Every Company Needs a Chief of Staff

Every Company Needs a Chief of Staff
Ever heard of a Chief of Staff? Hinke Malda is one of the few people in the Netherlands to hold that role. At Philips, she acts as a ‘liaison officer’ between executive management and the organization and occupies her time with raising operational effectiveness and support in strategic deliberations. ‘I want to know exactly what is going on in every part of the business.’  

How can we ensure that the strategy from the annual planning is actually implemented? And by whom? A Chief of Staff has line of sight over all of that and knows the right person to call upon at the right time. But the Chief of Staff does more than that: they hold an eminent position of trust. Since recently, Hinke Malda has been that “jack of all trades” at health technology company Philips. She joined the company as their new Chief of Staff for Innovation & Strategy in March. ‘If you ask me, every company beyond a certain size needs a Chief of Staff.’
‘We need to raise the bar.’ Malda mentions it several times. That bar is a recurring feature in the conversation. And for Malda, it can never be high enough. Perhaps that says something about her ambitions, for herself and for the company. Malda appears energetic, fit, sharp. She is determined to make something of her new job. In recent months, she has mainly ‘delved into the content’, because if there is anything she seems to horrify her, it is superficiality. She wants to know exactly what is going on in the business, so she can be of greater help with strategic deliberations.

You have been Chief of Staff for Innovation & Strategy since March this year. Can you explain what the Chief of Staff role involves and why this role is important?
‘The role originated in the United States but an increasing number of European companies have created it in their own organizations, including in the Netherlands. It was originally a role that was largely reserved for government organizations, but now there are more and more Chiefs of Staff in the corporate world. The job description for this role is not set in stone and will differ slightly from organization to organization. If I look at myself, I mainly attempt to improve the organization’s effectiveness. How do we put our strategy into practice? How can we implement it and how can we do so as effectively as possible? Who will be responsible for what? That is what I talk to people about. And I do not do so just by looking at business processes, but also at the leadership, for example. I look at how I can challenge people to improve things even more and how I can raise the bar just that bit further.
Another major role for the Chief of Staff is that of the confidant. In my case, I am a trusted partner for Shez Partovi, a member of Philips’ Executive Committee and Chief Medical, Innovation & Strategy Officer. The two of us work hand-in-glove. We often spar over strategic topics, which of course is all entirely confidential. I try to advise him as well as I can, and every so often hold up a mirror. We have many discussions about what is going on, what is needed and what priorities we need to set. There is so much we have to deal with. So many strategic choices need to be made. Really on-the-ball choices, too. Sacrificing the important over the most important is a major theme at present. Almost all our conversations are about that.’

I understand that the conversations are confidential, but could you still give me a bit of an insight into how the deliberations are made, how you work?
‘I know what is going on at the Executive Board and Supervisory Board levels. I also have a good idea of what is going on in the organization. I bring all that knowledge together. That allows me to assess what topic needs to be addressed when, who will be needed to deal with it and which committee should take responsibility for this. If there needs to be a presentation to our Executive Committee, I make sure it meets the right standards. I try to steer things so that the presentation leads to decisions being taken. And afterwards, I make sure the decision is implemented, that there is follow-up. Also, when Shez goes to one of our four global innovation hubs, such as to Bangalore in India recently, I make sure the agenda is relevant, with relevant meetings. This is how we try to make the journey have an impact.’

The way you describe it, it very much sounds like a service-leadership role.
‘It most certainly is. Part of my role is to make other people shine, to help others get the best out of themselves, to challenge them and to raise the bar for everyone.’

What was the major reason why you said ‘yes’ to this role? After all, you did have a great job as Head of Innovation Strategy.
‘That mainly has to do with the bond of trust that I had and have with Shez. He asked me whether I wanted to consider this new role because there was a need for it at the company. What attracted me was that the Chief of Staff has to stay on top of everything. You are closely involved in decision-making – you know what is going on. It is great to be able to give advice and to help determine where the company is going.’

You are closely involved in the choices made around innovation. What deliberations play a role in those choices?
‘The most important deliberation is always: do we choose short-term or long-term innovations? Do we always aim for better versions of the same product, or do we focus on disruptive innovations with potentially completely new products? We want both, and it is important to have a good balance between them.’

These are turbulent times: there is a war in Ukraine, inflation is soaring... Philips’ operating results are also under pressure, as the most recent presentation of the quarterly figures showed. How do you make sure innovation remains high on the agenda, despite everything?
‘It is precisely in times of adversity that we must make sure we have innovation in place. At those times, you might be inclined to focus a bit more on short-term innovations. I see it as a major role for myself to make sure we keep the right balance. If the organization is threatening to go too far one way, I will need to provide some counterweight. I want to make sure there is an appropriate balance in the portfolio. As it happens, I have no major worries in that respect. Innovation is in Philips’ genes. This company has reinvented itself so often before.’

