The Primitive Podcast: Phil Burns

Posted by Annie Gilbert | July 12, 2021

The Primitive Podcast with Phil Burns

What does an education in pastoral education, music, and clinical counseling have in common?

They all led to paving the way for Primitive’s Annie Gilbert and Proxxy’s Phil Burns to excel in their respective chief of staff roles. 

In this episode, Annie chats with Phil to uncover even more about the chief of staff role, what it looks like in-house compared to with third-party backing, and the critical “tough versus tender” balance they’re constantly looking to strike in their respective workplaces.

Connect with the folks behind the episode: Philip Burns and Annie Gilbert.

Annie Gilbert: Welcome to The Primitive Podcast. My name is Annie Gilbert. I'm the chief of staff at Primitive and guest hosting on the podcast this week. This week, we had guest, Philip Burns, who's the chief of staff at Proxxy, and he shared with us his expertise on the role and the importance of this role at any organization. One of the things that he shared that stood out most to me was talking about the title, Chief of Staff. We talked about servant leadership and lifting others up in this role. I hope you enjoy the episode and thanks for listening.

Philip Burns: You just have to make time to care for yourself, because if you don't make time, you will not do it. This is the tough versus tender, right? And this may sound tough, but like, you have time. Even if it's 15 minutes, 10 minutes, before you check your email or, you know, Slack, or you start X, Y, and Z, if you just want to take 10 minutes to breathe and to, you know, if you're religious, spiritual, pray, you know, just something that can pull you out of the demands of the present that can give you perspective on what's most important, I think is crucial.

Annie Gilbert: We are welcoming Phil Burns to the podcast today, and Phil is a chief of staff at Proxxy. And so we want to learn from him about just his journey and his perspective of the chief of staff role. So thank you so much for joining us and welcome to The Primitive Podcast.

Philip Burns: Thanks so much, Annie. It's such an honor to be here and hang out and talk about the chief of staff role. It's awesome.

Annie Gilbert: Absolutely. I'm excited to hear your perspective and just share with our listeners maybe how they could learn how to create this role in their companies or maybe for potential chiefs of staff who are looking for a role similar to this with - it's been helpful that people in the past to have different chiefs of staff on the podcast and learn from them. So we're excited to hear from you. I know you have some great experience in this field. And so why don't you start out by just telling us a little bit about yourself.

Who is Phil Burns of Proxxy?

Philip Burns: I'd love to do that. I'm a native Atlantan. I was born, raised, and still live here. Haven't left the nest, so to speak. I'm happily married to my wife Ashland. We've been married three years going on four years this, yeah, this March. Can't forget my anniversary. And we are brand new parents to Eloise Ruth Burns. She is eight months old. So that's just some personal facts about me. Actually let me add some more personal facts just to tickle your listeners' ears. My background is actually predominantly in music. I spent a lot of my youth formerly trained in saxophone, and then I taught myself how to play drums, was in a few bands and music's just a big part of my life. Even - it helps me as the chief of staff, as weird as that sounds, in terms of like helping my imagination cause that's really important to the role.

But yeah, so I originally went to college to be a pastor, actually. I actually wanted to be a theology professor and a pastor. And you know how life can take you on different journeys. And so I'm currently working - fast-forward almost 10 years now since I started college - I'm getting my MBA at the University of Georgia, right now, because I really feel like I can have the most impact as a leader in the business world. And so I, yeah, I am- been in the chief of staff role, formally, I guess, with the title for four years now. But I've been working with senior leaders for most all my career. And so I'm intimately acquainted with the - both the pressures, the stressors, and the opportunities that exist at the senior leadership level. And I just have a passion for helping leaders lead the way they want to. And I think at the end of the day, that's the value of the chief of staff role.

It's - you're enabling the executive or the principal that you're serving to lead the way they want to; the way they dream up so that their companies can grow in a healthy way and have the impact that they want to have on the world. And so I transitioned into the chief of staff role at my previous employer, Richmont Graduate University. It's a small but mighty graduate school for people who want to be clinical mental health professionals, counselors. It's actually where I met my wife. So Richmont means a lot to me for a lot of different reasons. But the president that I worked for there saw I was his direct admin support for about eight months when he became president. And before he came, I had, I kind of helped hold the organization together through two presidential transitions within about a two year period.

