Advice From Zainab Ghadiyali for Current and Future Chiefs of Staff
First Round shared a fantastic profile of Zainab Ghadiyali, current Product Lead at Airbnb, co-founder of Wogrammer, and former engineer at Facebook. While she’s not a Chief of Staff, her approach to an unconventional (and seemingly meandering) career is an inspiration for curious generalists like Chiefs of Staff.
Here are my six takeaways from the Chief of Staff perspective:
Replace the career ladder analogy with something less linear.
I like Sheryl Sandberg’s jungle gym analogy and Ghadiyali’s painting analogy. The article inspired me to visualize my career as a “dome.” With the right mindset, there is no step back, only to the side and up. Each horizontal move positions you equally to move up and out. Ghadiyai encourages readers to grow their career in every direction, with a special focus on universal soft skills such as influence and communication. I’m a happy generalist, and I’ve often felt like I’m swimming against the current when I tell people I want to stay general, rather than specialize in a functional area. Yes, I’m gaining expertise in functional areas through projects, but I intentionally want to return to the middle.
Pursue curiosity everywhere.
Ghadiyali read as a child and now questions interviewees about their passions outside of work and recent learning experiences. Books are an amazing hack to spend quality time with otherwise unreachable people (Lincoln, Jobs, Buffet). Podcasts are a great way to do the same for those of us who learn better from listening. I make a point to listen to interviews with CEOs as part of my study of how to build artful concerns.
Embrace a can-do creative mindset to overcome your insecurities.
Ghadiyali recommends learning from The Leadership Circle and intention-setting to stay focused on what can be. Her advice that “if you’re focused on a positive outcome, you’re implicitly acknowledging that it’s possible” reminds me of similar advice from Jen Sincero. Sincero advises that we can only dream of that which already exists; therefore everything is attainable. It’s a bit woo-woo, but I’ll happily be reminded in any way possible to go after my dreams without overthinking things. A big perk of the Chief of Staff role is getting perspective from a much more senior role. It’s one thing to dream of being a CEO; it’s another to ride shotgun with one day in and day out.
Create a process to evaluate your current position and future roles.
Ghadiyali creates a spreadsheet (I love this idea!), but the format is less important than the investment of time spent thinking about where you are, where you want to be, and what you want to learn. This is great advice for people thinking about moving into the Chief of Staff role (why are you interested?) or for Chiefs looking to graduate from the role (have you learned everything you can?)
“Everyone feels unqualified or not ready at some point in their careers - what will determine your success if whether you’re willing to put in the work to prove that voice wrong.” In the Chief of Staff role especially, you are often tasked with work that would otherwise be completed by your CXO. But, we’re not CXOs! Instead, we have to jump and remain confident that we’re doing the best we can do.
Surround yourself with support.
Similar to the concept of a personal board of directors, Ghadiyali recommends finding “builders” rather than “smushers” who leave you feeling inspired and capable. Find these people and keep them close. Ask them for help when your inner voice plants seeds of doubt. I love my fellow Chief of Staff communities for their support and empathy, but I also make a point of spending time with a diverse group of people from various walks of life.