Playing Chess, Not Checkers: Intuit’s Brad Smith on the Value of a Chief of Staff Role

April 22, 2019

I recently sat down with the current Chairman of the Board and former CEO of Intuit, Brad Smith, to ask him about his experience with the Chief of Staff role. I have followed Brad on LinkedIn and in the news for some time because we are both originally from WV and are both alumni of Marshall University, but I found his commentary on the CoS role to be very insightful, focused, and applicable, and I know you will, too. Check it out:

Tyler: Tell me about the first time you used a chief of staff (CoS). What were the challenges you were having that led you to a CoS, versus, say, relying on the existing leadership team or other staff?  Had you seen the role being used in other places, or did someone suggest it to you?

Brad: I was late to the party. I had taken over as CEO in 2008, and it was not until about 2013 that one of my peers who was also on the board – Jeff Weiner – the CEO of LinkedIn said, “Why do you not have a CoS?” My answer was very simple. Bill Campbell was our coach and chairman for 21 years, and Bill was famous for saying “If you have a CEO and COO, someone doesn’t need a job.” His belief was that the CEO was not a press box job – you need to be down on the field coaching the players, understanding what’s happening at the front lines, and not having a proxy do that for you. So, I had always been closed minded about the CoS until I had some people who I really respected, who were very hands-on leaders, and were good at delegating, tell me that a CoS gave them infinite scale. It wasn’t until 2013 that I sought to understand the best practices of the CoS.

If I had to lay out a continuum that goes from an admin to a gatekeeper to a counselor/thought partner to an implementer to a proxy, we started out in the middle of counselor and a little to the right of the implementer. That was the model, and I ended up with 2 CoS in my last 6 years last CEO: 3 years with one who has met with considerable success in the banking industry and continues to have tremendous career runway and another who is running a multi-billion dollar business for another banking organization. Both of them came from a consulting background, were very strategic, had incredible structured thinking, were good at facilitating engagements, had C-suite experience from presenting to CEOs and boards of directors for McKinsey and Bain, but they also got shit done. They were the right mix of strategic, process oriented, collaborative, and accountable.


 “The CoS enabled me to play chess, not checkers.”


Tyler: What tactics and strategies have you and your CoS found to be most effective at keeping the Board engaged and up-to-date in the business (and building relationships with the executive team) outside of board meetings?

Brad: In my current role as chairman of board, I didn’t bring a CoS with me. I don’t have a liaison with the rest of the board. When I was CEO, my chiefs of staff were not liaisons to the board – they were liaisons to the CEO’s staff and organization for execution. They didn’t really engage between me and the board. They were in the board room, and they were helping me be really clear about what priorities they owned on behalf off the company, and what decision spaces in which they could make the call versus situations where other people made the call.

If you took the board out of it, they were first the Chief Transformation Officers. We had identified 6 major priorities to transform the company to a new chapter. Their job was to make sure that those priorities were resourced, that there were operating mechanisms to measure progress, and that they removed barriers that got in the way. The second thing they were responsible for was velocity of execution. We call it speed as a habit. The CoS job was in part Chief Friction Buster to make sure the organization could move quickly in the right direction. The third was, we had a set of operating mechanisms we used to run the company from staff meetings to strategy reviews to off sites. The CoS was the key driver – I never delegated the full accountability, but the CoS would facilitate in such a way that would allow me to participate only where I needed to have the marker in my hand to make a point. Finally, my CoS were on point for one of the company’s 6 priorities themselves, in addition to facilitating the other 5. They had accountability for something, so it was an operating job, not just an orchestrating job.

That was an informed choice where I differed from my advisors. Their view was, pick a high potential, early-career person who will benefit from shadowing you as CoS, and they’ll get tremendous growth from getting exposed to the rest of the company. I took the other route, which is like General Stanley McChrystal, who led the joint special ops command and was our consultant here in 2012-2015. You know, 4-star generals have 1- and 2- star generals, and so I made the choice to make this a Senior VP job, much more like those generals.  They were not a junior varsity player relying on authority bestowed by me, trying to convince Sr. VPs to do stuff. They were Sr. VPs – early ones – but they had run a business unit or R&D and had enough personal heft that they could get stuff done without me having to force people to cooperate with them.


“If the CoS had just followed me trying to make this a great meeting, we would have been very tactical instead of strategic, and that was a great lesson for me to learn.”


Tyler: Tactically speaking, how have you run your most effective leadership team meetings?  How do you think about building the agenda, and where to focus the executive team’s time? What role does your CoS play in prepping and steering LT meetings?

Brad: Of time, people, and dollars, the only one we can’t get more of is time. We are incredibly discriminating about how we build agendas and if you took the agenda for a staff meeting or operating review and broke it into 100 points to allocate, 30 points of that is recurring agenda items like KPIs that we use to run the business. Only 30%, because you can read a KPI elsewhere. We focus on the variations. We drill down on any variation – positive or negative — not just the “red” items. If we’re ahead of target, we want to know why, what surprised you. If we’re yellow, we want to know what the 2nd and 3rd level diagnostics are, and if it’s red, we want to know root cause, a plan, and a time frame.

We don’t do bottoms-up agendas. There’s no polling everyone to ask what we should talk about.We’ve agreed up front to what the major strategic drivers are for the company, and the CEO sets the agenda. We basically say, “Look, we’re here to talk about high availability during tax season, or about transforming ourselves into a data driven platform.”  We have no more than 3 topics, because we want to go deep and want it to be meaningful. We begin every meeting with “This will be a successful discussion if we can conclude the meeting with the following outcomes.” And those could be clear next steps, a decision made, or a choice to shut something down or proceed.

