. Over the course of the year, I also worked on consolidating what constitutes Samagra’s organizational culture and what could be done to keep it intact.

Working on people-centric initiatives made me realize how building the right culture is intrinsic to setting up every team member for success and why the power of a firm, especially a consulting firm, rests in its people.

Expectations from the role

As Chief of Staff at Samagra, the essence of my role was providing leverage to the CEO so that his time and energy could be focused on more critical goals of the firm. While the specific demands of this role might vary across firms, based on my experience I would posit that there are 5 key characteristics of an effective Chief of Staff across firms.

  1. Getting things done: First and foremost is the mindset of getting things done. Once a goal is set, the Chief of Staff is expected to ensure that it is achieved as planned in the best possible manner. That’s the minimal assurance a CEO needs. And given one is representing the CEO, quality becomes non-negotiable. Within this, it also becomes critical over time that the Chief of Staff starts operating with minimal cover from the CEO. The more you can pull off with minimal inputs and the more you can grasp the organisational and CEO lens, the more leverage you can create for the CEO.
  2. Staying agile: A lot keeps happening at the organisation level on a daily basis. New external opportunities come up or sometimes an internal issue takes precedence. At times, both become equally important. Therefore, it is important to be agile, prioritize / de-prioritize on a frequent basis and not let anything fall through the cracks.
  3. Being effective with people: By virtue of this role, you are required to interact with people externally as well as internally across senior and junior positions on behalf of the CEO. Whether you have to work on an internal project with different teams in the firm or create a PPT on a new domain overnight for a presentation the next day or you want to communicate a change in an organizational policy to team members, it is crucial to have good people skills--active listening, clear and balanced communication, clarity of thought and collaborative yet assertive working style to drive outcomes while taking people along.
  4. Maintaining trust, confidentiality and honesty: Trust and confidentiality form the starting points of the relationship between the CEO and Chief of Staff. This creates the space for the CEO to share ideas / thoughts / failures / risks freely. At the same time, honesty and boldness from the Chief of Staff becomes key as the CEO needs to hear candid perspectives on his / her thinking to make better decisions.
  5. Demonstrating emotional maturity: At the CEO level, there is both--a lot of good and bad news that comes up all the time. There is also a significant amount of uncertainty. It is important for the Chief of Staff to maintain a calm demeanour and think objectively while supporting the CEO in handling different situations, particularly the tricky ones. This maturity is also needed to build a safe space with team members so that they can share their concerns / suggestions with the Chief of Staff freely with the same trust as they would vest in the CEO.

A glimpse of the Founder’s lens

Being the Chief of Staff to the CEO who is also the Founder in Samagra’s case, gave me great insight into how a Founder thinks.

From conceptualizing a new brand for a vertical, setting short-term goals at a firm level, evaluating the firm's growth trajectory over the next 10 years to thinking deeply about organizational culture--understanding the Founder's lens has been an insightful experience to say the least.

While there's a lot to share from my observations on the Founder's lens, I want to briefly mention the 5 elements that stood out the most for me - Vision, Culture, Grit, Timing and Values. Having a well-defined short-term and long-term vision for the firm, building a solid and conducive organizational culture, having unwavering grit to drive the firm towards its goals despite challenges, making timely strategic decisions even if those are tough calls and sticking to a set of core values at a firm level while making small or big decisions--is what can make or break a young organization.

A worthwhile experience

Given the diversity, complexity and rigour required in this role, positioned at the helm of a growing firm, the journey has been full of challenges and learnings. Turning around presentations and documents overnight, striking a fine balance between the CEO and team member lens, assessing every small or big challenge faced by the firm with an ownership mindset, keeping stress at bay during the hard times and multitasking between a diverse range of priorities have been some of the key challenges in this role.

Yet, the learnings have been infinitely more. Being Chief of Staff to the Founder and CEO of a growing firm with a mission that inspires me every day has been an immensely satisfying learning experience on the personal and professional front. To sum up, it has been a year of highs and lows, successes and failures, learnings and aspirations--a fulfilling glimpse into what building an organization looks like!