And it was through that process there, him learning about, you know, the impact and value that I was bringing to Richmont before he got there, and then the immediate value that I was bringing to him as his direct support for about eight months. He's like, "You know what, Phil? I want you to be my chief of staff." Now what's cool about this story is I was wanting to be a chief of staff before we even talked about it. And I remember going to him and saying, "You know what? I feel like I'm underutilized. I feel like I have more horsepower to offer Richmont and you, you know, to help you in the strategic direction and vision you have for Richmont." Little did I know that he was thinking the same thing. So when we actually sat down to talk about my role at Richmont, he beat me to the punch.

He's like, "I really believe in your potential. I think you've added a lot of value to Richmont and you've really helped keep things together and keep things running. Well, what would you say about being my chief of staff?" And I was like, "What?" I've literally been thinking about this, you know, for several months and just a month after that conversation I officially became this chief of staff, and I was his chief of staff for three years. And then I recently transitioned over to Proxxy to see how this role can work in a different capacity with a different business model, but still delivering the same value for executives. And so, yeah.

Annie Gilbert: That's awesome. And I want to dig into that a little bit more in just a few minutes, but I'm learning so much about you, your background, your musical background. I had no idea. That's awesome. And I love what you said about how it helps you in the role, because that's what I've found as I've shared my journey with people and connected with people who are seeking a role like this are interested in learning more. Because my background is in education and counseling, I get asked the question like, "Is that – do you feel like that's necessary to go into this role?" And I say, "Absolutely not." I think whatever someone's background, it can be applied and it can be useful in a different way. And we all have unique personalities and unique strengths that we bring to whatever role we're in.

Having More to Offer

So I love that and I can't wait to hear more about how that helps you in the role. So you said something that I want to kind of key in on a little bit about feeling like you were underutilized and that you had more to offer. Because again, that's something that I hear pretty often from people who are looking for more and trying to figure out how they can best apply their natural strengths and abilities and maybe relational skills and administrative and all of those areas. And so I just, I hope that's an encouragement. If there's someone listening who is wanting to learn more about the chief of staff role and maybe how to find the right fit for them you know, that may be feeling that way, like you explained. And I love the story, too, about how it worked out that you were feeling that, and you were thinking about that type of role, and then before you even brought it up, you know, that was an opportunity that was presented to you. My story's a little bit similar to that. Well, it was something that I thought about, you know, for the future, and then all of a sudden it was - the opportunity was there. And took me a moment to even recognize that that's what it was I'd been waiting for.

Philip Burns: Well, you know, what's interesting about when I'm thinking about my inner journey as I was considering, you know, the chief of staff role, I think it's worth noting that - a few things. We may be jumping ahead. So if you want to steer us back on track that's fine. When I said that I was wanting more, I mean, the kinds of things that I was doing in the president's office were very tactically focused, like task-oriented, like immediate horizon, like, "Oh, this thing needs to get on his calendar. He needs me to review this document or proposal," or, you know - and I found this is helpful if you find that you can do that kind of stuff in your sleep, like you don't have to try very hard, That's probably an indication that you have untapped potential. Because I think there's a difference between challenge stressors in your job, or in your life, versus hindrance stressors.

So hindrance stressors are usually like environmental conditions that stifle growth and opportunity versus challenge stressors are things that come your way that force you to grow, that force you to develop and become a better version of yourself. And so I was in a place where I needed more and the organization needed more. And so it was the perfect kind of match between what I wanted and needed and what the president and the large organization needed for that season of time. And so I think I would encourage folks that are considering this role, or, you know, they feel like they're underutilized in their companies, first take stock of the kinds of things that you would enjoy doing hat would be stretching for you. Don't aim for low hanging fruit. As easy as that is, the chief of staff role is not a low hanging fruit job.

If anything, it's the chop down trees, grow - you know, climb mountains, kind of a job that feels that way, day in, day out. And so I'm kind of going all over the place here with that thought process. But, and the second thing to think about and plan for is you need to have a conversation with your principal, or whoever your direct supervisor is, about the fact that you feel underutilized. You may think that would be - they may find that threatening. I actually - if they're a good manager, like, if they're healthy and they want to maximize the people that they're leading, they - that will excite them because that will show them that you're committed to your organization, to the vision, to the mission. And yeah, and that you want to grow.

And so I think if you're feeling underutilized and you, you know, you really want to have that conversation, then you do it. And the chief staff role may not be the next step for you. But it, I think, it is the next step for someone who wants to enable their leaders to lead the way they want to lead. Because the chief staff role doesn't exist apart from the leader that the role is serving. I shared this with a colleague yesterday that the chief of staff role can very much be turned into you're putting out fires in the organization while your executives house is burning down. So it's very important to stay executive oriented in the role because it's just far too easy to look for problems to solve beyond your executive. And you'll have opportunity to do that, but it's all about helping leaders lead. So anyway.

