Where a growing circle of business leaders comes to share, learn, and inspire organizations to put people first

Whirling Chief


Tyler Parris

Tyler Parris is a Hudson-certified executive and career coach, former corporate chief of staff, and author of Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization. His career has spanned operations management at Intellectual Ventures, program management at Advaiya, Inc., technical editing at Microsoft, and computer networking in the United States Marine Corps. He has managed teams of up to 40 people, managed budgets as large as $5 million (with additional oversight of $25 million), and earned awards for leadership and excellence in nearly every endeavor.

After facilitating well-run operations in increasingly complex environments, he earned the thought partnership and counsel of senior leaders on issues affecting their organizations. As chief of staff at the pioneering invention company, Intellectual Ventures, Tyler served as thought partner, program manager, and communication manager for the President and Executive Leadership Team in setting the agenda for the company and achieving annual financial and operating goals.

While much of Tyler’s time is spent helping organizations successfully use the chief of staff role, his broader focus is creating coaching interactions with senior leaders that create capacity, raise awareness, and change behaviors.

Organizational Development

Nº 147

Designing Your Organization Around a Singular Mission

As I hinted in my previous Whirling Chief post, How to Humanize the Workplace In An Era of Machines, there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when machines can predict the best organization design and structures to meet current market dynamics. Just think about how ride-sharing services could soon be operated by driverless cars. There are countless other examples. For now, we humans not only still have a place in the car, we are still in the driver’s seat.

With this coming shift in mind, it’s no surprise to Whirling Chief readers that traditional views of organizational development, organization design, and change management have struggled to keep pace with the increasingly rapid change facing organizations in the current marketplace. One of Whirling Chief’s own premises is that now is the time to end leadership and management practices from the industrial revolution.  Not only can those practices suck the life and energy out of people at work, they simply can’t keep up. Think about it – does your organization consistently keep up with changes happening with the speed of a flash mob? Why or why not?

Chris Fussell’s latest book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, is a prescription for using the “Team of Teams” approach to tear down silos, improve collaboration, and avoid turf wars. Team of Teams was a predecessor book to One Mission, written by General Stanley McChrystal, that outlined many of the concepts on which Fussell elaborates, and for which Fussell develops prescriptions, in One Mission. One Mission looks at what is changing in the flatter, faster, less predictable world around us – globalization, the increasing pace of technological innovation, demographic shifts. He dives into dominant, traditional management and organization structure models – from Max Weber’s theories of bureaucracy to Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory to Peter Drucker’s management by objectives, all of which have in varying degrees come under fire in recent years for taking the soul out of organizations. Short of advocating for throwing Weber, Taylor, and Drucker out with the bathwater, Fussell stops to ask what is useful about the application of their theories in contemporary organizations, and what might have been useful about them for a time but no longer applies. He also takes a look at emerging models, asking why some organic, highly-networked initiatives succeed and others fail.

The result of his analysis is an organization design and management approach that uses emerging models based on organic networks to at once support and temper more traditional models based on bureaucracies – and vice versa. The refreshing thing for me about One Mission is how honestly Fussell portrays the relative strengths and limitations of various approaches without advocating any one of them alone. He doesn’t so much advocate for incremental change or revolution. He simply advocates for taking the best parts of these approaches and combining them in new ways, a powerful combination with some remarkable success stories and cases.

As Fussell recently told me, “The problem with mission and values statements is that they’re bumper stickers, they’re static. And nobody would typically disagree with them. But at McChrystal Group we talk about an aligning narrative based on information sharing and the protection of key relationships.” One Mission highlights how mission and values statements often enable vertical alignment in an organization while ignoring horizontal alignment.  Horizontal alignment is just as critical as vertical alignment to an organization’s success in achieving its goals, yet is often not present. The aligning narrative is the glue holding everything together, and it is spread like contagion among influencers and what Fussell calls “boundary spanners:

“The idea of strategic alignment is not new; for many years bureaucratic organizations running on a traditional model have worked to make sure their teams are strategically aligned. However, in most cases, this alignment comes from the top; our experience has shown the traditional top-down approach to vertical alignment can actually mask horizontal misalignment and further fuel narrative divide among teams”

I love a few things about One Mission. First, as a former US Marine myself I appreciate how it challenges the stereotypes that many people have of military leadership as simply leaders barking orders and mindless automatons blindly following. Remember that Fussell is a former US Navy Seal commander and General Stanley McChrystal’s aide-de-camp in Afghanistan, and their collective work in corporations and other organizations stems from their learning in the asymmetric, rapidly changing battlefields of the 21st Century. These are no mindless automatons – their arguments are deeply rooted, cross-disciplinary, and rich. And they tackle even the truths in the stereotypes – that parts of the bureaucratic structure for a long time hindered effective response to more nimble, flatter, and adaptive competitors.

