The Post Covid19 CoS, Pt. 1: Reading The Room When There Is No Room

June 4, 2020 (Adapted from my newsletter, The Briefing. Originally published May 4, 2020.)


Our March 25 issue of The Briefing covered resources that might help in managing through crisis or chaotic times. Check it out if you missed it.


Ready or not, the distributed or remote, digital-first CoS is on the rise, increasingly replacing her primarily co-located peers. What will this new normal look like?

Even before Covid-19, there were a growing number of successful chiefs of staff who worked primarily or exclusively remotely and who carried out the role with a digital-first mindset. I have to admit, the remote-only CoS model has been a mind shift for me, because I was onsite/in person for most of my CoS tenure, and I thought that a lot of the value came from being in person. Turns out, there are parts of the role that are more valuable when carried out in person, but not as many as you might think, and not so much more valuable that they don’t warrant reconsideration. When you take the trade offs as a whole, CEOs will find the digital-first/remote CoS good enough in some ways, and even better in others. If you’re always learning, and serious about continuous improvement, you could, too. Covid-19 has accelerated this development, and I doubt we will ever look back.

This is the first part in a series on how the CoS role is changing under our feet, and what that change will look like. It won’t be exhaustive, because so much is still unfolding around us. Still, I think you will appreciate the insights here, because they will enable you to make adjustments and bring along your exec, leadership team, and organization with you if that’s required in your context.


“Reading the room requires extra attention in the virtual context. Use video as much as possible. Use a Gallery View of participants in that video call, so you can simultaneously see all participants (or as many as you can) at once. Explicitly check or call for alignment more frequently than you would in person. Other techniques may also be required to explicitly check or call for alignment, or to call for dissenting opinions, so that you can ensure psychological safety and get to ‘disagree & commit.’” – Richard McLean


Part 1: “Reading the Room”
If you’ve read my book, you know that Translation and Interpretation is one of the universal competencies for chiefs of staff. You practice it, in part, by listening not only to what’s being said in meetings but also what’s not being said; by asking clarifying questions; and by providing clarity and missing context for the people around you. In short, “reading the room.” Without reading the room effectively, you will miss cues that the team is resistant to what you or your executive is saying, you will remain blind to your leadership team’s – and your exec’s – blind spots, and you will not drill down on the right information or will drill down on the right information but not at the right time. An effective reading of the room can create the clarity and shared context on which the team explore options and make decisions.

What I’ve come to learn in studying digital-first chiefs of staff is that the work of “reading” is more important than actually being in a room. People have lots of feelings and opinions about being in a room or being virtual. For some people, being in a room, with others, helps them to feel connected and in touch with the non verbals, the cues, etc. Some people have developed sophisticated systems for reading these and use them to adapt to their social environment. And when you change that, it feels stilted and unnatural. They don’t trust it. But one person’s connected feeling in a room is another’s feeling of pressure to speak without fully formulating your thoughts, because the conversation moves quickly, or to interrupt to get your points across.

Still, as the “room” changes from a boardroom to a Zoom call, some interesting things start to happen.  In order to keep everyone from talking at the same time, which is chaos on a virtual call, turn taking takes a more prominent role. This enables the quieter voices in the room to speak without interrupting, or being interrupted – they’re likely being called on more often. This also moderates the dominators, especially when paired with a time limit to make your points or ask your questions. You can run in-person meetings with rules that drive these behaviors, but most teams are not that disciplined, and they revert to less productive modes when meeting in person. Also, in virtual meetings, people can rely on chat or other written modes of communication as well as features in popular videoconferencing tools that enable them to “raise their hand” when they have something to say. Virtual meetings, because they exaggerate some of the dysfunctions of our meetings generally, have become the forcing function for some of the disciplines that team should be using – but typically aren’t – in in-person meetings. And, if you agree that the chief of staff is at least partly a facilitative leader, responsible for the ground rules and functioning of LT meetings as well as influencing and contributing to the agenda and substance, all of this makes the role of facilitator even more important.

According to Richard McLean, a home-based CoS in Cambridgeshire, UK, reading the room requires extra attention in the virtual context. “Use video as much as possible,” he says. “Use a Gallery View of participants in that video call, so you can simultaneously see all participants (or as many as you can) at once. Explicitly check or call for alignment more frequently than you would in person. Other techniques may also be required to explicitly check or call for alignment, or to call for dissenting opinions, so that you can ensure psychological safety and get to ‘disagree & commit.’” As a quick aside, what would happen to your in-person meetings if you more frequently called for alignment or debate?

If you end up with people audio only, then the CoS-exec tandem have to pay even more attention. They have to listen very carefully for tone of voice, or changes to tone of voice. Pacing, or how fast or slow someone is talking. Word choices. And so forth.  The CoS-exec tandem might also have to adapt by having more context sharing conversations between them to arrive at a shared understand of what just happened in the call. “Here’s what I’m seeing right now – is that what you’re seeing?” You arrive at shared meaning this way, but with tools like Zoom and Slack you might actually arrive at that shared meaning more quickly/efficiently using chat/messaging, during the meeting, than the CoS-exec tandem having to sync at the end of a day of meetings.

There are trade offs, of course. While context sharing can happen in real time, that in itself requires a shift away from the current conversation to attend to it. Sending Slack messages while listening to a speaker or ongoing discussion, debate, or dialog is likely to impede comprehension and retention, at least today. Further context or meaning is likely to be missed while other activities are being attended to.  Study after study shows that multitasking is a myth and that we really don’t do it as well as we think. When people end up audio-only, you lose the ability to read NVCs and have to rely on other, less reliable ways of arriving at shared meaning, or ways that require a lot more work.  And a lot of people simply get overwhelmed with a video, audio, chat function, polls, and hand raises all available at the same time.  Perhaps this will change over time as digital natives demonstrate more and more sophistication in shifting in and out of the various modalities available to them. It would be tempting to say that conversations will not be more efficient if these tools are distracting and focus spreading instead of focus-ing. I submit they will offer efficiencies but optimized for different outcomes.

Finally, the “extra attention” that McLean points to could mean you need to invest more time for a while (I know, as if you didn’t already have enough on your plate!). That’s a tricky proposition, I know, but consider the value to your organization if you do this well, and then prioritize as appropriate. Remember, as the folks over at Lucid Meetings point out, there are at least 16 types of meetings, and:

  • how you prep for each of those types (now virtually)
  • how you prep others for them (now virtually)
  • how you facilitate them in the moment (now virtually)

requires intentionality. If you’ve been at this a while, you can intuit your way through (some of) that process. If you’re new to the facilitative leader function, it will take some focus time.

Clearly, there are some opportunities and challenges in the new world, but it is unlikely that we’re turning back. Are you ready?

For further reading:



Chief of Staff Mastermind Cohort 2 – Registration Open Through Midnight June 12’s Chief of Staff Mastermind Cohort 2 is a year-long learning experience with 12-20 chiefs of staff from Fortune 50, startups, nonprofits, and academics that combines the power of peer advisory, CoS-specific training, and group and 1:1 coaching. For some of you, the timing is not now, with everything going on – for others, this is precisely the time to get the support you need in this challenging role and these challenging times.

Given the current context, we revamped Cohort 2 as a more virtual offering that lessens the time commitment from already-busy chiefs of staff and offers more flexible pricing than our previous workshop and cohort offerings. Here’s a video I made that highlights what you’ll get out of the cohort.

Learn more or register now.

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