Even then, there will be numerous plans for innovation. How do you consider these plans, how does that work?
‘Philips spends around 1.8 billion euros per year on innovation. That is 10 percent of turnover – a significant amount. There is innovation everywhere at this company, which can be complex at times. Everyone tends to focus primarily on their own business unit, but there is also a larger Philips. It is certainly the case that everyone at the company has an enterprise mindset now, but things can always be better. I try to encourage that, but you can only do that by being a serious partner in conversation.
I set the bar high for myself there too. I deep-dive into the content and I deep-dive into the finances. I want to know what is going on in every part of the business, the state of affairs, what investments have been made, what the trends are, what the propositions are, where the opportunities lie. I cannot take part in conversations about choices or engage in dialogue with the people at exco level and advise them at a strategic level until I have all the necessary information.’

How important do you think the social impact of innovations is?
‘Social impact is interwoven with who we are, with what we stand for and what we do. Our goal is to improve the lives of 2.5 billion people by 2030. It would surprise me to encounter anyone at Philips who is not aware of that. It is not that social impact or sustainability are the major topics of conversation by the coffee machine, but everyone is aware of these issues.’

Can you give a practical example of that corporate impact?
‘That starts in a product’s development phase. We keep sustainability in mind during all stages of the design process. Is it made from sustainable materials, is it energy-efficient, can it be disassembled and can it be recycled? And let me just cite two innovations, with a major impact. The first is the Philips Healthdot, a wearable sensor. This sensor can monitor patients’ vital functions, such as heartbeat and breathing. Thanks to the Healthdot, hospital patients can be sent home earlier to recuperate. The patient can be monitored at home through the sensor. This is a great example of our vision for the hospital of the future.
Another example is the alarm signals in intensive care. All these devices make a lot of noise: the artificial respiration, the medicine delivery system. All that beeping, very intrusive. Research has shown that those alarm signals cause stress. For the patient, but mainly for the IC staff. These sounds can even result in symptoms of exhaustion and potential burn-out. We have now provided some different alarm signals: More musical, more rounded, less monotonous, less invasive. A seemingly small adjustment, but it has a huge impact on the IC staff.

How important is diversity and inclusion in relation to innovation?
‘If we are saying we want to be improving the lives of 2.5 billion people by 2030, that will not work if the organization is not a reflection of society. We are extremely conscious of that. A range of perspectives and backgrounds enrich the discussion and decision-making, so ultimately the end product too.
This is why I look for diversity in my team. I also try to encourage young women to choose technical studies and I am mentor for young women here at Philips. This is another way I am trying to contribute to diversity at the organization. To me, diversity and inclusion also means you can be yourself. Every person has different core qualities and different motivations. Just because mine may be different to yours, that does not mean mine are any less valuable. After all, we know that the most innovative solutions come about through collaboration between people with a range of perspectives and diverse backgrounds.’

You have now been in this role for several months and it sounds as though you are making some significant progress. What do you want to achieve in the coming period?
‘There are 11,000 people working for Philips in research & development around the world; we spend 1.8 billion euros on innovation every year and we are the largest patent applicant in medical technology globally. It is my ambition to make the best possible use of those three things so as to improve lives. In order to achieve that, we also need to increasingly see things from the client’s perspective. For example, what does the patient expect, what does the doctor want, what obstacles does the nurse face, and what are the issues at the hospital? Raising the bar ever higher, curiosity and social relevance are major motivations for me. I want to get closely involved in the problems and challenges in the medical sector and make an impact on them.’

You are now one of the few Chiefs of Staff in the Netherlands. Is this a role that you think could be a good fit for other large companies too?
‘I would say, emphatically, yes. Almost all companies pay more than enough attention to strategy and implementation, but the real challenge lies in how you make that effective. How are we going to carry out the plans, who is going to do that, how do we provide feedback? A Chief of Staff can look at these things fairly objectively. I do not manage one particular business unit, so I have no specific interests. I can become fully involved in one part of the business, while I have the freedom to contribute fully to the company as a whole. So yes, if you ask me, every company beyond a certain size needs a Chief of Staff.’

Do you have much contact with fellow Chiefs of Staff?
‘I recently had a really great meeting with the Technical Advisor – a comparable role – at America’s Amazon Web Services. That was interesting, because we were able to exchange a great many experiences about the role. Really useful. Together, we came up with the idea of exchanging experiences with other colleagues too. It would be really great to spar with like-minded people once or twice a year. There is already a Chief of Staff Association in the United States. How amazing would it be if something similar came about here?’

This interview was published in Management Scope 07 2022.

This article was last changed on 31-08-2022