What is the Role of the COO?

Recently, 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 colleague 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 my colleague 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 my colleague 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’s 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.

One thought on “What is the Role of the COO?

  1. Kevin, interestingly, I provided a comment to a question, in a similar fashion (albeit much shorter), to your article here only moments ago on the linkedin COO Forum.

    The one disagreement I would have with your article pertains to your use of the metaphor, ‘having each others back’. No doubt, Trust is a significant part of the equation. However, equally ‘Push-Back’ needs to be a strong offset. In todays business world, we often find when the CEO is engaged in some improper or unethical activity, that the COO might shortly thereafter be found to accept involvement or colusion in the same. I believe that if more prevelant ‘Push-Back’ were built into the ‘having each others back’ or trust equation, we might reduce some of todays corporate setbacks.

    Yes, it is the boards place to monitor the activities of the CEO and to prevent such improper business activities etc. However, that is a much more formal interaction level than the ‘have your back’ perspective of the CEO / COO.

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