The CoS’s job is to make sure that the work product that needs to be ready for that meeting to be productive is done, published 48hrs in advance, and that everyone has read it in advance. And then the CoS facilitates the discussion to get to the desired outcome, whether it’s a decision, clear next steps, or go/no-go.

Tyler: At this point, you can look back at a very accomplished tenure as CEO, characterized by the successful navigation of some major transformational change. Are there things you couldn’t have achieved – or it would have been much harder to achieve – without your CoS?

Brad: Yes. Breadth of impact and velocity of execution.

Breadth of impact is that a COS helps take a CEO’s or chairman’s individual ability and turns it into organizational capability. A CoS helps you unpack your principles and frameworks and codify those so that the organization begins to operate with a similar set of decision principles and frameworks. That’s how you get breadth of impact.

Velocity of execution is when someone’s day job is focused on being servant leader and friction buster, constantly looking for bottlenecks, places where projects are jammed up,  and has the authority and credibility to move resources or to unblock those roadblocks. It speeds up the execution of the org, so the CEO can remain focused on looking out the windshield instead of always looking at the dashboard.


“We had executive assistants and senior staff members, but we didn’t want more than one CoS.There were questions, and everyone wanted one. But we said no, and we were really clear why.”


Tyler: Do you have a favorite “situation room” story where you and your CoS worked together to achieve a desired outcome? For example, a high-stakes decision that you needed to make (perhaps where there were no good, much less easy, answers), a crisis handled or averted, or a conflict resolved. What was at stake, and what did your CoS contribute to the outcome?

Brad: Yes. In 2014 – the stolen IDs from major retailers, healthcare providers, others, had made their way into the dark web and were being used as logins for tax products and healthcare.  Since TurboTax has 2/3 market share, we were the first to see this enemy coming across the line. Unfortunately, it was misinterpreted in the early going, by 23 states, as TurboTax had been breached, and we were facing being shut down (indefinitely) in those states. We had to go into crisis mode, because it was tax season.

The CoS enabled me to play chess, not checkers. They set up a “situation room,” which was our staff meeting and board room, and arranging the calls I needed to make. I talked to governors of 23 states for about 15 minutes at a time, I needed the IRS commissioner on the phone, and I called the competitive CEOs of other tax products to get everyone aligned and agree that this was not a TurboTax problem but a systemic problem, that we’re all under attack, and that we all needed to put our competitive jerseys aside and fight the common enemy, which was cyber criminals. We lived in our staff meeting and board room, where we had our KPIs and real-time monitoring, for about 3 weeks. So, the CoS was basically the logistics and supply chain that enabled me and the team to focus on most important conversations until that situation was resolved.

Tyler: Tell us about a time when your CoS changed your mind about something. How did that unfold, what strategies or tactics did they use, and what was the outcome?

Brad: When I was preparing for a leadership conference where we were driving a lot of change around our expectations of leaders, my thinking was, “How are we going to make the event highly experiential so that the net promoter score on that particular leadership conference was great?” In other words, would people say that was a day well invested? Did they feel like they learned something and have a hands-on experience and left more capable than when they came in?

My CoS said that’s one way to measure success, but another way to look at it is, “What’s the change we want to see 12 months from now, and how will we know that this leadership conference is moving us in that direction?” In other words, how do we measure success 12 months from now and not in the next 24 hours?  That changed my whole frame. It shifted my energy into ensuring people leave fully equipped that day, and my closing statement needed to be “Here’s what I expect of you starting Monday,” versus  “We’ll mail the presentations out to you 2 weeks.” It also meant that we needed to change our incentives for next 12 months to build into everyone’s performance expectations. If the CoS had just followed me trying to make this a great meeting, we would have been very tactical instead of strategic, and that was a great lesson for me to learn.


“(The CoS role) is going to be a problem if you don’t get really clear about the job description.”


Tyler: At some enterprise-level companies, not only the CEO but the entire C-suite and maybe even VPs have chiefs of staff. Do you worry about the role proliferating “too far down” in the organization? How far is too far?

Brad: We were very clear from the beginning – we were not going to perpetuate a CoS below my role. It’s related to why we made the decision to say it’s a Sr. VP job. It is not an up-and-coming high potential. So, the CTO and the CMO and the CFO could not have one. We had executive assistants and senior staff members, but we didn’t want more than one CoS. All of the “chiefs” report to the CEO. Nobody else in the company can have a chief anything. There were questions, and everyone wanted one. But we said no, and we were really clear why.

Tyler: You don’t have to name names, but did you ever have a CoS that didn’t work out? If so, what did you learn from that?

Brad: Both of my chiefs of staff were awesome and have moved on to their own successes.

But just last week, this was a discussion at a Silicon Valley CEO round table that my successor ran. One of the CEOs asked, how many of you have a CoS? 50% did, 50% didn’t. When the 50% who didn’t were asked why, a number of them said that they had had one previously but it had become a power broker, became political, they think they’re a proxy for me when they’re not, there always ends up being a food fight about whether staff want to speak directly to me or go through my CoS. Another thing they said was that It became a disillusioning job for these talented people, because the chief of staff felt like they were coming in and doing all this grunt work and weren’t being given meaningful work. So, it’s going to be a problem if you don’t get really clear about the job description.

Mostly, the ones who had them loved them, including me. I think it’s a role everyone should have now that I’ve seen what it can do.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.