SAN FRANCISCO — One evening in March, a group of tech industry elite sat around a table in the private dining room of a Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, listening to a talk about how to do their jobs.
The people assembled wielded about as much power as anyone in Silicon Valley, but they weren’t the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer or Elon Musk. Instead, the evening marked the quarterly gathering for Silicon Valley chiefs of staff — an under-the-radar group whose members are the right-hand men and women to tech’s biggest power players.
Silicon Valley likes to thumb its nose at Washington. Tech executives have long derided the nation’s capital as a place where good ideas go to die by a thousand regulatory cuts. But increasingly, one quintessential Washington institution is taking hold: the chief of staff. Its growth in many companies is reflective of the evolution of the start-up boom: Companies have gotten bigger, often very quickly, and they’re seeking more organization and hierarchy as a result.
“Silicon Valley used to be more scrappy,” said Brian Screnar, chief of staff to Nathan Myhrvold, formerly Microsoft’s chief technology officer. Myhrvold is chief executive of a company called Intellectual Ventures, which sells patents. “As tech matures, things need a much more rigid structure.”
Chiefs of staff are the people who control access to the people every entrepreneur wants to meet. The relationship is highly intimate: They’re the ones who brief the executives in the morning and are often the last people the leaders communicate with before going to sleep.
In a town where there’s a meetup group for “growth hackers” and “big data” aficionados, this club is by far the most obscure — and perhaps the most exclusive. Needless to say, it has no Web page, and the group’s members are largely unknown outside their own companies (most prefer it that way).
In Washington, such a group wouldn’t be necessary: Everyone knows who the chiefs of staff are, and the role is historically well-defined. But the job is still new in Silicon Valley, where everyone is frenemies, so it’s useful to compare notes on even run-of-the-mill topics, such as how to run efficient meetings, the best strategies for breaking into China and what makes the best administrative assistants.
The membership list includes chiefs of staff to entrepreneur and executive Musk, investor Peter Thiel, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sandberg and Apple design chief Jony Ive, as well as the chief executives of LinkedIn, Salesforce, Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo. Chiefs of staff working for executives at archrival ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft are also represented, as are high-growth start-ups such as Dropbox and DocuSign. Some Silicon Valley chiefs of staff prefer to eschew the Washington-sounding title, preferring terms like “technical lead” (at Intel and Amazon) or “director of the office of the CEO” (for Musk).
Chiefs of staff in Silicon Valley must frequently juggle the commitments of a cast of characters with larger-than-life personalities, ambitions and whims. Consider Sam Teller, the chief of staff to Musk. Teller spends his time managing the affairs of a man who is chief executive both of electric carmaker Tesla and the space exploration firm SpaceX, is chairman of energy company Solar City, and is chairman of a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting artificial intelligence for the good of humanity. Or Screnar, chief of staff to Myhrvold, whose “side projects” in addition to his patent company include building a next-generation nuclear reactor, publishing scientific papers on asteroids and dinosaur fossils, and writing a 2,438-page cookbook on molecular gastronomy.
“Just keeping up with Nathan is a large part of my day,” Screnar says.
Ryan Metcalf, a former Obama White House aide who organizes the group, is chief of staff to the serial entrepreneur Max Levchin.
Levchin has founded or helped start seven companies, including PayPal, Yelp, online payments company Stripe, a financial-lending start-up called Affirm, and the fertility app Glow. He’s also an investor in some 100 start-ups and awards an annual cryptography prize.
“These guys have their hands in everything,” Metcalf says. “My job is to put out fires before they get to him.”
Between spoonfuls of caviar panna cotta and shots of liquid nitrogen gin and tonics, the evening began with everyone lauding SpaceX’s recent big achievement: landing a rocket on a drone ship floating in the ocean. Then they went around the table, each guest sharing a quick personal update and a current work challenge. After the ice-breakers, the group listened to Tyler Parris, a U.S. Marine-turned-consultant who recently wrote a book on how to be a chief of staff in a corporation.
Parris passed out an article about the water crisis in Flint, Mich. It depicted a beleaguered chief of staff to the state’s governor — rebuffed by state agencies when he tried to raise red flags and so overloaded with tasks that the lead-poisoned water became an overlooked line item on his agenda. How does this predicament compare with your jobs, Parris asked. Was there something he could have done differently? Did he involve his boss too little or too much in big decisions?
The attendees listened. Someone piped up to say that the job is less about managing outside expectations than about reeling in a charismatic, temperamental boss. Tessa Lyons, business lead for Facebook’s Sandberg, noted that her boss was highly organized and adept at reeling in people herself. Everyone chuckled knowingly.
