Views of COO role

The role of chief operating officer varies hugely: it can be held by people with very different backgrounds and there is no generally agreed job description or even title for the job.

by Harvard Business Review
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

While COOs are normally seen as standard in operations-intensive businesses (and are generally responsible for operations in any company), every business sector has firms with and without COOs - and one study found that in companies where they were promoted to CEO, only a minority had refilled the COO role a year later.

Primarily, the chief operating officer role is defined in relation to the chief executive and is therefore highly situational. Different views of the role arise from different motives in creating the position. This study suggests seven potential roles:

- Executor: to implement the CEO's strategy on a day-to-day basis. This reflects the modern complexity and scope of a CEO's job and is why the position is very widespread in operationally intensive businesses such as airlines and car-making, as well as companies in highly competitive and dynamic markets, such as hi-tech firms.

- Change Agent: to lead a particular initiative, such as a turnaround or a planned rapid expansion

- Mentor: to mentor a young or inexperienced CEO, often a founder. A rapidly growing entrepreneurial venture might seek an industry veteran, for example, whose role might eventually disappear as the CEO develops

- Other Half: to complement the strengths or make up for the weaknesses of the CEO

- Partner: to support a CEO who works best with a partner

- Heir Apparent: to groom or test a possible CEO successor. The broad perspective of the job allows the heir apparent to learn about the whole company

- Most Valuable Person (MVP): to try to tie in a highly valuable executive who might otherwise leave

This variety of potential roles suggests that there isn't a standard set of attributes that define a great COO, although this study highlights the most critical success factor as the building of a high level of trust between CEO and COO.

To achieve this, the CEO must feel the COO truly shares their vision, is not gunning for the top job, is prepared to keep their ego in check, and will get the job done. Equally, the CEO must communicate faithfully, give real authority and decision rights (including clearly demarcating CEO and COO responsibilities) and not stifle the COO's career development. While COOs accept that their job involves making the CEO successful, in turn the CEO should share the spotlight.

For some, the COO role is in decline: one 10-year study found a 22% decline in the number of executives with the title. But one can argue that there is growing requirement for the role, given the widening scope of the CEO's job, pressure for more explicit succession planning, and the need to find ways to hold on to top talent.

Second in command: the misunderstood role of the chief operating
officer
Nathan Bennett and Stephen A Miles, Harvard Business Review, May 2006.

Reviewed by Steve Lodge.

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