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Expectations and Aspirations: The COO’s contribution to the C-suite

16/11/17 Andy Raymond Head of Executive Search

In sharp contrast to the role of the chief operating officer (COO), commentary and advice abound about the roles of the other C-suite members, whether the CEO, CFO or CIO. Why is so little known about the role of the COO, despite its long history?

Andy Raymond, Director of Redline Executive has worked with executive clients and candidates in the Engineering and Technology industry across Europe, the Middle East and the USA for over 20 years. He explores the expectations and aspirations of those in the job, along with the skills, capabilities and relationships that they need to master in order to succeed.

“The COO is a wide-ranging role that still needs to fight to justify its existence, despite having a clear rationale, says Andy. The role of the chief operating officer (COO) 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 (CEO). Despite this, there are common themes and concerns that cut across everyone in this position. What I have experienced is a breed of executives who combine deep operational knowledge with a comprehensive strategic insight and one who ultimately has what it takes to be the next CEO. However, the COO role is one which is troubled with many challenges. To be a successful CEO they must be able to adapt constantly to a fast-changing corporate, internal and external environment. They must possess a mastery of change and be able to translate strategic vision into action. The COO’s ultimate goal must ultimately help the business to innovate and flourish in such a fast-changing economy.”

Andy continues:  “There are several reasons why the COO role has struggled to fully cement itself within today’s C-suite. Some companies, for example, may opt instead to split operations responsibilities between several executives; in others, the CEO may decide to handle operational issues directly. But in many companies, across a range of industries and regions, changing market dynamics now provide a chance to clarify the inherent logic of the COO’s role, at least for those willing to take on the challenge.

“The key difficulty for COOs is that finding the space to showcase their skills can be hugely challenging, says Andy. It requires them to find a ladder out of the operational trenches, to gain a wider perspective of the business. This is hard, not least because they feel that given the demands of their role, they need to be in several places at once. Today, in a global business, this means that the COO can feel like he or she is on call twenty-four-seven. Trends like social media exacerbate the challenges because their company is now open to attack and comment within seconds. This means that the COO has to be pretty resilient and energetic just to meet the demands for presence and contactability that the role requires. But in turn, such challenges are what COOs thrive on.”

There are six key areas in which operations leaders play an active role. Successful COOs need to master each area, from the basics of ensuring that there is suitable operations management in place through to defining the future shape of the business:

  • Ensuring suitable operations management
  • Optimising operational processes 
  • Designing a framework to implement strategy in operations
  • Managing the strategic assets of the company
  • Driving key change and transformation initiatives
  • Shaping the future of the business

Relationships with other C-suite members 

“It is vital for the COO to work in tandem with other c-suite members, says Andy. Making a success of the COO role requires a relationship with the CEO. But ensuring an effective and conflict-free relationship requires both parties to adhere to a clear set of principles. The CEO and COO should have complete trust in each other’s abilities and integrity. If a CEO worries that the COO is overstepping the mark and seeking to take on some of the CEO’s job, or if the COO worries that he or she is being undermined by the CEO, then the relationship will not work. These two c-suite roles must be both visible and invisible meaning the COO’s job ‘operations’ need to be invisible to the CEO. Smooth-running operations mean that the CEO should barely notice them and can get on with the strategic side of running the company.”

Redline Executive are the industry-aligned key partner for C and D suite permanent and interim hiring assignments for the European Technology market. To find out more about our Executive Search Process you can download our Executive Search Brochure here.

For a confidential discussion on COO job opportunities, please call Andy Raymond – Director on +44 (0)1582 450054 or send an email to ARaymond@RedlineExecutive.com