The Seven Roles of the COO

I recently came across an article in Harvard Business Review that is as relevant today as it was when it was written over a decade ago.  Titled Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer, the piece notes the “situational” nature of what the COO does. A person sitting in the COO chair may play many if not most of these roles during his / her tenure. The seven defining roles for the COO, based on his / her relationship with the Visionary CEO, are as follows:

1) The Executor. This is perhaps the best known role of the COO. While the CEO is out in the world building external relationships, the COO is focusing on the internal activities in the business which create enterprise value. Most effective COOs have a unique ability to get into the details and to bring focus and prioritization to tasks which most CEOs perceive as mundane, or below their interest level or pay grade. In fact, even if the CEO had the time to get involved in these areas, (s)he would either a. postpone; b. ignore; or c. participate minimally in these activities — with mediocre results expected.

2) The Change Agent. This is defined as having the authority to lead “a specific strategic imperative, such as a turnaround, a major organizational change, or a planned rapid expansion”. Why would the CEO generally not lead these activities? Due to the complexity of the activities involved on the people, process, technology and organization sides.

3) The Mentor. In this situation, a COO is brought on to mentor a CEO / CEO-in-training who needs additional skills to more productively assume that role. This could be the daughter or son of the founder who are part of an orderly succession plan at the family business. It could be done formally, with certain growth benchmarks on the part of the mentee, or informally through on the job coaching as needs arise. Additionally, the COO often mentors people on the leadership team, especially when those individuals are younger and less experienced.

4) The Other Half. A larger-than-life, extrovert CEO may bring on an introvert COO to “clean up her / his messes”. This is a scenario the COO needs to be careful of; sometimes, the CEO can be such a disruptive force in the day-to-day business that the COO will spend most of the time putting out fires and will be limited from participating in more productive activities that move the company forward.

5) The Partner. Partnership here denotes a “co-CEO” model. While this arrangement may “show” well, particularly at a company that emphasizes its egalitarian work environment, it rarely works. A few prominent examples of co-CEO relationships that did not work when the going got tough are: 1) Research in Motion, the maker of Blackberry (who never developed a viable strategy to compete for the Smartphone Market); and 2) Chipotle (whose food safety scandal extended for months instead of weeks and destroyed billions in shareholder value.

6) The Heir Apparent. Larger companies often use the COO role as a “parking spot” as part of a succession plan for the new CEO. In these cases, the COO will likely work on Special Projects or build up his / her skills in areas that are lacking, in order to be more well rounded when the succession is scheduled to take place. The only times I see this in smaller businesses is when the CEO at a family business elevates a successor into this role in order to increase exposure to the new leader in advance of a business transition.

7) The MVP. This consists of the promotion of a key staff person whom the company does not want to lose into the COO role. This is not a good idea. If a company does not have the right seat for a leader, even if that leader is well liked and a good cultural fit, then that leader should be asked to leave for the benefit of all parties.

In conclusion, it is clear the COO / integrator contributes to the growth of a business in many different ways. As we celebrate entrepreneurs who launch new businesses, let us remember the COOs who prioritize activities, manage complexity, and mentor and coach team members. Coming from diverse backgrounds, these COOs share a willingness to roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to power their companies to success.

CEOs / Visionaries - Which role(s) does the COO play in your business? Any roles outside of these seven that are worth mentioning?  Also, think about the top major strategic initiatives that have impacted your business over the past few years. Did you solicit help from an internal COO or outside consultant? What was the impact of that assistance? If not, do you wish you had?  

COOs / Integrators - which roles have you played over your career? Which activities do you find are most beneficial? What is your advice for an aspiring COO?

Many of the ideas in this article are also discussed in the great book Rocket Fuel by Gino Wickman of EOS Worldwide and Mark Winters. Rocket Fuel describes the Visionary (CEO) and Integrator (COO) relationship at small companies ($2m - $50m) in significant detail.