Transitioning to the Chief of Staff Role

Annie Gilbert: Yeah, that's great. I love that addition. And I think, you know, where you talked about how your position was more tactically focused and task oriented. What I've heard is a lot of times it's a really natural transition from an executive assistant type position or role into a chief of staff role, because it's almost like testing it out to see if that would be a good fit when the opportunity's there. So that makes a lot of sense. So what I've learned in talking to many different chiefs of staff at different organizations is that it does look a little bit different and even through our roundtable call each month, you know, just from talking to so many people from all over the world really, who have similar roles, that there are unique facets of that as well. And so can you kind of talk about your experience at Richmont and how, you know, it compares and contrasts to your present position at Proxxy and kind of what that looks like for those two different organizations?

Philip Burns: At Richmont. I was the first chief of staff Richmont ever had. And so in terms of putting on the - wearing the shoes, it's like, it's a brand new pair of shoes, right? No one had traversed or worn the shoes before. So that was both really exciting and really terrifying and anxiety-producing because I didn't have a blueprint. I didn't know really what to do. I just, I knew that I wanted more and that this role would offer me, you know, a greater room to grow and to help my organization and the executives achieve its goals, but I didn't know what that looks like. And so for the first year I was like walking around a dark room, blindly, like I would read all these articles on the internet about what, you know, 10 people thought the chief of staff role was. And as helpful as that - those resources were, to your point, Annie, of, you know, it looks so different, it takes on different manifestations, depending on the needs of your executives, the size of the company, where the company is in its growth stage. If you're in a startup organization, like just the work you're doing looks different than a well-established you know, more solid organization with a more solid foundation, more stable. But I will say this - there's a narrative in the chief of staff feel that there is no definitive, like, picture of the role. It just depends on X, Y, and Z. And I would actually challenge that. I think you could say that there's no definitive X for any role in a company. I think what is definitive are the skills, right, that you need to do the role well.

So I kind of think of the role as like a portfolio of certain skills, whatever. And the needs of the executive and the organization kind of determine how that the certain aspects of the portfolio are kind of allocated. But at Richmont, it was very much centered on driving strategic communications. The president, when he arrived, you know, he drafted, with the help of various stakeholders, a strategic plan for the next three years, kind of creating a roadmap for like, you know quarterly benchmarks goals, you know, adjusting the communication cadence around achieving those goals. So I was very much intertwined and like pulling all those pieces together. You know, I took meeting minutes at various meetings. I would help coordinate board meetings. I didn't have a ton to do with, I guess, direct, like, email calendar management, calendar management, email management, but I definitely was more on the strategic project side of things at Richmont.

“Feeling my way around a dark room.”

And so I was chief of staff at Richmont for three years. I would say the first year was me just feeling my way around a dark room. And then after the first year of me kind of like feeling things out - "Do I actually want to do this job?" Like, cause it was really hard at first. Like I just didn't know what to do. And I will say to your point about executive assistant or admin, that being a natural transition. While it's a natural transition, I will say there is a challenge in staying in the same company. If you're - if people know you as X and you become Y, that transition for the rest of the organization is difficult because you will find that people are coming to you about things that would have been really appropriate to answer in your previous role, but they're still expecting you to do that.

And so, again, being really clear - having a really clear picture and portrait of what does the chief of staff do, both for yourself or the executive, and then for the organization is huge. And I would say, I would imagine other chiefs of staff that you've spoken to, that that's the challenge. It's like, they don't have a clear picture of what the role means. Their executive knows that it's valuable and they want it, right? And then - but even if you have a clear idea and your executive does, whether that's communicated and reinforced across the organization, that's the other dimension that's really important for the role to be really effective. And so at Richmont, it was more traditional. I was serving one executive, but the challenges that I was always confronted with is I was my team. So like I didn't have - there was a special project I needed to do, or it was up to me to figure out how I would do it, you know, because we were a small organization. Everyone that was already wearing a lot of hats; I couldn't really ask, you know, the vice president of administration or the vice president of finance to, you know, do X, Y, and Z.

