4 Critical Startup Roles that Help Streamline Operations & Decision Making

7 min read

For many startups, efficient operations and informed decision making can spell the difference between success and failure. In this guest post by Latrice Barnett, we’ll explore the critical startup roles that can transform operations.

Latrice Barnett, principal and founder of Seattle-based consulting firm Barnett 360, is a former chief of staff and ex-Salesforce alliances leader with 10+ years’ experience shaping sales and partnership ecosystem workflows. 

Whether you’re  seeking to optimize your startup’s structure or add new members to your team, this blog details options to help you streamline operations and decision making. From the strategic guidance of a COO, to the indispensable support of an executive assistant, and the versatile leadership of a fractional chief of staff, we’ll explore the critical startup roles that can empower founders to navigate challenges and achieve their goals. 

Differentiating between CoS, COO, EA, and the new fCoS

In a world that runs at an increasingly frenetic pace, startup founders often must rely on dedicated key professionals like the Chief of Staff, Chief Operating Officer, and Executive Assistant in order to support their operations, strategic decision-making, and productivity. Each position plays a unique role in an organization and caters to specific needs.

While these critical startup roles share undeniable similarities, there are a few key differences to keep in mind:

  • Chief of Staff to the CEO: A full-time role dedicated to supporting the CEO and executive team. They serve as a trusted advisor, manage administrative tasks, and may have decision-making authority delegated by the CEO. Excels at cross-functional initiatives.
  • COO (Chief Operating Officer): A full-time role with broader responsibilities, overseeing day-to-day operations and executing the company’s operational strategy. They manage multiple departments and ensure efficient resource utilization.
  • Executive Assistant to the CEO: Primarily responsible for providing administrative support to executives, handling calendars, travel arrangements, and other routine tasks. They may assist with project coordination, but they are not involved in high-level strategy.

In addition, there is a fourth role emerging as well, especially as hiring freezes and budgets remain firm: 

  • Fractional Chief of Staff. A part-time or time-bound role, the Fractional Chief of Staff provides strategic guidance and support to executives on an as-needed basis. 

What does a Chief of Staff for Early Stage Startups do?

Whenever I tell people that I’m a Chief of Staff, I get the same response from nearly everyone: raised eyebrows indicating curiosity, followed by the inevitable question: “Yeah, but…what does a Chief of Staff do?” I’ve found there are three basic frameworks through which people define the Chief of Staff role:

  • Military or Political Chief of Staff – especially if they’ve seen the show “West Wing”
  • Chief Operating Officer – often framed as a “Junior COO role” or training ground for similar function
  • Executive Assistant – I’ve heard people say “A Chief of Staff is a glorified EA” (which is insulting to both Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff – we’ll get to that in a moment)

While there may be some overlap between these critical startup roles, the Chief of Staff for early stage startups combines elements from these frameworks – and more.

Furthermore, like in the military or political version, the Chief of Staff is a trusted advisor and confidant to the CEO. The CEO has a unique bird’s eye view of the company, blending and balancing the voices of other executives in service of the preservation of the company alone, ideally without bias toward a particular function. The Chief of Staff is often the only other person who shares that otherwise lonely vantage point with the CEO.

Similarly, the Chief of Staff may also share a “get it done” attitude with COO type functions, lending their expertise to define and drive operational efficiencies within the company. Cross-functional initiatives also find success when led by the Chief of Staff, whose department-agnostic perspective comes in handy. 

And like an Executive Assistant, communicative and organizational skills are critical to the success of any Chief of Staff. Having a mental model of the entire company and how it functions is necessary as a Chief of Staff often needs to dive into a departmental nuance for quick understanding and problem solving on behalf of the CEO. Similarly, communication skills must not be overlooked either as executing the CEO’s vision starts with clear messaging and crisp guidance; otherwise, you risk confusion and wasted time.

When to use these Roles in Your Organization

So, how do you know when to use one role or another? I’ve put together a handy chart to help you.

Critical Startup Roles Comparison Chart



Fractional Chief of Staff (fCoS)

Chief of Staff 


Chief Operating Officer (COO)

Executive Assistant (EA)

Role and Responsibilities

Provides strategic guidance and support to executives on a part-time or temporary basis. Focuses on high-level planning, coordination, and project management.

Works closely with the CEO, providing administrative and strategic support, acting as a trusted advisor and gatekeeper to the executive’s time.

Responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations and executing the company’s operational strategy. Manages multiple departments and ensures efficient use of resources.

Provides administrative support to executives, handling calendars, travel arrangements, and other routine tasks. May assist with project coordination, but not involved in high-level strategy.

Time Commitment

Part-time or temporary role, engaged on an as-needed basis.

Dedicated to supporting the CEO and executive team. (full-time)

Broader responsibilities, managing operational aspects of the company. (full-time)

Primarily focused on administrative tasks and supporting executives. (full-time)

Strategic Focus

Provides strategic guidance on specific projects or initiatives as required.

Acts as a strategic partner to the CEO and executive team, helping to shape the company’s direction and vision.

Focused on operational strategy, execution, and aligning the company’s activities with its overall goals.

Not primarily involved in strategic decision-making; focuses on operational support.

Decision-Making Authority

Limited decision-making authority; serves as an advisor and implementer.

May have decision-making authority delegated by the CEO; influences strategic decisions.

Holds significant decision-making authority regarding operational matters and resource allocation.

Implements decisions made by executives and may have limited authority in their absence.

Scope of Responsibilities

Focused on specific projects or areas; narrower scope.

Broad responsibilities across strategic and administrative functions.

Comprehensive oversight of company operations and performance.

Primarily responsible for administrative support and routine tasks.


Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant are Complementary Functions

Earlier I mentioned that the statement “A Chief of Staff is a glorified EA” is insulting. Now, let’s dig into why. An Executive Assistant is a critical team member who drives and maintains executive productivity in a myriad of ways, so that executives can do what they do best.  Anyone who thinks that managing another person’s calendar is easy has never done this work well – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

A Chief of Staff is, when done well, a complementary role to the Executive Assistant. While they may not specialize in a single executive’s productivity, they focus on the productivity needs of the company, and as pertains to the interactions between the CEO and executive staff and leadership teams. A recent Harvard Business Review article (source) states that the “chief of staff works autonomously and does not handle routine correspondence or manage the leader’s day-to-day schedule.” This is not to say that some Executive Assistants can’t take on Chief of Staff responsibilities and vice-versa; however there should be no hierarchy between the two complementary roles. On the contrary, the luckiest executives have both, working together in concert.

Conclusion & Resources

In conclusion, while each role – Fractional Chief of Staff, Chief of Staff to the CEO, COO, and Executive Assistant to the CEO – brings unique strengths and responsibilities, they all play vital roles in supporting an organization’s success. The key is knowing when and how to leverage the right resources at the right time. 

Additional Resources:

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