The role of COO is evolving, and it’s more important than ever

COOs like Starbuck’s Rosalind Brewer, here in conversations with Tracee Ellis Ross, embody a new era of corporate leadership.
COOs like Starbuck’s Rosalind Brewer, here in conversations with Tracee Ellis Ross, embody a new era of corporate leadership.
Image: AP Photot/Amy Harris/Invision
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Most likely you won’t find this in the formal job description, but one of the top requirements for the chief executive officer of a high-profile or high-growth company these days is to embody unbridled charisma, authority, and comfort in the public eye.

Whether it’s fielding interviews on TV, speaking at industry conferences, or traveling the globe to meet with employees and promote new products, the 21st-century CEO has to be a master communicator, not just a manager of an organization. Better yet if said said CEO is a true visionary.

There are plenty of examples of these celeb-style, brand-ambassador CEOs, from Apple’s late Steve Jobs to HP’s Meg Whitman to Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Yet this fairly recent emphasis on mastering public conversations makes it increasingly challenging for CEOs to tend to that other part of their job: providing the kind of internal leadership and direction required for companies to actually achieve the ambitious goals CEOs spend so much of their time discussing and promoting.

COO to the rescue

Enter the chief operating officer.

Because of this increasingly common corporate dynamic, companies are having to rely more on other executives to build the necessary foundations, structures, and processes required for an organization to be successful. And much of that responsibility now lies in the hands of the COO.

The evolution of the COO role is characterized by the rising prominence and influence of COOs like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, CBS’s Joe Ianniello (now the company’s acting CEO), and Starbucks’s Rosalind Brewer.

The role of the COO is changing out of pure necessity, meaning the shift in responsibilities is also becoming less and less of a choice for most companies. The understanding that well-trained, effective COOs are needed at every stage of a company’s growth now means boards of directors and venture capitalists (especially those in Silicon Valley) are recruiting COOs earlier and earlier in the stage of founding a company.

That same belief is prompting corporations to focus more attention on the importance of pairing CEOs with problem-solving COOs who can support a culture of innovation, agility and adaptation.

The ambiguity of good leadership

The COO title comprises a more complex and demanding role than ever before. Emerging industry trends and shifting responsibilities also make it an incredibly ambiguous one. In some organizations, the COO may still be tasked with the traditional role of exclusively handling all back-office functions, while others see it as a proving ground for potential CEOs.

Recruitment firm Crist Kolder published a study in 2018 that examined 673 companies in the Fortune 500 and S&P 500, and found that about 40% of CEOs had previously worked as COO or as president of companies. High-profile examples of COO-turned-CEO abound, from Apple’s Tim Cook to Coca-Cola’s James Quincey to Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson.

Companies might seek a COO for an advisory position held by an experienced executive who is able to provide guidance to a young CEO. Sandberg, for example, played a critical role at Facebook in supporting CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

But the lack of a clear definition of the exact role and responsibilities of the title is precisely why some COOs handle everything from human resources and finance to marketing, while others focus more on overseeing supply chain logistics and product strategy.

All of this mutability and dynamism around the role of the COO should not obscure this underlying fact, however: The role of the COO is more important than ever before.

Simply put, COOs today must be able to handle all of the traditional operational responsibilities while meaningfully leading a company’s most important strategic initiatives.

That’s obviously not an easy mandate to fulfill. And company leaders need to think deeply about how to best equip their COOs with the tools, mindset, and skills that will help them be simultaneously nimble and grounded enough to succeed.

In fact, we argue that COOs are in a unique position to achieve these goals precisely because it has become so clear that operations and innovation are so tightly linked.

For the foreseeable future at least, the role of COO will be defined by nuance, and an ability to adapt and lead through unpredictable transitions and changes.

The trend is clear: If your company has a desire to thrive in the global marketplace, you need a strong COO at the helm.