What Makes the Proxxy Model Unique

I had to absorb a lot of that workload myself, which made it very stressful on me. Just ask my wife. So with Proxxy, Proxxy is different. It's unique. So it's very much the - so as the chief of staff at Proxxy, I'm still using the same core skillset and competencies, but it's a team-based organization. So our clients hire Proxxy for chief of staff services, but the difference is I have a team behind me that I can - that we all work together to deliver on client expectations, projects, that kind of thing. And that is liberating, honestly, to know that if I'm in a meeting with an executive that we're working with, and rather than me having to like, figure out how in the world am I going to handle all this or get all this done, I have - I know who my team members are, and I know how to delegate certain projects or activities.

So it's distributed. It's a distributed workload model for the chief of staff versus an isolated kind of, "I got to figure out how to do this all by myself." And so I think that makes Proxxy really unique. And our core target, you know - we're working with small to medium sized businesses, like the CEOs or C-suite executives that are along usually about 500 employees or less, that are navigating unique challenges based on whatever growth stage they're in for their business. So I'm working with some companies that are - they're startups. So they're, you know, only two years in, maybe less than that. And there are unique challenges there that I'm getting to navigate with them. Versus there - you know, another client I have is a little bit more established. And so - but the kinds of things I'm doing is I'm helping businesses find business operating rhythms that unlock their business organization's potential in terms of communication, in terms of tracking goals and metrics, as well as talent management. So business opera - I focus on business operating rhythms.

I'm also helping companies expand their product lines which is really exciting. It's work that I never got to do at Richmont. So I'm getting a much more diverse experience as a chief of staff working in different industries, which is really exciting. And so again, what makes Proxxy unique is its team-based approach to the world. So rather than me, like I said, a minute ago, trying to figure it all out on my own of how I'm going to execute X, Y, and Z, I have a team that's behind me, that's that's helping keep - helping deliver, you know, the chief of staff promise to our executives. So does that make sense?

Annie Gilbert: Absolutely. It does. It gives a lot of insight, I think, into the different ways that can look. And it's really fascinating to me because I'm just not as familiar with something like Proxxy where, you know, you were talking about at Richmont being - you're like, you're the team; you're one person. And, you know, you're really responsible for the role completely as a whole. And it's a big role. But having support and having a team where you can work together to accomplish things I think is really a unique approach. So yeah, that's great. That's really interesting.

Philip Burns: And I - can offer one more comment just as a clarifying point? So what we - I think our differentiator at Proxxy is - because we're team-based, we can offer like Fortune 500 support for a fraction of a cost. So rather than a chief - like one person trying to figure out project management and calendar and email and strategic initiative, whatever we - there's a whole team that - we work together to make the chief of staff role - for the role to be applicable to whatever businesses we're working with in the growth stage that they're at. So we just have - we're able to deliver more horsepower for the role versus just having one person. Does that - I hope that's just a clarifying point. Because it is what makes us unique. And so yeah, and, but that's not to downplay like, you know, certain organizations, you know, choose to have like an in-house chief of staff. But I think another thing that's limiting about that role, you know, when I was at Richmont is, I'm not a third party.

So there's - and this is a natural challenge for anyone in the role is of - your - you are - you don't have a budget, you don't have a team or direct reports. You may have an executive assistant that reports to you, but you don't, in terms of the totality of the business, you - the only leverage you have is the proximity that you have to the executive and the trust, hopefully, that exists between you two. And so with Proxxy, we're a third party. We have a team behind us or, you know, behind each chief of staff. And we can - we grow with the business. So like, if you think of a traditional chief of staff who doesn't have a team, as the business grows, that one individual's capabilities become more and more stressed. And so - and there's tools out there, and there are ways to address that, but what's cool with Proxxy is it's built in so we can scale with the business. And so that's just really exciting to offer the value of the chief of staff role to these small to medium sized businesses. And we're already seeing immediate value.

One other thing I didn't mention is, you know, I'm helping one executive navigate succession planning with a family business. Talk about sticky, you know? The father wants to hand off the business to the son, but there are some dynamics in there that are just tricky to navigate. And so I get the opportunity to like work with the son in getting him ready, kind of, for those conversations and that process. And so it's just, honestly the role is so rewarding because the exposure you get is just otherworldly, you know? And so I really feel like this is - the chief of staff role is made for me, you know, and I was made for the chief of staff role is probably a better way to say it. And so it's challenging, but it's equally or more rewarding. So I'm probably getting us off track.

Purpose and Requirements

Annie Gilbert: You're great. No, that's all good. So when you think about the chief of staff role, not necessarily specifically to any organization or approach but just in a more broad sense, what would you say just from your perspective and experience is the main purpose of a chief of staff role? And then what are some of those facets and skills required to know that it's a good fit?

