January 2024
Growing the chief of staff role in East Africa
Laban-Cliff Onserio, Alexandra Atkeson
3 min read
Alexandra Atkeson interviews Laban-Cliff Onserio about his own route to the chief of staff role and the advice he would give to others
How did you find yourself in your current role?
For three years I worked at Kenya’s Office of the President in the President’s Delivery Unit – a project execution arm of the Government. I was there because of my skills and experience in communication, but it brought me into contact with the chief of staff of the President, and I realised that it was a career direction that I wanted to explore. How the President communicates and explains policy issues and policy directives is critical to success, and I thought that I could have a similar impact in the private sector.
Becoming Chief of Staff in the Office of the Group CEO at Standard Media Group was a good fit for me. Because of my media background, I understand the sector and the sorts of challenges that are emerging, so I can really help the CEO with all aspects of the organisation.
Digitalisation has already changed the media landscape almost beyond recognition, and now artificial intelligence (AI) is threatening to disrupt it further. What is your view of the potential impact on the industry?
Our organisation was the first of its kind in the region to adopt a digital-first approach, following in the footsteps of a number of international organisations. So we can honestly say that we are at the forefront of cutting edge communication in the media space in Kenya.
The challenge has been that people now have access to all sorts of information, some of it masquerading as ‘news’, on their phones – and free. They used to have to buy a newspaper, but at least that purchase came with some sort of guarantee of quality and objectivity – which is not at all the case with many of the digital channels these days! So we’ve had to go to the audience to tell them, 'this is the news’. It’s been tough, but having international partners and having led the way, we know it’s something that can happen and something that can be done.
AI is an interesting issue. I know that there are concerns about plagiarism and accuracy, because AI can only work through ‘learning’ from existing material and knowledge. But that same technology means it can save time by very quickly checking facts and synthesising reports, which, if you ask me, is a benefit. I am not particularly worried about AI’s ability to create content that people want to read: to tell a human-interest story you have to go to the humans behind that story and get them to open up and talk in their own words. I do not see AI ever being able to do that.
As a chief of staff, you have to build relationships externally and internally. What is the most difficult relationship to manage as a chief of staff in your experience?
Someone once told me that being a chief of staff was like being a ‘mini CEO’ and that has a lot of truth: you actually feel the pressure that the CEO goes through at a personal level.
In my experience, managing internal stakeholders – employees, the board, etc. – comes quite naturally, and, anyway, you can put in place processes to help, from regular meetings to electronic newsletters and daily updates. External stakeholders are a lot more unpredictable. You are not uppermost in their minds the whole time, and they can change direction suddenly without consulting or even informing you. You could argue that’s bad stakeholder management on their part, but the point is that you have no control over them. You just have to work hard on keeping communication open and frequent.
What are key skills that you would advise other chiefs of staff to build?
Certainly in this part of the world, the chief of staff job has been skewed towards problem-solving – trying to cool temperatures, trying to handle tough situations. It’s a critical skill and one that CEOs will look for when hiring.
The other side of that is resilience – both your own and that of the organisation. Make sure that you have your shock absorbers on point, because you might not see what’s ahead, but if you have good shock absorbers and good tyres you can land safely on the other side of the bump. How do you do that? On a personal level I really recommend people to take up an activity or skill outside work. I’m learning to play golf, and I find that focusing on that allows my brain to catch up in the background. I come back to work with more energy and creativity.
Finally, and speaking as a communicator, it is important to learn when to stop communicating. Sometimes we need to pause and really listen to the other person and understand what they want to hear from us.
You’ve been the Chief of Staff Association’s regional director for East Africa for the past year. What have you enjoyed about that experience?
I am grateful to CSA for giving me the opportunity to spearhead the organisation in East Africa. We have interest from so many leaders in the military, government, NGOs, private companies and startups – people saying, ‘I want a chief of staff. How do I get one and what should I look for?’ At the same time, we are aware of people who want to become a chief of staff and are looking for support.
Laban-Cliff Onserio
Chief of Staff Regional staff for East Africa
Laban-Cliff Onserio is the First Chief of Staff in the Office of the Group CEO at Standard Media Group in Kenya. He previously worked at Kenya’s Office of the President in the President’s Delivery Unit; a government project execution arm supported by the Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Institute. Since June 2022 he has served as the Regional Director, Eastern Africa for the Chief of Staff Association. Out of work he enjoys motorsports and is a rally co-driver in the World Rally Championship and assists in handling communications for the East African Safari Classic Rally.