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COO vs. Project Manager: Responsibilities and Skills

How does a COO differ from a project manager? Fellow breaks down the responsibilities and skills of each role within any organization.

By Mara Calvello  •   February 14, 2023  •   8 min read

An organization is filled with many types of roles. But sometimes, people confuse the chief operating officer (COO) with a project manager—and vice versa. It’s important to understand how these two roles differ. And while the skills needed for both positions overlap, the roles of each job do not.

Let’s break it all down!

What is a COO?

A chief operating officer (COO) is a senior executive responsible for overseeing an organization’s day-to-day administration and operation functions. This individual will typically report directly to the chief executive officer (CEO) and is often considered the second in the chain of command within the corporate ladder. 

Some businesses may refer to the COO as an operations director, chief operations officer, or executive vice president of operations. Responsibilities and duties will vary based on the industry and size of the company but usually steer towards administrative, strategic, and organizational leadership regarding day-to-day operations.

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The roles and responsibilities of a COO 

The roles and responsibilities of a COO can vary, but typically, you’ll find these four on their plate at any given time.

1Promote company culture through policies

It’s up to the COO to promote company culture through various workplace policies. When establishing a highly inclusive culture so team members can thrive, a COO should consider implementing the company’s core values, setting realistic goals, encouraging career development for employees at all levels, and ensuring diversity is a priority.

2Oversee company operations

A COO will also oversee company operations and do what they can to ensure everything runs smoothly every day while addressing any issues that come up. They’ll also monitor project timelines, business development, and employee productivity

3Develop business strategies in collaboration with the CEO

Because a COO will be the CEO’s second in command, the two individuals need to know how to collaborate on business strategies. These strategies should focus on the short-term and long-term while the COO and CEO also bounce ideas off one another to see what will be the best fit for the organization.

Like Cameron Herold, Founder of COO of Alliance, mentioned in episode 131 of our Supermanagers podcast, the relationship between a CEO and the COO is all about staying in sync with one another, building a relationship of trust, and supporting each other’s craziness. 

Listen to the whole episode below:

4Build and maintain relationships with industry leaders

The COO should build and maintain relationships with other leaders within their own organization and throughout the industry at other companies, too. These relationships can be formed by attending conferences or building rapport over social media platforms like LinkedIn. These relationships with other industry leaders will allow your COO to see what’s working at similar companies and what isn’t, so they know what should be applied to their teams and what should be avoided. 

Required skills for a COO

A COO will need specific skills to be successful and excel in the role. These six are just some of the skills a COO needs on their resume.

1Adaptability

A COO should be multifaceted and know how to pivot and change things on the fly. Being adaptable helps them solve a range of issues that can arise with little notice. Things can change on a dime, so a COO needs to be able to roll with the punches and find solutions.

2Relationship-building skills

The COO is someone who is in the know of all areas of the organization, giving them a thorough understanding of what each department is working on and aiming to accomplish. With this part of the job, a COO needs to build solid relationships with other leaders and managers within the business, as they’re often the ones others go to with questions, concerns, or new ideas—so, this person needs to have a solid foundation with various people across various teams.

3Analytical skills

A COO should know data analysis as well as performance and operation metrics. The analytical skills a COO has can range, but they usually consist of:

  • Focusing on data analytics by creating charts and graphs to show recent company performance, for instance
  • Conducting research to show the company’s progress
  • Having a creative mindset and organizing brainstorming sessions with key stakeholders 

4Ability to motivate teams

Because the COO understands various business functions across the marketing, IT, sales, and product departments, they know what’s at stake and can motivate each team to hit their individual goals. This skill also comes from having strong relationships with others on various teams.

What motivates each team may be different, but a COO can harness this motivation when the time is right.

5Ability to manage a budget

Sometimes, a COO will need to help in managing a budget. This individual may work closely with the chief financial officer (CFO) to establish a plan to support the budget, report budget details back to the CEO, and ensure all departments are in the green. 

6Written and verbal communication skills

Communication is key for a COO, so having both verbal and written communication skills in their arsenal can go a long way. For instance, the CEO may want the COO to handle the company’s internal affairs, which would entail all outward-facing communication. 