Philip Burns: I don't want to sound reductionistic because the chief of staff role is so robust and multifaceted that it's hard to truncate it down into one pithy statement. But Brian Rumao, who's the chief of staff at LinkedIn - I love his definition that I heard him say once. He says the purpose of the chief of staff role is to make - is to enable your executive and the senior leadership team work as efficiently and effectively as possible. So notice the two objects of - or the two core areas of focus is the executive and the leadership team. So those are the two primary orientations that you have. And then the third orientation is the larger organization, but where the organization goes and its effectiveness directly hinges on the efficiency and effectiveness of the executive, the CEO, or whoever, and their team, right?

As far as efficiency and effectiveness, if those are the two kind of metrics that a chief of staff can evaluate themselves on. Efficiency has to do with, or excuse me, effectiveness has to do with doing the right things. So these are activities that are core to your company succeeding or achieving its goals, but it's not just doing the right things, it's doing the right things the right way or with as little energy as possible. And so in terms of what that looks like on a day-in, day-out basis I think it's in connection to the skills that are needed. You - chiefs of staff have to be like crazy organized because you're in so many meetings, you're having to context switch so often that if you don't have a way to sort, like, what's actionable versus what's like commentary, or just good information to have, then you're going to be lost without a paddle.

And so organization is huge. And I mean every business professional needs to be organized, but because you're not - you don't have one primary lane you're running in, in terms, business function like focus on business function. You're not in finance, you're not an operations, exclusively. You're not in HR or marketing. You're in all of them. And so you just have to have a way to stay organized, but also connected to that is knowing what's most important. And this is directly connected to - so by "that" I mean ruthless prioritization. So like near perfect organization. And then the ability to know what's most important so that you can - you're constantly redirecting both your executives' focus and energy, and the senior leadership teams' folks and energy towards the most valuable activities. But you're also enabling the executive and the team to execute those most valuable activities with as little energy as possible.

So what that means is that you need to probably have experience or have the capability of designing and implementing effective communication structures. So that was one issue that I encountered both at Richmont and with Proxxy. With smaller organizations - it's weird. You would think just because it's smaller communication is better because there's just not many people, you know, that you need to work with. But - and so naturally if the larger the organization you would think, well, the larger it is the more complicated and complex communication gets, which is certainly true. I think there's complexity in both. I think there's the reality of politics and organizations exist at both levels. And so I think in smaller organizations, words like news travels faster than in large organizations, right? And so as the chief of staff, you have to have really high emotional intelligence.

And by that, I mean because you're interacting with your executive and the senior leadership team across all the various functions of the business, everyone has their sacred cows. Everyone has their - the things that feel like are the most important thing for them. And so you have to be able to, because your primary loyalties are your primary orientation as the executive, you have to have the ability to help each of the leaders of the various business functions stay on track to what's most important in terms of what your CEO feels like is most important in a way that's not heavy handed.

Caution Against Weaponizing the Role

One of the challenges that I had early on as a chief of staff was using my role, my title, as like a weapon. And that is like the most antithetical thing a chief of staff can do; common for senior leaders to use their titles as like, you know, "I said it. That settles it.", kind of a mentality. But chiefs of staff I've heard it said that that you're more staff than chief. If anything - you have more than any other senior role because you are a part of the senior team, so you have a senior role. But more than any other role there's not a lot of room for ego, for a chief of staff, or an inflated ego. Everyone has an ego and that's not necessarily the issue. It's whether you have an accurate view of yourself, right? This is the important issue.

But, yeah, ruthless prioritization, near perfect organization, communication skills, communicate designing structures for efficient and effective communication is important. Project management is a given. I mean, you need to be able to, if your executives like, you know - or you hear about an issue in another area, and you're like, "You know what? This is a little bit more nuanced and complex than, you know, David Allen." If you could do it in two minutes, go ahead and do it. If, y'know, it's beyond two minutes, you know, maybe a project. So just being able to know like deliverables, you know, being able to structure projects; delegation is important.

Gosh, there's so many. I mean, really, if you think about all the functions of the business, I mean, you really have to know how to do about every little - all - about everything in some ways. So it's more of like, you're an inch deep, but a mile wide in about everything. Because if you think about it, let's just say you're a chief of staff and your background is in HR, but you're having - you may be really good with the people stuff, which is great. It's a huge aspect of the role, but maybe you don't have as high of financial IQ or, you know - but you're getting reports, you know, you're getting, you know, you're prepping a board meeting for your executive and they're the one, you know, you gotta be able to spot discrepancies on a P and L, you know? You have to be able to see what the most effective or most valuable activities are for each area and be able to hold them accountable to delivering on those activities.