The job is a Washington staple. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to have an official chief of staff, but the position extends back to the early republic. George Washington used chiefs of staff, known as aides-de-camp, when he commanded the Continental Army; as president, he had a private secretary whose salary he paid out of his own pocket, a practice that continued until the mid-nineteenth century.
The position appears to have migrated to corporate America over the past 15 years; in Silicon Valley, the number of people with the title is growing. Intel has had chiefs of staff since the 1990s; Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had them in the mid-2000s.
Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg don’t have them.
Increasingly, smaller start-ups are hiring chiefs of staff, said Nakul Mandan, partner at venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners, in part because the latest start-up wave is growing up.
Many people have been attracted to the recent tech boom, including Washington types, and once-small start-ups have raised a lot of capital and become hundred-person companies in short periods. They’re starting to recognize that the hierarchies, management structures and bureaucracies of corporate America can make you more efficient, he said.
Screnar, who was formerly the chief of staff to the deputy secretary of the interior, began working in tech in 2013. Today, a newer, bigger wave of Obama insiders is moving West in droves in search of positions.
The role is also growing because the tech industry is in the public spotlight in a way it’s never been before. Companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, and even smaller companies such as Dropbox, have hired lobbyists on issues such as net neutrality, cybersecurity legislation and patent reform. Prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen can make an insensitive comment on Twitter that has ripple effects across the globe. Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff has become perhaps the leading private-sector voice advocating for gay and transgender rights.
To some extent, the chief of staff group provides a back channel to see where fellow executives stand on these public issues. And as Silicon Valley executives become bigger public figures, it’s useful for chiefs of staff to know people who have handled that kind of public scrutiny.
In March, the group helped circulate and push out a letter, ultimately signed by about 100 U.S. companies, condemning the controversial legislation over transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. When President Obama went to Stanford University for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit last week, the chiefs of staff group played a role in selecting the companies highlighted for their efforts to promote diversity.
Mostly though, the dinners are a chance to gossip, network and trade management tips. A couple of informal rules are observed: No one is allowed to poach anyone else’s executive assistant, and no trade secrets are shared, said Michael Arrieta, chief of staff at electronic signature company Docusign. “We keep it high-level,” he said.
Parris, who interviewed dozens of chiefs of staff in many industries for his book, said the Silicon Valley group was the only such club he found. Arrieta and other members said they weren’t surprised: They think the tech industry is collaborative by nature. In part, that’s a function of it historically being clustered in a small area and driven by tight-knit relationships in which everyone is a potential investor, co-founder, purchaser of or contributor to your software.
When Metcalf began working for Levchin in 2013, he knew only one other person with the same role, and he wanted to have a group to compare notes with and exchange war stories.
So that October, he organized a low-key dinner in San Francisco’s Jackson Square with the chiefs of staff to Musk, Sandberg, Mayer and Thiel. They played bocce ball and came up with a list of invitees.
At the early dinners, most people were sizing up one another — figuring out who had the closest relationship to their executive and more responsibility to craft strategy, and who was more like a glorified administrative assistant, members said. “You quickly figured out who had a job that was like yours,” Arrieta said.
In many ways, the job is performed similarly in Silicon Valley as in Washington. Silicon Valley chiefs of staff described themselves as b.s. detectors and filters for their bosses. They try to take their bosses’ far-fetched ideas and get them across the finish line — which means being an enforcer within an organization and saying no to a lot of projects. If there’s a task that no one has responsibility for — let’s say a start-up needs new office space — the chief of staff fills the gap. They try to make sure the executive is so prepared for every meeting that he or she seems like the smartest person in the room. Metcalf has even taken to producing classic Washington briefing books for Levchin. The books, which are standard in politics, detail his travel schedule at fifteen-minute intervals.
“You’re part campaign manager, part body guy, part adviser, and press person all in one,” Metcalf said.
Other aspects of the job are inherently different. At the dinners, people discuss strategies for raising cash, a perennial concern for start-ups. They talk about going global, particularly in China, and take lessons from other tech companies that made headway there.
If a chief executive wants to talk to another one, the chiefs of staff will discuss the issue in advance “so it’s greased on both ends,” Screnar says.
But unlike in Washington, most chiefs of staff said they aspire to be entrepreneurs themselves — and some have already done so. Metcalf thinks that’s a good thing. In an era in which Silicon Valley is cutting back on perks, former government officials might bring some needed discipline to free-wheeling start-ups.
“As much as Washington gets a lot of flak for bureaucracy, there was one thing I learned from the White House,” he said. “Efficiency.”