There are two ways to handle someone who has great skills but whose department or workload has changed so much they need to be moved: you can put them into the netherworld known as “special projects,” or you can make them chief operating officer.
I’m only kind of joking. Even after dealing with enterprise companies and startups for years, I would say I only encounter COOs rarely. In most cases that’s because they’re not the dedicated spokesperson for their firm, but more often than not they just don’t exist. They’re a “sometimes” role within businesses large and small, and that “sometimes” can be very telling about where a company is in its journey.
There are COOs who seem to be there only because they’re a co-founder who doesn’t want to be seen as the face of the company. There are COOs who are there because they are the official CEO heir-apparent. There are COOs because the CEO is really good at the high-level stuff but so bad at dealing with the complex details that the whole place would fall apart without someone who can actually be on the ground.
Figuring out who really qualifies as a COO and what their role encompasses is so malleable, in fact, that most organizations seem to make it up as they go along. There is also a surprising dearth of research around this: the best source I’m aware of is a study published in the Harvard Business Review 13 years ago. It’s still relevant today, however, in that it breaks down seven different kinds of COO personas and what they owe to their leadership:
“Salespeople or marketers who have developed the tools of their trade in one company can usually apply them to good advantage in another, even in a dramatically different industry . . . but it’s hard to discern whether a COO who has succeeded in one company has what it takes to be COO in another; the skill set is neither generic nor very portable,” the authors wrote. “While other jobs are primarily defined in relation to the work to be done and the structure of the organization, the COO’s role is defined in relation to the CEO as an individual.”
I think there’s another way to define it, both now and as we enter into 2020. If you think about where many B2B companies are focused today, it’s often on how to adopt digital technologies to improve how they work across almost every function. Whether you formally think of this as a digital transformation is not important.
What’s important is whether you can successfully make the transition from manual or traditional kinds of processes to data-driven ones. This is something that could happen with a certain degree of consistency and efficiency across the organization, because it ultimately becomes the way the organization operates. That sounds like a pretty good remit for someone with “operations” in their title.
We’re calling November our ‘COO Issue’ on B2BNN as we look for ways to help those who want to take on this mandate, whether they’re the official COO, a de facto one, or aspire to be one.