And so I hope I'm not confusing our listeners. That's not talking about the role. I think it's, again, you kind of have to be good at a lot of different things, but if I go back to my original definition, I think being able to help keep your executive and the team aligned to what's most important and being able to execute on that with great efficiency is probably the most important aspect of the role. And so, yeah.

More Staff than Chief

Annie Gilbert: That's great. I think my - the favorite thing that you said that resonated with me was it's more staff than chief. And I think that that is just a great phrase to keep in mind. I think - and it's something I've never really thought about that much, but just the title - it kind of has this, I don't know, this underlying sort of expectation that comes with it. I think because it's a - still a new and upcoming role that is not - it's becoming more common, but it's still, I think, considered a little bit new; separate from, you know, certain fields and areas, but just in the business world. And so when - and it's something that I sort of tend to do the opposite when someone asks me what I do. I don't like using my title because I think it's a little bit ambiguous sometimes, and I always have to follow it up with an explanation of what that means.

And so I tend to downplay it more and not want to say the title. And if my husband's with me, he says it for me. He's like, "No, she's the chief of staff." And I'm like, "Well, let me explain." So I kind of liked the more staff than chief explanation, because I do think it's important. And I think that that focus on, you know, the executive, the leadership team, and keeping them aligned, and another way I've heard it described and read about is leading from behind. And so you're definitely there, you're involved, like you said, in all the different aspects, but it's sort of a behind the scenes type of way where you're enabling and kind of lifting others up to be at their very best. And it takes a lot. And you have to be aware of a lot and be able to assimilate all of that information and context and the context switching like you talked about. So yeah, I think that was a really great way to describe all of the different needs. And I think, like we said earlier, being able to bring different backgrounds and different personalities into that is definitely possible, but there are those skills and skill sets that are gonna predict better success in the role if those are there.

Philip Burns: Can I make a comment?

Annie Gilbert: Yes.

Servant Leadership is a Skill

Philip Burns: Yeah, yeah. So I think you said lifting others. I think that's so key because, you know, servant leadership is a skill, you know, right? And that if any leader in the organization should embody this the most, the chief of staff should. Because if you're the executive, yeah, I mean, you need to be a servant leader. But let's be honest. People are - though that's what the team you're leading and supporting needs from you to be, you know, you need to be lifting others, you're also the pioneer. You're the one out in front calling your organization into the future that you're painting for them. And so it's - I think a lot of leaders want chiefs of staff because they know they can't be everything. And so for a leader to recognize that is huge. To know that, like, I think Annie you can share with me, you know - what's your CEO's name?

Annie Gilbert: Kade.

Philip Burns: Yeah. I remember you shared with me, you know, for you Kade knew that like, culture (you don't have to include this in the podcast, but I'm helping put my thoughts together.) Kade knew culture was important, but he didn't have the skills or the bandwidth to like address. So he hired you to be the primary point person for filling out that space. So I think for leaders when it comes to like, you know, assessing whether they need the role or not, I would say, if you can afford the role, you need it. Like, just go ahead and get yourself a chief of staff. Because the truth is you want your business to grow. You want to be a healthy and authentic leader. Like I think most leaders, even the ones that are, you know, toxic or bad, probably when they first started, they had healthy aspirations.

And so your chief of staff can help unearth and unlock the best version of you. And that process of doing that is messy, but it's worth it because your organizations are too important for you to lead blindly. And I think the chief of staff, another skill that I want to mention is the ability to be the honest truth broker to your executive, primarily. But also, you know, being able to tell the truth and name dysfunction as you see it with the team. And that was something I've always struggled with. And some of that has to do with just my background and personal history. Being able to tell the truth is really important. And I made a comment about ego. You know, chief staff needs to be the one leader in the C-suite who doesn't have an inflated ego. And let's be honest, and this'll actually be the topic of the chief of staff and leadership team part two, for the roundtable. Chief of staff roundtable, which I'll just plug it.

If you're interested in the chief of staff role, if you're a current chief of staff and you just want a community that can offer some support and just collective thought leadership about the role, the chief staff roundtable is the place to be. We host monthly calls on Zoom but we have people on the call from all over the world from various backgrounds. But we all - the one thing we have in common is we believe in the role and we really want to provide definitive answers to the role. So anyway, that's my plug for the round table.

“You’re not wearing any pants today.”

