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Indispensable Yet Invisible: Revealing the Vital Role of Right-Hand Partners


April 30, 2024

Every leader has a team behind them for support and guidance, but a select few have one person closer to them than the rest.

This figure, a leader’s “right-hand partner,” wields power in less traditional and often overlooked ways.

Liza Barnes, PhD, assistant professor of management, explored this person, the role they inhabit and the dynamics between them and the leader they serve in “Becoming a Right-Hand Partner: How Lower-Power Employees Heedfully Challenge Organizational Leaders,” accepted for publication by the Academy of Management Journal in fall 2023 and currently in press.

Co-authored with Christina Lacerenza, PhD, and Sabrina Volpone, PhD, of the University of Colorado Boulder, the paper explores individuals working in chief-of-staff roles. Originally formulated in military and government settings, it’s become more popular in other industries, with leaders of tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere becoming especially interested in hiring individuals to support them as chief of staff.

The paper is part of the management field’s continued exploration of unequal-power relationships but it’s among the first to focus on the individual with less power.

“Just having the title of chief of staff doesn’t automatically make someone a right-hand partner,” Barnes says. “It takes time to develop the nuance needed to effectively challenge or push back on a leader.”

The study is drawn from qualitative interviews with 74 subjects — 61 chiefs of staff and 13 leaders, most of them CEOs — identified through LinkedIn and through the support of search agency Prime Chief of Staff.

Among the study’s samples, chief-of-staff roles were held predominantly by women, and Barnes characterizes these individuals as “highly emotionally intelligent and good listeners.”

Using these tools, those in chief-of-staff roles make themselves into indispensable partners through gaining knowledge of both the leader and their organization; serving as a proxy in relaying the leader’s vision to others; serving as a sounding board; and continuously displaying loyalty to the leader.

These actions and traits add up to what Barnes and her co-author term “heedful challenging”: introducing new information and broader perspectives to influence the leader’s decision-making, but doing so in a way that doesn’t undermine or threaten the leader’s power.

Because they work so closely with CEOs and often serve to amplify these leaders’ messages and visions, chiefs of staff are in a unique position to influence leaders’ actions, decisions and perspectives. However, those who might want to attain right-hand partner status in their careers should know that many of the keys to attaining this kind of influence involve setting aside personal goals and ambitions.

In their interviews, Barnes and co-authors found that this makes these right-hand partners more easily overlooked, with others frequently taking credit for their work and accomplishments.

“They’re putting out fires and keeping things clean so that the leader they work for never even knows it happened,” Barnes says. “How do you put that on a resume? How do you articulate things that never became a problem?”

Barnes and her co-authors are looking to explore these individuals, their roles and their overall importance in future studies, including looking at their career trajectory before, during and after their roles as right-hand partners.

“From previous studies, we know a lot about leaders and followers, and this is a third space that’s in between,” Barnes says. “Hopefully this work will help illuminate that, because they’re very ambitious people with a need to grow and develop in their own careers.”

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Assistant Professor, Management

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