In July 2020, I became the first Chief of Staff to Samagra’s Founder and CEO Gaurav. I joined Samagra in 2017 and since then I had primarily worked on or managed consulting engagements with the Government of Haryana. Transitioning from typical consulting engagements to this role, that too being the first one in the firm to take it up made me both excited and anxious! But if my time at Samagra has prepared me for anything, it is to embrace the unknown and trust the journey. And with this as a personal commandment, I embarked on a year of challenges and opportunities to grow.
Wearing multiple hats
The thing about the Chief of Staff role, is that it means different things to different firms, particularly in startups. At Samagra, the Chief of Staff role meant taking on key organizational priorities internally and externally, ensuring quality execution so as to create more bandwidth for the CEO, and finally it meant being a sounding board and thought partner to him.
While building an organisation, a founder or CEO has to wear multiple hats. By extension, as Chief of Staff I got to wear these different hats as well. On the operations front, I worked with my team on streamlining the policies and processes critical to ensuring smooth functioning of the organisation. With respect to branding and growth, I got varied opportunities to shape the way the external world perceives and places Samagra within the governance and social impact ecosystem. This also directly fed into my work designing the firm’s recruitment strategy and operations for positions of varying seniority.
Beyond this, the two key pillars that maximised my learnings in this role were our programs (how we refer projects in Samagra) and people. Under programs, I did pre-work for upcoming consulting programs, managed short-term engagements and supported specific needs on our current programs. Within a period of one year, I got the chance to work on multiple complex governance problem statements across domains--education, skills, Aadhaar, digital governance, COVID response, health and more.
On the people front, I had to grapple with different elements of creating a vibrant and positive work culture at Samagra. This meant things as varied as ensuring the mental well-being of team members, understanding their concerns / suggestions with respect to policies or their professional trajectory, and identifying learning and growth opportunities for members across teams. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, mental well-being has taken on a deeper significance. Since we co-work with the government, most of our team members have to be in program locations supporting government leaders. With limited scope for working from home, it became critical to do what it takes to support the physical and mental well-being of teams by putting in the right policies / measures and providing proactive 1:1 support.
As part of an effort to ensure ongoing learning for team members, I got a chance to design leadership and skill-training workshops embedded in the governance context. Over the course of the year, I also worked on consolidating what constitutes Samagra’s organizational culture and what could be done to keep it intact.
Working on people-centric initiatives made me realize how building the right culture is intrinsic to setting up every team member for success and why the power of a firm, especially a consulting firm, rests in its people.
Expectations from the role
As Chief of Staff at Samagra, the essence of my role was providing leverage to the CEO so that his time and energy could be focused on more critical goals of the firm. While the specific demands of this role might vary across firms, based on my experience I would posit that there are 5 key characteristics of an effective Chief of Staff across firms.
A glimpse of the Founder’s lens
Being the Chief of Staff to the CEO who is also the Founder in Samagra’s case, gave me great insight into how a Founder thinks.
From conceptualizing a new brand for a vertical, setting short-term goals at a firm level, evaluating the firm's growth trajectory over the next 10 years to thinking deeply about organizational culture--understanding the Founder's lens has been an insightful experience to say the least.
While there's a lot to share from my observations on the Founder's lens, I want to briefly mention the 5 elements that stood out the most for me - Vision, Culture, Grit, Timing and Values. Having a well-defined short-term and long-term vision for the firm, building a solid and conducive organizational culture, having unwavering grit to drive the firm towards its goals despite challenges, making timely strategic decisions even if those are tough calls and sticking to a set of core values at a firm level while making small or big decisions--is what can make or break a young organization.
A worthwhile experience
Given the diversity, complexity and rigour required in this role, positioned at the helm of a growing firm, the journey has been full of challenges and learnings. Turning around presentations and documents overnight, striking a fine balance between the CEO and team member lens, assessing every small or big challenge faced by the firm with an ownership mindset, keeping stress at bay during the hard times and multitasking between a diverse range of priorities have been some of the key challenges in this role.
Yet, the learnings have been infinitely more. Being Chief of Staff to the Founder and CEO of a growing firm with a mission that inspires me every day has been an immensely satisfying learning experience on the personal and professional front. To sum up, it has been a year of highs and lows, successes and failures, learnings and aspirations--a fulfilling glimpse into what building an organization looks like!