Additionally, having top-notch communication skills will go a long way in overseeing several departments throughout the organization.

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What is a project manager?  

A project manager (PM) is someone who is in charge of projects from start to finish, and it’s up to them to ensure the work is done efficiently and correctly. From planning the project’s trajectory, defining goals, and establishing a budget to managing a team and communicating with clients, the role of a PM is incredibly important across varying industries.

Examples of projects that this type of person may oversee include running a marketing or social media campaign, developing a new computer system, or launching a new product. At the end of the day, the success or failure of a project is on their shoulders.

The roles and responsibilities of a project manager

There are several roles and responsibilities a project manager may have on their plate. Here are six you may find within a job description for a project manager. 

1Plan and develop project plans

It goes without saying that a PM is in charge of planning and developing project plans. From a project’s inception to its completion, this individual will use a project management software of their choice to assist in creating a mindmap, establishing a schedule, setting deadlines, pinpointing objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs), and measuring its progress throughout.

2Manage the project’s budget

Another important task is managing the project’s budget. It’s up to these individuals to make sure the project gets done without excessive spending. A good project manager has also mastered the art of cost efficiency. This manager wants to do everything possible to avoid going into the red.

3Regulate project progress 

A PM will create a project completion timeline and ensure tasks are finished within the assignment’s parameters. They will also remain aware of how a project is progressing and whether or not important milestones will be hit. 

If things are falling behind schedule, a project manager needs to find ways to make things right.

4Lead teams

PMs have to lead and communicate with their team in productive and efficient ways. This likely will entail managing different personalities and working styles. Also, if the team needs guidance, training or coaching, or someone to bounce ideas off of, it’s a project manager’s responsibility to set their team up for success.

5Communicate project details with upper management and stakeholders

In addition to communicating with the team, a PM has to share project details with upper management and key stakeholders. Getting everyone updated and on the same page with project details is important for managing expectations. 

6Problem solve 

In a perfect world, every project is smooth sailing with zero issues. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The project manager has to be able to problem solve, think on their feet, and come up with solutions when challenges arise. 

Required skills for a project manager 

There are skills a project manager has to have that ensure they’re the right person for the job. 

1Ability to manage a budget

Most, if not all, projects will have a budget, and it’s the PM’s job to manage it. This includes tracking the project team’s work as they ensure there isn’t a risk of going over anytime soon. 

2Adaptability

If the project isn’t progressing as planned, or if the team is at risk of going over budget, the project manager has to be adaptable. Sometimes things have to switch gears or pivot at a moment’s notice, and the PM has to be ready.

3Management skills

It goes without saying the project manager needs—you guessed it–management skills. Knowing how to manage their team to ensure top-quality results and on-time completion of project deliverables is an absolute must.

4Leadership skills

A project manager also needs to possess leadership skills. Their team needs to have faith and trust that they’re the right person to lead everyone to complete specific goals. Without leadership skills, the team will eventually become disorganized, and the project will likely fail.

5Delegation skills

All types of managers need to have delegation skills, especially project managers. Delegation refers to transferring responsibility for specific tasks from one person to another. It’s up to the PM to decide who is working on what, and the PM may have to delegate additional responsibilities to others. Delegation can provide team members with learning and growth opportunities when done correctly, too. 

6Communication skills

Another must-have skill is effective communication. Throughout a project’s life cycle, a PM needs to ensure their team members, other department leaders, and key stakeholders remain informed about progress and critical milestones. This is especially important because a project manager is often first in line to communicate the successes and failures of their team.

7Problem-solving skills

When things go wrong, new challenges come up out of nowhere, or roadblocks stall the team, a project manager needs to flex their problem-solving skills. They need to know how to resolve issues and adapt projects creatively to avoid mishaps and complete failures.

8Organizational skills 

Projects have many moving parts, so a project manager needs to be extremely organized. Often, a PM will lean on software to help stay on top of timelines, deadlines, and key milestones throughout the process.

It takes two to tango

Both COO and project manager roles are incredibly important to all organizations, regardless of size and industry. There are many different components of each position, but there is a fair amount of overlap. Each individual within these jobs plays a crucial part in a company’s success, so hire wisely! 

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