Ella Mason outlines some common misconceptions about the role of the chief operating officer.
Chief operating officer. President. Second-in-command. Deputy leader. Each of these titles actually refer to the same role – or at least they could – depending on the business structure. If you’re analysing a given company you might be a little confused, but it’s a commonplace feature in many of the workplaces highlighted on sites such as exec-appointments.com.
The chief operating officer (COO), whose role traditionally ranks directly below the chief executive officer (or chairman), may have a background in technology, finance, marketing, journalism, or any other relevant sector to the company. Simply put, the COO plays a key role in backing up the CEO and their overall strategic vision for a company, and is – to some extent – at the mercy of their thoughts, whims and ideas.
As such the remit of one incumbent might not match up with the specifications of his/her successor or predecessor, for what is exactly the same job title.
Many companies believe that the COO is one of the more intensive roles in the organisation’s C-Suite, since he/she will be dealing with pressures directly from the boss in one direction and upwardly from heads of departments from the other.
So one would be forgiven for thinking that it’s a stressful and sometimes horrible fire-pit of a role, especially in a multi-national, multi-agency company. One might also think that handing at least some of the responsibilities down to a lower level and therefore overseeing rather than directly implementing might be preferable.
But that isn’t always the case.
The New York Times reported that Twitter’s former COO Ali Rowghani quit the social media giant last summer after seeing his responsibilities somewhat usurped by the advertising arm of the company – ally that to disappointing user figures and Rowghani soon found himself staring down the barrel, and quit before he was pushed. Responsibility is a powerful drug, and hurts when it is removed.
The Twitter news, and the inherent implication that the COO role should be loaded with a wider set of tasks, is backed up by data. According to studies by EY, a third of COOs have experienced a wider set of tasks in the past five years.
… one would be forgiven for thinking that it’s a stressful and sometimes horrible fire-pit of a role, especially in a multi-national, multi-agency company.”
That somewhat backs up another misconception of the COO that some may have – their role is stabilisation of what already exists. Sometimes the COO is brought in to do exactly the opposite, and implement a complete overhaul in the operations of the company, perhaps particularly in the digital world of the 21st Century. A CEO may find an expert in turning companies around and give their COO the flexibility to execute, ripping up the current rulebook as they do so.
A final misconception, and one which should be obvious from this: while many people unfamiliar with business practice believe that the chairman is the most important role in the company at any given time, in actual fact the COO is often the glue that holds everything together at the top. The COO may even be far more experienced than the CEO; the story at Dell computers, where 29-year-old Michael Dell brought in a team of senior staff including Mort Topfer to hold his hand as the company boomed, is well known.
Topfer understood his role was advisory and had no desire to assume the CEO role. Many COOs at a more junior stage in their development still have the ambition to get to the top spot – it’s the reason why so many CEOs are former COOs.