The evolution of the COO

Are we seeing a reshuffle of c-suite roles to accommodate more innovative positions such as chief digital officer? And if so, what does this mean for the traditional tasks of a COO?

The role of the chief operating officer is one c-suite position that has commanded lots of media attention. Unfortunately, the column inches have recently been dominated by high profile companies, such as McDonalds and Twitter eliminating the role from their org chart completely. Further to this, recent data shows that the number of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies with a COO is on the decline. So the question on everyone’s lips (well in my world!) is whether the role of the COO is extinct? Are we seeing a reshuffle of C-suite roles to accommodate more innovative positions such as chief digital officer? And if so, what does this mean for the traditional tasks of a COO?

All valid questions. To begin with, in order to understand the current role of a COO, we need to know more about the traditional view of the position. Unlike the high profile role of the CEO or CFO, the COO plays more of an execution and delivery role, focusing on ensuring everything behind the scenes is working as it should. Responsibilities often include operational areas of a company, such as marketing, sales, production, research and development. COOs have traditionally been seen as the CEO’s number two and are often an ideal successor. Finally, they also tend to be brought in during a period of transformational change or for the execution of a new strategy.

The role is almost impossible to define beyond this as it means so many different things to so many different companies. We are often used to bring in COOs to help professionalise and input the necessary processes and structures to enable growth. That said, whilst the COO is often about bringing together all functions of the business, they can have a bias in one particular discipline. In one company we are working with it requires a background in technology and another, sales and marketing. Often this bias is inspired by the skills of the CEO, in which case the COO is required to compliment them. This is particularly prevalent in founder run businesses, where the CEO may be the evangelist and the innovator and the COO is required to make the ideas happen. The lack of a clear-cut job path has perhaps, in the past, been one of the biggest issues with the position that has contributed to its decline.

However, it is hard to see where the strategically important responsibilities of the COO would be delegated to, which is why we are seeing a revert back to high demand levels and we expect this to continue into 2016. With the increasingly buoyant market, CEOs are being hoisted into the global limelight with many big companies having celebrity-like CEOs who are in constant demand. They need to be out in the market building sales and strategic alliances and attracting more investment. Therefore, having experimented with delegating their responsibilities, the market is beginning to realise that a strong COO to make sure the cogs are still turning back home is a necessity.

The role should be a common consideration for younger, aspiring CEOs wishing to learn more about the challenges and pressures at the top table. It opens up a very interesting career path and shouldn’t be dismissed. It is possible that if there was more consistency and less confusion surrounding the core components of the role, we would see an increase in interest in the position from potential candidates of different backgrounds and experiences. More so when they have a better understanding of what the job demands of them and the fact that it has evolved from a logistical role to a key force of change-implementation, evolution and business continuity.

The evolution of the COO has not been a straight path, more of a wave that reacts to wider, global changes. However, we expect to see the prominence of the roll take an upward streak in the coming years – that is until another seismic event happens!

Georgina Worden is a client director at Intramezzo.

See also: A lesson in business transformation

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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