January 2024
Navigating different contexts as a chief of staff: lessons from the public and private sectors
Dominika Bukalova
5 min read
Dominika Bukalova draws on her personal experience and research to examine how the chief of staff role changes from sector to sector.
Sometimes when we read a description of the chief of staff role it can seem like ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’. There is a long list of possible responsibilities ranging from strategy development and major projects to communications and people management, and an even longer list of competencies that are apparently critical to success. This can make it difficult for the potential chief of staff to assess their suitability for the role – and equally difficult for someone considering hiring a chief of staff to know what to look for. But in fact, while there are some responsibilities and competencies that are consistent across all sectors – public sector organisations, nonprofits, private sector companies – the challenges to the chief of staff can vary quite significantly according to the context. Some of the biggest differences are between the public and private sectors. In exploring these differences, and the strategies required by chiefs of staff in navigating the two spheres, I draw on my own experience as a chief of staff for the council president in San Diego, California, my leadership coaching practice, and my experience as a strategic planning consultant working with chiefs of staff. A new chapter of my career as an assistant professor of public administration also informs this work, for my research explores the competencies of leaders and leader development, including the chief of staff. Developing self-awareness, operating with honesty and integrity, fostering strong relationships, and remaining adaptive are just some of the key competencies consistent across all sectors. The focus here is to highlight some the key differences between the public and private sectors.

Serving the public good, including attending to public value and service

The nature of public organisations is distinctive, and the reason it matters is that a chief of staff has to know how a public sector organisation functions, its mission, and responsibilities to deliver specific services, and in how to deliver the best and most equitable outcomes. Some scholars consider abiding by public values as a point of difference in the drivers that influence the nature of public leadership, while others point out that there are unique features of administrative leadership in the public sector. Essentially, the context of the public sector and the responsibilities of serving the public places particular responsibilities on the chief of staff that influence how they navigate through organisational networks. While environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues are growing concerns in the private sector, they are at the heart of public service and significantly impact the day-to-day work of all public sector chiefs of staff.
In recent years, the expectations of public leaders have evolved to include engaging with citizens beyond the traditional customer service-type interactions towards more authentic engagement. For example, a chief of staff in a public service organisation might develop and enhance policy in partnership with the community, rather than simply ask stakeholders to confirm or approve developed proposals without their input along the way (as a chief of staff in a private organisation does). Ultimately, a chief of staff is well advised to keep in mind these words of wisdom from Leon Panetta: ‘I strongly believe that the purpose of public service is to give others a better life’.

Attending to the four pillars of public administration

Ideally, a public sector chief of staff will be well-versed in understanding the interplay of the four pillars of public administration and will consider equity, effectiveness, economy, and efficiency in decision-making and negotiating policy and outcomes. While an in-depth discussion of these guiding principles is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that there are expectations of transparency and public access that interact with the work of the chief of staff in the public sector. For example, relating to equity of access to the legislative process in California, a public sector chief of staff must be well-versed in the Ralph M. Brown Act, which sets out parameters for open meetings for legislative bodies. As technology continues to evolve, chiefs of staff will play a pivotal role in ensuring that the public has access to elected officials and the legislative process.

A special type of relationship with the elected and public – sector specific emotional labour

While in both sectors the chief of staff is likely to serve as a proxy for the CEO or elected official, the nature of the relationship may be different in the public and private sectors. Most obviously, in the public sector, the chief of staff will navigate party politics, other elected officials, their staff, and, in their time outside of the office, any campaign and election-related considerations. Additionally, a public sector chief of staff takes on a tremendous amount of emotional labour, which requires effectively managing one’s emotions in an organisational setting. Given that the elected official is shouldering an exceptional amount of emotional labour themselves as conduit and representative for the public, the official may also be less available to provide such emotional labour for the team, leaving the chief of staff to absorb a greater portion of this responsibility. As one chief of staff shared with me, it is commonly accepted that the elected official should not have to attend to human resource issues in the team. These considerations are critical, because over time, left unaddressed, they may impact the ability of the chief of staff to make sound strategic decisions.

In the private sector, the chief of staff is likely to be a catch-all role

In the public sector, the chief of staff role is commonly assumed to include the day-to-day operations relating to the administration of the office, the policy-making process, and strategy. In the private sector, however, the role appears to depend to a much greater degree on the needs of the principal. In his 2020 Harvard Business Review article ‘The case for a chief of staff’, Dan Ciampa identifies three levels of the chief of staff role and accompanying capabilities. A chief of staff at level one focuses primarily on maximising efficiency and includes minimal organisational change, while a chief of staff at level two is expected to address more complex organisational issues, such as implementing strategy and managing some organisational change. Only at level three is the chief of staff expected to manage complex strategic decisions and oversee significant organisational changes. Such levels or distinctions do not usually exist in the public sector.