But ego - managing your own ego as chief of staff is huge. And I think if you cannot tell the truth, there's something going on with - it's not just a personality thing. I think we all, like - we tell the truth to somebody. Whether it's our significant other or our best friend, that's one thing. And it's good to have those relationships or to feel safe in those. But if you cannot tell the truth to your executive and to senior leadership team, you do not need to be a chief of staff because there's a good chance that they're not getting the truth from people in the organization due to competing interests or agendas, you know? And so to have someone that can say like, "Hey, you're not wearing any pants today." Because when, you know, like the terminology, you know, the emperor? What is it? What's the phrase? I, anyway -

Annie Gilbert: The emperor with no clothes.

Philip Burns: Yeah, like how many times have we seen our executive, in a team, in a leadership meeting, or giving a speech, or an interaction where you're like, "Why in the world did you handle yourself that way?" And they don't know that, you know, they did something that was, you know, unhealthy or not who they want to be. And so being able to - it's not that you're - you're not nagging, you're not, you know, a cynic, but like, you need to be able to tell the truth when it matters most. And, again, to do that, you need trust with your executive and that takes time, but that's crucial for the role to be successful. So, anyway, kind of going on and on.

Annie Gilbert: That's a great point. And it's come up before on the podcast with other people, because it is so valuable. And I think it's you know, important to point out. I remember whenever Kade and I were first having our first conversation about me even considering taking this position. He said, "You would need to be tough and tender." And he used those two words. And I really hadn't thought about it again until my evaluation about a year ago. And he brought it back up and talked about the importance of being tough and tender. And the toughness is really for him that I will be willing to push back on him. And like you said, just be direct and be honest, because there's just not people who will do that. And I know it's something that he values and I - it's not something I enjoy about my role because it's not something that comes really naturally to me.

But the result is always rewarding because when I have to say hard things to anyone, whether it's to him or to, you know, someone on the team, it's always appreciated. It's always you know - I always get thanked for it. And I think it's that clarity and it expresses care. It expresses that you care about someone, if you're willing to tell them the truth. And people really want that, as hard as it is to hear sometimes, people want it and they need it. And leaders are the foremost of that group of just needing that from someone that they know they can trust to tell them the truth.

No One Deserves Fumes

So I'm anxious to get to this last question. You've talked quite a bit about how, you know, this role is very focused on the organization and what the organization needs on the principal or the executive and what they need. So how do you prioritize your own needs getting met; your own, you know, just personal development and just overall health? How do you prioritize that?

Philip Burns: It's challenging because you're constantly emptying yourself, right? For the good of your executive and the team. And you don't have a team like behind you that can like - and you can talk to internally, usually. And so you have to hold a lot. And if you don't have healthy outlets that help give you the resources you need to thrive, then you're not going to last long. But even if you do last long, you're not going to be okay. And for me, I haven't nailed this, honestly. It's something I'm always working on. I will say, you know, if you're a parent it's especially hard because not only are you emptying at work, you're emptying it home. And so it's even more important. But I think, recently - well, let me say this. I've been most effective as a chief of staff when I've taken the best care of myself. 

And when I've been able to do that, and thankfully I'm in a season now where I'm actually - I have some good rhythms in place. It's nothing too earth shattering. I think it's the simple things. Do you move? Do you move? Like, and what I mean by that is, you know, exercise. But I think, - do you work out? I don't even like saying that. It's just like, "Well, no don't. I don't do X, Y, and Z this many days a week." For me, what I do: I wake up in the morning and I just go run a block in my neighborhood. That's it. I don't run three miles. I don't run - I do something to get my blood flowing, to get my energy levels up. I need to get breakfast. You know, I try not to - what's it - I don't eat to cope. That's important. It's easy to do with Chick-fil-A just right down the road, right? But I think nutrition is important. Movement is important. Mental health is important. My wife is a therapist and I'm so blessed for that. But, prioritizing your mental health is huge.

So like if you're a chief of staff and you don't feel like you have people to talk to about the stressors in your role, one, you need to be really careful who you do talk to outside your organization, inside and outside, right? Because you have really sensitive information. So what I would say, and it's kind of taboo, is you probably need to be in therapy. I mean, you need a safe, confidential space, where you can process not just what's hard about the job, but the impact of the job and its difficulties on your personal life.

