The role of chief operating officer has typically been relegated to the background while the CEO takes front and center stage. Understandable, since the CEO is typically the face and voice of the company. The COO’s role is internal and much of the work is done behind the scenes. However, more attention is being paid to this position. A recent survey by Ernst & Young shows that 30% of respondents view the COO role as a destination in its own right: “the COOs surveyed for this report find the role extremely satisfying. The ability to influence corporate strategy, the potential for career development, and the broader perceptions of the role are all hugely appealing to those taking up such a position.”
The Chameleon COO
While it is not necessarily glamorous, the need for an individual focused on ensuring smooth operating functions makes it an extremely important role in the C-suite and not only a stepping stone to the CEO. Not only do COOs ensure operational performance, but are charged with:
- Improving processes
- Implementing new strategies into the existing process
- Leveraging company resources, including financial and talent
- Acting as a conduit for business growth and development
It is also a unique role because it is not seen as a transferable skill. The very characteristics that make the COO successful include his/her familiarity with the inner workings and culture of the firm as well as the working relationships in the C-suite, something unique to each company. Perhaps this is why it has been seen as a stepping stone to the CEO role. According to the survey, only 3% of COOs aspired to be a COO at another company. Unsurprisingly, ideal qualities in a COO stem directly from the multi-faceted nature of the position: data-driven focus, attention to detail, and talent cultivation in the company.
Women in the COO Role
According to the E&Y survey, “the average COO is a 48 year old male.” Yet, according to Robert Siegel of Stanford Business School, more of his female students aspire to the role of COO. Why? Siegel reported that his students felt more comfortable in internal roles and felt they would be more effective as leaders. Is this an expression of women’s natural abilities or a hesitation to aspire to a more highly visible role?
Leslie Bradshaw, herself a COO in technology, recently discussed female COOs and the potential rise of women in these roles. Sheryl Sandberg is a famous example and she highlights a few other women in technology. Are women well-suited to the position? One COO interviewed was hesitant: “I worry that a lot of the recent press around women being uniquely qualified or suited to be COOs could work against us: stereotypical supportive counterpart to the hard-driving publicly facing CEO. That’s not something I’m interested in perpetuating.”
However, is the role disappearing? Bloomberg Business Week reports that 38% of Fortune 500 companies have a COO, down from 48% in 2000. CEOs may be taking on the functions of the chief operating officer in light of economic volatility. However, the article postulates, and I agree with, the contention that the role of COO as a member of the C-suite is vital and important not only for the smooth day-to-day functioning of the company, but also business continuity as COOs are often the successors to the CEO when he/she departs.