What really is the role of a COO?

Michael PainFounder, Forum Strategy

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In my book, Being The CEO, I write that the most important trait for any CEO is humility. That may sound an odd conclusion to come to. CEOs are often portrayed in the mainstream media as all-powerful heroes (or villains!), people who are always in full control, who know exactly what to do, with endless talents and charisma to boot. Rest-assured, aspiring to this portrayal presents a big trap for any fledgling CEO. Humility is key; ironically, it proves essential for achieving genuine self-confidence, another trait that every successful CEO needs in abundance.

Like so many things in life, all is not as it seems. The CEOs who believe they have all the answers or that they should be everything to everyone almost always come crashing down with a big bang (superhead CEOs, anyone?). CEOs who not only survive – but thrive – remain constant learners in the job. They surround themselves with talented people who have complementary talents and view-points; not simply delegating tasks but distributing leadership and constantly seeking advice, input and challenge – based on a big dose of self-awareness often achieved through coaching.

I’ve witnessed many CEOs who delegate leadership tasks. This isn’t the same as distributing leadership. A delegator will often give people the jobs they don’t want or don’t have time for. This isn’t humble leadership – it’s shirking the hard stuff and holding on to the fun bits. It’s directive, not empowering or enabling others.

Where I see true distribution of leadership take place, it is so often represented by the quality of the relationship between CEO and the Chief Operating Officer. If no such COO role exists, I worry. This relationship, where it works well, is like a finger and a thumb. One without the other is completely useless, but together they create complete harmony through complementary roles and through unconscious co-ordination. Where I see this level of harmony at the top, I see a CEO (and an organisation) that is both humble and self-confident. I see CEOs at the top of the game.

So let’s ask a few questions about the COO role…

What does the COO actually do?

This depends. The Ernest and Young consultancy firm say that “the role of the chief operating officer often defies a ‘one-size-fits-all’ description. Essentially it is a job whose responsibilities are defined closely in tandem with the individual needs and goals of the chief executive officer.”

This is important. There’s no point in the CEO and the COO having the same professional background. If the CEO is a marketing or technology specialist, then it makes sense for the COO to have a finance or an HR background (or ideally both!). The same applies to some extent to traits. If the CEO is an introvert who hates dealing with the media or standing up in public (some humble CEOs do hate this!), then the COO should be more adept in this regard.

What all COOs should be able to do is to translate the vision and strategy of the organisation into operational delivery. I would strongly suggest that all COOs have a strong ability to inform and deliver upon strategy, translating strategic goals into execution through ensuring high quality project management, resourcing, and good use and management of data. (By the way, academy trusts are usually great on resourcing and data, poor on project management capacity). Which brings me onto the next question…

What background should a COO have?

This is a big question. After spending many years coaching CEOs, I often see how appointing someone without the key traits to the second-in-command job can become frustrating to CEOs who ‘just want to get on and deliver’. I’m afraid, people with a finance background do not always have the breadth of experience or traits required. To people drenched in these backgrounds, and without other leadership experience, budgets and financial planning can often become king, determining strategy rather than serving it. In the academy trust sector, too many CEOs were quick to appoint their SBM as the COO – the internal promotion of someone they trusted too often eclipsed important considerations about how different the jobs are. As I say in the book, “not so far into growth, academy trust CEOs realise they actually need someone befitting the role of Chief Operating Officer – ensuring that finances, resourcing, procurement, technology, risk management, and operating processes neatly dovetail together to deliver the organisational vision and achieve sustainability. It’s far from simply being about finance, yet many simply appointed an FD, not a COO.”

People with backgrounds in Human Resources, technology or, indeed, marketing tend to be much more adept at project delivery and multi-disciplinary leadership – providing the lateral thinking that is required to translate strategy across diverse and complex operations. People with operational leadership in charities and business – usually with an entrepreneurial streak, also tend to do well. That’s not to say that accountants or finance managers don’t make good COOs – some do – but if I were appointing a COO, I’d be looking for someone who sees financial management as just one of a number of factors in operational success.

What other traits do COOs need to demonstrate?

A COO is probably the most challenging role in the organisation, not least because it is multi-disciplinary and often more exposed than any other bar the CEO’s, because the CEO’s professional background tends to be elsewhere. The COO therefore, will often finding themselves presenting to the board and feeling the full weight of its accountability and oversight. The board is also likely to be made up of people who are operational experts in all those areas that the COO is responsible for! So being comfortable with high pressure, high accountability and scrutiny is a must.

It goes without saying that the COO needs to be adaptable, and comfortable leading across diverse and complex functions – leading people who are often more ‘expert’ than them. This is a strategic role, leading others who are senior operations leaders or managers. Because of their expertise being different to that of the CEO, the COO must also be confident influencers of strategy – helping the CEO and the board understand the context the organisation finds itself in and how it must respond in order to achieve its wider vision.

Leading COO and author Jennifer Geary states that COOs need to be prepared to:

  • learn fast
  • embrace new areas and new disciplines
  • apply your knowledge and wisdom to new contexts
  • see common themes
  • create a plan
  • move quickly, reassuring your people along the way

One word I love to see associated with the COO is ‘integrator’, the person who facilitates the complex and wide-ranging functions of the organisation to help make core business better. In academy trusts I see COOs facilitating people, resources and financing, technology, marketing, fundraising, site management and much more to achieve the big goal – a better educational experience for children and young people. This is why the quality of your COO matters!

What should the relationship with the CEO look like?

As I say in the book, the two people in this relationship will often be very different characters, and have very different professional backgrounds. There should be a mutual respect and good chemistry, not least given the pressures and the intensity the relationship will be subject to over time. It is a professional marriage.

Indeed, it goes without saying that the relationship must be based on trust, honesty, frankness, mutual-understanding, and a ‘can do’ mindset. At its best, there will be an almost intuitive understanding of where the organisation is going, and the role each person plays in taking it there. That will look very different in every organisation.

I’ll end with this quote from the EY report:

“The days when COOs could focus all their attention on the nuts and bolts of the operations are fading. Today, mastery of operational issues is a given. Beyond this, COOs have a clear opportunity to help define the strategy that underpins the vision, and to then take the lead in implementing it. Indeed, this is an increasingly important part of how the COO role can be secured within the organisation.”

A good COO is worth their weight in gold. They will define your leadership – for good or ill. In this ever complex and uncertain era, my question to CEOs is this: make sure you get the COO you deserve, and hang onto them!


Join Forum Strategy’s new national network of COOs here: http://localhost/forumold/trustleaders-chief-operating-officers-forum/

Together in adversity, in praise of operational leaders of our trusts and schools : http://localhost/forumold/together-in-adversity-in-praise-of-operational-leaders-of-our-trusts-and-schools/


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