The Mysterious World of the COO

The role of the Chief Operating Officer has seemingly “Fad[ed] throughout the business world” (Forbes, May 20th 2015) over the 23 year course of my Executive Search career despite the inverse appearing to be true here in New Zealand. I have always found the COO to be a tricky nut to crack in terms of my searches however due to the broad remit of the role – especially with the way individual companies like to put their own spin on proceedings. As I like to revisit the old and draw in new information and experiences to constantly redefine my perspective, I decided to do a little digging into mysterious world of the COO.

To help frame my research, I (surprise, surprise from my previous authorial offerings) decided to compare the mainstream outlook of the position with the personal findings of those in my large Australasian network. To start with, here are the seven possible identities that the Harvard Business Review has delineated the COO into:

  • The ‘Executor’: the Chief Operating Officer leads the execution of strategy developed by the C-Suite.

  • The ‘Change Agent’: the COO leads major organisational change – EG Kevin Turner’s 2005-2016 transformation of Microsoft from a big corporate that lacked quarterly notes to an industry titan that ended the 2015 fiscal year (according to the company itself) with 8% growth and $93.6 billion in revenue.

  • The ‘Mentor’: some companies utilise a COO to guide a younger or more inexperienced CEO.

  • The ‘Other Half’: some corporates may wish to use a COO as a soundboard to offer counter arguments to the CEO in order to create a complementary partnership.

  • The ‘Partner’: Similar to the ‘Other Half’, but works simply on the premise that the CEO prefers to work with an extra individual.

  • The ‘Heir Apparent’: As is true in many cases, the COO position is used to test and groom a candidate for the role of CEO in the event of the current head’s departure from the company.

  • The ‘MVP’: The COO position is given as a promotion incentive in order to prevent the departure of an individual considered too valuable to lose (particularly to a competitor).

With these ideas in place, I reached out to 498 current COOs in various industries to get their feedback on where they felt the model held true and where they felt the business boffins may have fallen short. With 393 respondents’ thoughts gathered, the following represents which description each participant felt most suited their responsibilities within their respective companies:

27% The ‘Other Half’.

25% The ‘Executor’.

19% The ‘Change Agent’.

14% The ‘Heir Apparent’.

9% The ‘Partner’.

4% The ‘Mentor’.

2% The ‘MVP’.

It is interesting that a lot of those who answered my questions thought that “There was no ‘one size fits all’ model” for the COO – a point that seems even more poignant given the statistical analysis above. In fact, a lot of respondents went on to explain that their own function within their companies was as a hybrid of at least two of the delineations given by the Harvard Business Review with their responsibilities covering everything up to and including “Strategy development, business development, revenue growth activities and also external/internal engagement with stakeholders”.

Where there was clarity however, was that a majority of participants that saw the COO role as having “A lot to do with being a ‘Partner’ and ‘Other Half’ to the CEO” felt close relationship to the CEO was a key factor in why the ‘Heir apparent’ phenomenon existed – some believing “Individuals coming through the COO role” to be “More likely to succeed the CEO role than those with a CFO profile” due to an ease of “Flexibility, communication and empowerment of staff”. Having said this, one could argue that CEOs and COOs require entirely different qualities as prerequisites for success and that what makes a great COO doesn’t necessarily align with what makes a great CEO. Where CEOs “Set the vision of the business…the COO sets the mission…and tactics to achieve the vision” so there is obviously going to be a contrast of skills considering that the circles these executives have to work in are tangential at best.

In order to try to come to some final thoughts, perhaps paradoxically, on an infinite discussion, I think the best simile on the matter is this: asking a Chief Operating Officer what the feel of their job is is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – “You never know what you’re going to get”. What seems to be apparent in the Oceanian market where the COO’s responsibilities haven’t been diluted into the hypermodern CSOs, CDOs, etc., is that corporations are reliant on the symbiotic relationship between the top dog and his ‘Partner’/’Other Half’. COOs in New Zealand seem happy with this arrangement though. Finding an average COO might be as difficult as trying to find an overt picture in a Jackson Pollock, but as long as companies are pushing a clear vision of what they want to their movers and shakers, why wouldn’t COOs be happy? Is it all onwards and upwards as ‘Heir Apparent’ straight away if a company’s CEO leaves though? That’s a conversation for another day!