And so again, you don't have to have a big problem, you know? You don't have to, you know, have a major mental health disorder to see a therapist. And so I would have that outlet. And chances are if you're chief of staff you make a decent salary, so you can afford it. So like, don't play the game of like, you know, you could probably cut back, you know, your Netflix subscription or whatever to afford maybe one counseling session a quarter. But I think prioritizing your mental health is huge. So movement, nutrition is important. As far as what keeps me learning, I love to read. It's actually - there's a trifecta to like the things that like give me - that my development is I have to be reading, I have to be listening to music, and I have to be drinking like coffee, like preferably in the morning. That's like the best time. Like a Saturday morning or a Sunday morning.

And yeah, you just have to make time to care for yourself because if you don't make time, you will not do it. And you know, this may sound - this is the tough versus tender, right? This may sound tough, but like you have time. Like, even if it's 15 minutes before you check your email, 10 minutes before you check your email or, you know, Slack, or you start X, Y, and Z, you just want to take 10 minutes to breathe. And to, you know, if you're religious, spiritual, pray, you know, just something that can pull you out of the demands of the present that can give you perspective on what's most important, I think is crucial. Because otherwise you'll be running around with the chicken, with your head cut off, and your executive and the team and your family and your friends don't deserve a chief of staff or or you not to be grounded and taking care of yourself.

They don't deserve fumes and you don't deserve fumes. Like there's more to life and this. There's more to life than your role. I mean, you make - you feel like you're an indispensable part of the organization. You are. But there's more to life than what you do as a chief of staff. And so just carving out time to do things that bring you life. For me, it's - I'm a simple guy, so it's a walk around our neighborhood with my wife and daughter. Do that every day is like the perfect way to end the day for me. And so I could go on and on, but those are just some ways that I prioritize personal development.

A Diverse Background Helps

Annie Gilbert: That's great. Okay. I said that was the last question, but I have to ask: what is the maybe number one way that you apply your musical background or that it makes you a better chief of staff?

Philip Burns: Okay. I have to answer that in two ways. So there's the music side, but I mentioned earlier that I originally went to school to be a pastor professor, theological professor. I think those two - the music piece - any art consumption, whether it's music, art, you know, what have you, is imagination expanded. I think there's even been studies done that music actually does that. It expands your worldview, in a way. So, and then my background in the ministry, I think, though I've chosen to go a non-ministerial route, professionally. I think what I learned to do is to see people. And I think - so having an imagination plus the ability to really see people I think are - I think have really helped me do the role well, because at the end of the day, it's all about people. Like you're dealing with real human beings, you know?

Yeah, they have a flashy title and they make a lot of money and, you know, they have a lot of power, but you know what? They go home just like you do, they eat just like you do. They have, you know, the same stresses and challenges just like you do. And so I think being able to hold that as you're being tough and tender, I think is so important. And so that's a roundabout way of answering the music. It's not - it doesn't play like a - it's not like a make or break thing, but I think my background in music, again, helps me - I'm more, to use a musical term, attuned. I feel like I'm very attuned to the environments that I'm in and I think that's a really important aspect of the role.

Annie Gilbert: Absolutely. Well, thank you for sharing that. Well, Phil, thank you so much for joining us. This has been great, and I appreciate you taking the time just to share your insights and your passion for this role and what it means to the organizations that buy-in to, you know, having this role there and to care for their people and their leaders. So is there any last words you want to add, words of wisdom you want to share with us?

Philip Burns: And hopefully I've shared some coherent words of wisdom on this episode, but I would say if you're interested in the role check your motives because at the end of the day, if you want to be a chief of staff, it's not about you, it's about the executive you're enabling and the team - the larger team. And so - and again, another plug for the roundtable. If you want - if you're new to the role, and you're interested and you want it, you need to find a community that can support you as you navigate it. And the roundtable is that place. And there's a lot more potential to extract from the roundtable and I'll have some exciting things - some exciting things are coming down the pipe that'll really make it even more special for the chief of staff community.

But the last thing I'll say is if you are in the role, be kind to yourself. Oftentimes most people in the role are pretty high achieving people and we can be our harshest critics. And so giving yourself grace, you know, if you just start in the role, to figure it out. You know, give your - you don't need to nail it day one. Most jobs take six months even for you to even start to find like a rhythm or stride. So just give yourself grace to figure it out and give - find yourself a community that can help support you and give you the resources and tools that you need to succeed. So, yeah. It's been an honor to be on The Primitive Podcast. And if folks want to learn more about the chief of staff role, you know, they're welcome to DM me on LinkedIn, or I would give myself a number, but that doesn't seem appropriate. but I'm happy to serve the community in any way I can. For anyone who's interested or is currently in the role.

Philip Burns: So it's been a blast.

Annie Gilbert: Thank you so much. Yeah. Appreciate you.

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