From the macro-level perspective, in relation to decision-making and negotiating, timeframes in the public and private sectors can be vastly different, since in the public sector, the work of the chief of staff is impacted by election cycles and limited terms, and all strategic decisions must consider the cycles of public organisations and the boundaries of term limits. As one public sector chief of staff told me, there are different seasons for the public sector, such as the budget season and the campaign season, that shape the context. These dynamics impact the playing field relating to what a chief of staff has to consider with strategic planning, goals, what boundaries to navigate, and the stakeholders with whom they must negotiate.

Accountability and sources of authority

While organisations in both sectors ought to have a work plan, a private sector organisation is likely to focus on deliverables that will impact a company’s bottom line, including increasing revenue and expanding the customer base. In the public sector, however, the ultimate goal is public service. While political and policy priorities affect the motivation behind decisions, consideration and discussion of these is outside the scope of this article. In negotiations, the chief of staff derives their authority or legitimacy from the elected official or the institution, while in the private sector, the authority to negotiate is more often granted by the chief executive.

A web of loyalties

Competing loyalties often complicate a chief of staff’s decision-making ability in a public sector context. As one chief of staff pointed out to me, in the private sector, most stakeholders defer to the top executive; however, in a political environment, loyalties to various causes and organisations can add great complexity to the work of the chief of staff. Staff rarely join public sector organisations out of loyalty to an individual: most enter public service because they care deeply about certain causes, which may include dedication to a range of issues from labour rights to environmental justice. The chief of staff must be adept at navigating these overlapping, and at times competing loyalties. As a chief of staff suggested, unless the conflicting loyalties between the chief of staff and the elected official are irreparable, the chief of staff will likely ‘stick it out.’ However, the key is for the chief of staff also to keep other staff in alignment with the elected official’s vision and the priorities for the office in the face of these competing loyalties. When in doubt, it is wise to remember the dictum attributed to Mark Twain: ‘Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.’


As a chief of staff and later as an advisor working with chiefs of staff in both the private and public sectors, I often struggled to find guidance on how to excel in the chief of staff role, or where to turn for resources. Over time, I have developed a deep understanding about the chief of staff role, and in this article I have presented my observations, some of the knowledge I have collected across the literature, and key lessons specific to supporting a chief of staff’s ability to navigate organisations and effectively negotiate with prime decision-makers. The purpose of this article is to share my insights and add value by distinguishing between the key competencies needed for success in the public and the private sectors.
Sometimes when we read a description of a chief of staff it can seem like ‘everything but the kitchen sink’. It can seem unwieldy to sort through existing information about the role, to tease out what you need to ensure it suits your needs. With this in mind, this article is not intended to be a comprehensive list for any chief of staff role or scenario, but it addresses a particular focus on the critical strategic aspects of the chief of staff in navigating the public and private contexts with the intent to effectively negotiate in these types of organisations and with their respective decision-makers.
I argue that while there are some similarities, there are, in fact, key differences in the challenges that chief of staff face in these two arenas.
Ultimately, a chief of staff is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for delivering on your organisational goals and supporting the overall success of your organisation. I hope that the lessons I offer can help you reflect on the full picture of the chief of staff role and that this article can shed further light on this critical role from a new perspective.

B. C. Crosby, and J. M. Bryson, ‘Why Leadership of Public Leadership Research Matters: And What to Do about It’, Public Management Review, 20, no. 9 (2018), 1265–1286; H. Getha-Taylor, M. H. Holmes, W. S. Jacobson, R. S. Morse, and J. E. Sowa, ‘Focusing the Public Leadership Lens: Research Propositions and Questions in the Minnowbrook Tradition’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, (1 January 2011).
M. Van Wart, ‘Lessons from Leadership Theory and the Contemporary Challenges of Leaders’, Public Administration Review, 73, no. 4 (2013), 553–565. Janet V. Denhardt and Robert B. Denhardt, The New Public Service: Serving, not Steering (M. E. Sharpe, 2011).
Leon Panetta, ‘The Chief of Staff as a Strong Leader: A Foreword from Secretary Leon Panetta’, The Chief of Staff (2021), (30 December 2021). M. E. Guy, M. A. Newman, and S. H. Mastracci, Emotional Labor: Putting the Service in Public Service (Routledge, 2014).
D. Ciampa, ‘The Case for a Chief of Staff’, Harvard Business Review 98, no. 3 (2020), 105–111.
Author Bio
Dominika Bukalova
Assistant Professor of Public Administration
Dominika Bukalova is an assistant professor of public administration at San Diego State University. Previously she served as the Chief of Staff to the Council President of the City of San Diego. She holds a PhD in leadership studies from the University of San Diego and her current research focuses on the competencies that leaders need to address the challenges in the public sector.