What is the Role of the COO?

The Chicago Chapter of the COO Forum, of which I am the Director, has taken up the theme “The Role of the COO” for 2010. In researching articles to facilitate discussions on that theme, I came across an article (see the reference below) that supports the idea that in general, the role of the COO is misunderstood. The authors of the article contend that the role of the COO depended largely on the CEO and posited 7 different potential roles for a COO (or any operating executive) depending on the CEO and his skills, abilities and personality.

I found this interesting, as a member of the Chicago Chapter of the COO Forum had posited a different idea, that the Role of the COO was dependent on the nature of the business and in particular, on the ultimate responsibility of the COO for the overall operations of the company. The member pointed out that while the COO often had direct reports that were in charge of different aspects of operations, since the COO was ultimately responsible for those operations, that fact would shape the role of the COO.

The basic theory of the article mentioned above is that there are 7 potential roles for the COO:

1. To implement the CEO’s strategy;
2. To lead a particular initiative, such as a turnaround;
3. To mentor a young, inexperienced CEO;
4. To complement the strengths or make up for the weaknesses of the CEO;
5. To provide a partner to the CEO;
6. To test out a possible successor;
7. To stave off the defection of a highly valuable executive, particularly to a rival.

Since the premise of the article is that the role of the COO depends on the CEO, it should not be surprising that that only role 1 and 2 above seem to relate directly to operating a company. The article itself points out that many of the COOs and other operating executives that they interviewed did not always focus on the day to day operations of the company, but often had other significant tasks to pursue.

On the other hand, as the member of the Chicago Chapter pointed out, the type of business and the operational realities would also seem to weigh heavily on what the COO must undertake in his or her role. The day to day operations of a manufacturer, distributor or service company differ greatly. The size of a company would have a major impact on what a COO is doing on a daily basis. In a smaller company, the COO is more likely to be a, dare I say “hands on” manager than in a larger.

In either case, Bennett and Miles do point out that in their research, the success of the COO depends to an extraordinary degree on how well the CEO and the COO develop a sense of trust, using the metaphor of “having each others back”. The relationship of mutual trust is often difficult to attain for various reasons both internal to the relationship as well as what the authors refer to as “Those seeking to drive wedges” between the two.

Personally, I believe that both the authors of this article and the member of our chapter have uncovered different aspects of the COO’s role in the modern corporation. On the one hand, the relationship of trust between the CEO and the COO is vital to the COO’ success, but we cannot minimize the how the nature of the responsibilities of the COO will also color the role to a great extent. We will look at both aspects of the COO’s role in future postings.

In the meantime, I would be very interested to hear from the COO’s and other Operating Executives in the audience: what is your experience in your role as Chief Operating Officer?

Second in Command, The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer, Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles, Harvard Business Review, May 2006.

4 thoughts on “What is the Role of the COO?

  1. Great post Kevin! I frequently challenge my firm’s definition of “operations’ as I am the Managing Director of Operations and report directly to the CEO of our firm. From the key leaders view, the operations team is responsible for process management and improvement, as well as project management and PMO initiatives. The problem with this approach is that it limits my ability to grow to President or COO as many companies expect the COO to handle P&L, and Logistics, on top of the execution of the CEO’s strategic decisions.

    The highlight of the article is a great take away for any senior to executive level manager – in that your job is support the CEO in his decisions so that the organization can grow using the best decisions points possible.

    Thanks for the tidbit

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the thoughtful posting. As a relatively new COO coming from a marketing background, I have noticed that the responsibilities of COO’s differ and even the functions reporting to the COO being different across a variety of companies. In our company, the management team sets objectives and it’s my job to integrate various functions to get it done. I’ve never had a more interesting or fun role! I appreciate your insights and look forward to more of your insights via the Linkedin COO Forum community.


  3. In 2011, this may start to include marketing budget and marketing alignment with customer service via social media…

  4. I concur with point 5 and with the statement that ‘the success of the COO depends to an extraordinary degree on how well the CEO and the COO develop a sense of trust’.

    In my recent job, I had the opportunity to work with two CEO’s. The first CEO I worked with, there was absolute trust. We would meet every morning for a quick chat about the business, issues and we would support each other. Before the CEO would make any decision, he would update me and vice versa. There was a good chemistry.

    Then came a second CEO. The CEO would barely meet up with me. Often I would go to him to give him and update and he did not seem interested in what I have to say. He will make business calls or decisions that was contrary to what we tried to build over years and without speaking to his COO. There was no chemistry at all and it was a real disaster. As COO I would come to know of a decision through the grapevine.

    Having lived both situation, I can perfectly agree that to be successful as a COO you need to have the support and trust of your CEO and vice versa.

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