According to executives, time constraints were the second-biggest challenge to running a business. This means company leaders struggle with things like prioritizing tasks, managing multiple commitments, balancing corporate leadership with personal responsibilities, and pursuing that long list of things that need to be done.
Luckily, companies were also smart enough to create a role that could step in when the chief executive officer (CEO) is too busy, to focus solely on ensuring the corporate boat is sailing smoothly in a focused direction that aligns with the company’s goal.
That role? It’s a chief operating officer.
- What is a chief operating officer?
- Chief operating officer responsibilities
- Chief operating officer skills
- Types of chief operating officers
What is a chief operating officer?
A chief operating officer (COO) is a diverse, multi-faceted role that supports a wide range of functions within the company. Overall, the goal of a COO is to keep the day-to-day operations of the company running smoothly while the CEO and departmental managers oversee strategy, team management, and tactical functions. A COO might step in to support or provide optimization recommendations on functional-level activities, but will not manage a single function for long as they need to keep their eye on the productivity of the wider organization.
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Chief operating officer responsibilities
Most COOs have a multitude of talents and skills, but these are the most common ones to expect:
- Meet with and report to the CEO regularly
- Implement business operations
- Introduce new policies to improve company culture
- Coordinate with other departments
- Be an external or internal face of the company
1Meet with and report to the CEO regularly
As the person who oversees the success of the company on an operational level, the COO will work very closely with the CEO. This includes having regular meetings to discuss strategic goals, making tactical plans to meet objectives, and reporting on the progress of the plans.
2Implement business operations
When the CEO and COO are aligned on the changes needed within the organization, the COO is responsible for execution success. The COO may hire, fire, and coordinate talent from multiple teams to ensure the success of business-wide projects. COOs who are taking on project management of a new business expansion will also be responsible for budget and schedule management. In smaller organizations, the COO may take a hands-on approach to executing activities. However, in larger organizations, the COO may focus more on delegation and project management of new initiatives.
3Introduce new policies to improve company culture
A recent and widely discussed topic relating to company culture is the decision by companies as to whether employees should work from home (remotely), in office, or as part of a hybrid work schedule. In this case, as with any other company culture initiatives, the COO is responsible for ensuring these policies are integrated into the company. As part of this process, the COO will also collect and review employee feedback, use the data to make decisions with other leaders, and communicate these results back to the wider team.
4Coordinate with other departments
COOs who work on implementing strategic initiatives, especially in large-scale organizations, are rarely doing the hands-on work themselves. Instead, they need to be great communicators to assign project tasks and goals to department leads. In the example about switching to a remote work environment, the COO would need to coordinate with human resource teams to ensure salaries can be paid virtually and would work with IT teams to ensure all employees will have adequate access to internet, software security, and computer equipment at home.
5Be an external or internal face of the company
Each company treats the COO role a bit differently. Some companies may opt to have their COO work primarily internally, meaning that the individual in this role would focus on optimizing internal processes, integrating new company policies, and being the go-to person when a problem occurs. This type of COO is typically more hands-on. Some organizations opt for external-facing COOs, such as Harley Finkelstein of Shopify. An external-facing COO will spend more of their day working with partners and clients to ensure they have a great experience working with the company and address concerns as soon as they arise.
Chief operating officer skills
- Being goal-and result-oriented
- Delegating and decision making
- Strategic thinking
- Acting as a second hand to the CEO
1Being goal-and result-oriented
To be a great chief operating officer, you need to be capable of setting SMART goals and consistently measuring your progress toward meeting those objectives. COOs should also be confident with setting and managing objectives and key results (OKRs), as well as adjusting them throughout the year as things like industry conditions and business priorities shift. Leading goal-setting meetings and OKR progress meetings are important parts of a COO’s role. The results of these meetings can then be reported to the CEO, who may help to make decisions on strategy.
2Delegating and decision making
Most COOs are the go-to problem solvers when something goes wrong. While COOs won’t be dealing with low-level or small problems like fixing a bug in the code or proofreading a marketing newsletter, they will be there to solve critical problems such as nurturing a sore relationship with a high-value client or putting resources in place to restore document backups after an outage.
COOs are jacks of all trades, but masters of none, so they also need to be great delegators. They need to have great insights and trust in their coworkers to identify who is most capable to take on a tactical element of project execution, such as asking sales to collect a new piece of client data or asking human resources to distribute an employee feedback survey.
At the senior executive level, all individuals reporting into the CEO should be strong strategic thinkers. For the COO position, the individual needs to be able to see the big picture of where the company is headed. This will help to prioritize tasks, steer project decisions, and determine if a process needs to be optimized or scrapped. COOs don’t view these decisions from the tactical level, but rather from the strategic level. For example, they might think of the productivity gains, employee engagement changes, or saved costs that come from each decision.
4Acting as a second hand to the CEO
The CEO of a company spends most of their day in meetings with external stakeholders (that is, public relations, investors, or clients) or with advisors who help determine budgets, strategies, and new proposed ideas. It’s a lot to manage. And when the CEO determines what the big picture looks like, it becomes the COO’s responsibility to execute. Being able to see what the CEO envisions is also why it’s important for the COO to see the company’s direction in the wider, strategic lens. The COO then reports progress back up to the CEO who uses the data to make informed decisions on strategy.
Types of chief operating officers
- Mentor COO
- Partner COO
- Heir apparent COO
- Executor COO
- Most valuable player (MVP) COO
- Other half COO
- Change agent COO
Young and/or new CEOs may opt to hire a mentor COO who can coach them through decision-making and planning on a large scale. Some COOs might be brought in temporarily to coach a CEO to a certain level of growth, or they might always stay in the role as a sounding board for the CEO’s decisions.
Acting as a second hand to the CEO or as a co-CEO, a partner COO works directly with the CEO to make decisions equally. The purpose of this role is to ensure there are multiple opinions going into each decision, but it can quickly become a bureaucratic burden when an organization needs to act with agility.
3Heir apparent COO
When a CEO is ready for a replacement to come on board, they’ll move their heir into a temporary COO position which enables the CEO-in-training to see more of the company’s operations and get practice with executive-level decision-making. It needs to be clear that the COO is heir apparent and that the position is temporary (usually with a specified takeover date).
The “executor” type is probably the most well-known. This type of COO focuses on overseeing and executing on decisions for the daily operations of the company. In certain companies, the CEO takes more of a hands-off approach or spends more time engaging in external companies, so they don’t have the time to dedicate to internal decision-making.
5Most valuable player (MVP) COO
When companies grow or become acquired, shifts can occur that displace a person’s position within a company. If a company wants to maintain an executive-level decision maker without further rearranging departments, a CEO can move them into this position. The MVP may take on multiple responsibilities as needed or take action in one area of focus.
6Other half COO
In fast-moving companies or highly competitive industries, CEOs can run into challenges fast and frequently. The other half COO is brought on board to help put out any fires that occur so the company can continue on its journey. In this case, the COO needs to be an excellent problem solver and communicator.
7Change agent COO
A change agent COO is brought on to support a major change within the company (such as a regional or innovation expansion). This person needs to have great project management skills to lead the new business opportunity so the CEO can focus on existing business channels.
Chief operating officers probably have more variety in their responsibilities than any other role within any organization. They are generalists who specialize in supporting all teams on their way to success, knowing that the wide team support helps the whole company move forward faster. To land a role as a COO, you’ll typically need at least 8–10 years of project management or team leadership experience, particularly working with interdepartmental projects. It also helps to have an undergraduate or master’s degree, and the ability to view problems from multiple teams’ perspectives!