Second, and more importantly, Fussell’s prescriptions enable the humanizing of the workplace in new and exciting ways. One Mission homes in on the relationships that enable horizontal alignment as well as vertical alignment in organizations and drive the achievement of the aligning narrative.

“The nature of relationships is such that is difficult for an organization’s strategic leadership to dictate which boundary spanners should connect with one another. You can’t expect a solid line superior to force meaningful interpersonal relationships between individuals.”

And, as Fussell recently recounted on Wharton Business Radio’s Leadership in Action, the trust between individuals is an important enabler of empowering people to do their best work without getting in each other’s way:

“You don’t just build trust and walk away, you rebuild trust every single day.”

These human aspects are the grittier, harder-to-get at aspects of leadership, but I’m glad Fussell is talking about them, and I hope others will join the conversation and continue to build on his and McChrystal’s important work.

Join the conversation


  • 20 November 2017
Whirling Chief

HR Management

Nº 101

How to Humanize the Workplace in an Era of Machines


One of the tectonic shifts coming to the workplace is the increasing use of AI and robots to perform functions previously done by humans. I covered this shift from the perspective of the corporate chief of staff in a recent blog post. This shift poses unique challenges for Whirling Chief contributors considering how to make the workforce more human. Tech visionary Elon Musk recently argued that humans must become cyborgs to remain relevant in the world. He’s a smart guy. He might even be right, but from what I’ve read probably not in our lifetimes. For the foreseeable future, machines serve mostly human needs and wants.

I posit a couple questions in that blog post that are particularly relevant for this issue. Given that machines are – for the foreseeable future – best at frequent, high-volume, repeatable tasks:

  • What are those frequent, high-volume, repeatable tasks that we humans are still holding on to?
  • How does holding on serve us, and what gets in the way of our letting go?
  • What “novel situations” could you spend that time on if a machine did those predictable, repeatable tasks for you?

In our Chief of Staff as Leader workshop, one of the points we drive home with participants is that leadership success is based in part on business skills like planning, strategy, and process. To take that a step further, it is even based in your ability to apply functional skills like those to novel situations or to routine problems in novel ways. But, leadership success is also based on self-management, awareness of others, and the ability to get people (and sometimes, machines) working together to achieve objectives. Until machines can recognize emotions and non-verbals in a meeting or survey, accurately predict reactions of stakeholders with various professional and personal agendas, recognize who decision makers are in reality versus on paper, or otherwise understand human behavior better than we humans do, we humans still have a place at the table.

For me, the question is not whether robots are good or bad, or better than humans, or vice versa. The question is, given that machines are here, and increasingly with us, how can we humans rethink our work in relation to them? How can we rethink our relationships with them? How much more could we accomplish – in more meaningful areas – if we are not so hampered by monotonous tasks, bureaucracy, mindless policy-following? (And, aren’t many of those same things what we all find so dehumanizing about the workplace anyway?) What role does intentional disconnection from machines have in our organizational effectiveness?

In a recent article for the World Economic Forum 2017 Annual Meeting, Murali Doraiswamy and Arianna Huffington argue that disconnection is the #1 thing leaders can do to influence employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity.

Questions like these about our interrelationships with machines are not just important for chiefs of staff but executives and leadership teams driving organizational and cultural change, leaders carrying out those changes, and all workers concerned about how they accomplish good things and make a living in the world ahead. I am convinced that the way ahead involves rethinking our place at the table with machines. Or their place at our table.  And occasionally, our table without them.

Join the conversation


  • 5 April 2017
Whirling Chief

Leadership & Team Development

Nº 80

How a Chief of Staff Role Can Bridge the So-Called Generational Leadership Gap


Many HR executives recognize the corporate chief of staff as an important tool for supporting a top executive by keeping the executive focused on his or her highest and best use of time, by preventing negative surprises, and by working with the executive and leadership team to make and execute great decisions. More and more are recognizing that the chief of staff role solves problems from retaining high potential employees to filling the leadership pipeline and succession planning. Desda Moss covers these benefits in this SHRM HR book blog post. But, did you know that the role also offers an option for bridging the so-called generational leadership gap? Assessing whether a chief of staff can help – whether or not the answer is ultimately “Yes!” for your organization – can help you identify gaps in your current leadership approach or team so that you can start making plans to address them.

