The Right Hand Man in a $20 B Corporation

I just had a fun lunch with the Chief of Staff of the president of a $20 billion technology company. His job is help carry out the President’s priorities across the massive organization. (We entrepreneurs have a hard time wrapping our heads around the sheer scale of such a business.)

I’m fascinated by the “shadow government” that exists in some of the world’s most complex organizations. What kind of support staff does a CEO whose time is worth $2,000 / hour have? Does he answer all his emails himself? Does her support staff help manage her personal life, too?

More interesting than the logistical support is the member of the executive’s inner circle who plays a strategic right hand man role — helps set and carry out priorities, organize cross-functional projects, and so forth. The right hand man stays behind the scenes — we don’t know their names — but they are almost surely some of the most influential people in business. Karl Rove seems to play this role in the current U.S. federal government.

One thing I learned today is that a Chief of Staff (or equivalent) needs to be careful about invoking his/her boss when trying to get stuff done. When you work for the #1 person in huge company, it’s easy to say, “John said so,” and people will do it. But this isn’t a sustainable approach. In fact, the very reason a Chief of Staff can be effective is that whereas people will simply do what the CEO says without thinking and internalizing the reasons behind such action, the right hand man can make sure people really see with their own eyes that something needs to be done a certain way.

It’s easy to bash big corporations as less challenging and less fun when compared to a start-up. Certainly this is the case at an entry level or mid-management level. But my lunch today reinforced that at the highest levels of some of the largest organizations the caliber of people is extremely high, the impact of their actions enormous, and communication / logistical challenges astounding but solvable (which are the best kinds of challenges).

Anyone else know of behind-the-scenes men or women who are true strategic right-hand-men?

Related Article: New York Times ($) piece on Henry Paulson’s right-hand man, who wields enormous influence, sits in on important meetings, and has perfected the art of not only making the trains run on time, but truly extending the reach of his boss throughout an organization.

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