The problems

  • You’re trying to get an edge in the competition for talent. That shows up in hiring, sure, but it also shows up in the cost of people leaving your organization (estimates range from $5,000-$12,000 as the average direct cost of a single employee’s turnover).
  • There is some truth in the adage that people take jobs, but they leave managers. There are many reasons people leave jobs, of course, but people often cite a manager’s failure to support their growth in the organization as a reason they leave a role.
  • Several recent articles* outline the so-called leadership gap between older generations of leaders exiting the workforce and the up-and-comers taking their places. Part of this problem is the difference in the number of people in the different generations. Also, organizations have spent decades flattening middle management layers to save costs. There’s no ready crop of mid-level managers ready to step into more senior roles.

So, how do you not only keep your high potential employees but keep them engaged and grow them into the leaders your organization needs as it evolves? Put them in a chief of staff rotation.

How the chief of staff solves these problems

The chief of staff role offers a learning opportunity, access to the seat of power (in an organization and sometimes beyond), and a big challenge or sense of adventure to tackle.

The learning opportunity

The chief of staff role is most often a rotational position with a defined time limit. Because it pulls high-potential employees out of a specific functional role to support a senior executive, helps them learn about and participate in the whole business from that executive-level vantage point, and then places them “back in the organization” as a more senior leader than when they left their line function, chiefs of staff come out of the role with a broader, more strategic perspective. They are ready to fill leadership positions that they previously couldn’t have. It’s an accelerated, targeted, and cost-effective way to develop employees and improve knowledge transfer from one leadership generation to the next.

The “cool factor”

A chief of staff has access to the seat of power. How many people in your organization wishfully say, “If I just had 5 minutes with the CEO on the elevator, I’d tell him/her what I think or what’s really going on in this organization….” Well, the chief of staff gets that opportunity, every day. They also get to be a fly on the wall to behind-the-scenes conversations that others aren’t privvy to. They watch funny and sad stories unfold in real time that they can’t talk about at dinner parties but will always carry with them. They might accompany the principal on trips to cool venues they otherwise wouldn’t have taken.

The big adventure

It’s cool to be a chief of staff when things are going well; it can be super stressful when things are not going well. Regardless, some people thrive on the sense of adventure.

Chiefs of staff often field seemingly impossible or vague requests from their principal executive, and no matter how good they are at thinking ahead they can never fully know what’s coming next. One chief of staff in Seattle fielded a call from his executive one morning saying that his exec was in Los Angeles, bound for Korea on a flight that would leave in a little over 5 hours – but he had left his passport in the Seattle office. After teaming up with the executive’s EA to research options from couriers to charters, he found himself on a flight to Los Angeles with the passport in hand. (To his spouse: “Sorry honey, I won’t be around for the plans we made tonight.”) With moments to go before the Korea flight boarded, the chief of staff hand-delivered the passport to his executive, then turned around immediately and flew back. The circumstances could be just about anything, a PR response to negative press or that big deal that comes through and needs the exec’s signature just when the exec is in the remotest region of Kuala Lumpur. That sense of adventure – never knowing what’s next – is what keeps many people engaged.

These “big three” of the learning experience, the access to power, and the big adventure accelerate development and can tap into the various motivations of future leaders – often at the same time – and instill a degree of loyalty that leaves many chiefs of staff wanting to give back to the organization or exec who afforded them such an opportunity.

Lainie Heneghan, “Closing the Leadership Readiness Gap,” HR Magazine (Sept 23, 2015): https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/1015-readiness-gap.aspx

Theresa Minton-Eversole, “Concerns Grow over Workforce Retirements and Skills Gaps,” SHRM HR Topics & Strategy, Staffing Management Articles (April 9, 2012):

Brandon Rigoni and Amy Adkins, “As Baby Boomers Retire, It’s Time to Replenish Talent,” Gallup Business Journal (January 28, 2015): http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/181295/baby-boomers-retire-time-replenish-talent.aspx

“Effective Knowledge Transfer Can Help Transform Your Bottom Line,” American Management Association (August 5,  2010): http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/Effective-Knowledge-Transfer-Can-Help-Transform-Your-Bottom-Line.aspx

Join the conversation


  • 18 January 2017