The hot new role in town is the chief operating officer (COO). While it’s been a fairly relevant role for many decades, it lost popularity in 2018 when only 28% of companies had a COO (an all-time low). Now, companies are prioritizing the efficiency of their processes and are looking to hire COOs faster than ever. In 2022, 40% of leading companies had hired COOs as part of their business growth plans. If you’re interested in jumping on this wave, this article is for you! We’ve put together a breakdown of the 8 types of COOs and a few top skills to focus on to help you secure that new job.
What is a chief operating officer?
A COO is a very important C-level role that works closely with the chief executive officer (CEO). There are multiple variations of the COO role depending on an organization’s size, business strategy, growth goals, and stakeholder relationships, among other factors. Generally, this is a role that is designed to support the overall efficiency of the organization. As such, the COO’s main skills and responsibilities require them to work with a wide variety of internal and external teams to find new ways to make existing processes more productive, or to experiment with new ways to help the business hit its growth goals even faster.
Managing a team?
Take control of your team meetings by having collaborative meeting notes and encouraging accountability with action items. Try a tool like Fellow!
What are the 8 types of COOs?
- The leader of executions
- The change agent
- The mentor
- The right-hand man
- The MVP
- The heir apparent
- The partner
- The hybrid
1The leader of executions
The executor COO is responsible for exactly what the name implies: executing. In this role, the CEO establishes a strategy and objectives and key results (OKRs) for the company. Then, it becomes the COO’s responsibility to meet with internal teams and plan tactical approaches to achieving the OKRs. Since meetings with cross-departmental decision-makers can get complicated, it’s suggested that leaders rely on a tool like Fellow to make planning, collaboration, and decision-making easier. Because of their deep involvement in projects, the executor COO is provided with a decent budget to manage and a high degree of trust. The COO later reports their decisions and results back to the CEO.
2The change agent
The change agent is a type of COO usually brought in on a contract basis to help the company transition in periods of change. For example, if the company is shifting from a completely in-person to a completely remote work environment, the leadership team will be faced with a lot of big decisions and challenges. The change agent COO’s role here is to do research, work with individual departments on strategy, and support execution tasks to prevent the company from slowing down while changing. Large companies become more reliant on change agent COOs as it becomes more difficult to implement organization-wide change across high headcounts or multiple time zones.
This type of role involves having an experienced COO as a mentor to the CEO. It’s designed for young or inexperienced CEOs who want to run the company on their own but require some guidance. Due to the mentorship nature, the COO in this type of role might just be brought in temporarily as a type of leadership consultant to the CEO; or perhaps an old CEO has dropped down to become the mentor COO to coach and support a new CEO as part of succession planning.
Use this template as a guide to fuel learning and growth for your next mentorship meeting!
4The right-hand man
Also known as the “other half COO,” the right-hand man is the person who works closest with the CEO. Where some roles—like the partner—rely on the COO to have expert advice in a specific field, the right-hand man makes decisions equally with the CEO. In times when the business is extra busy or emergencies occur, the right-hand man is there to put out fires as they occur. To do this, they have the highest level of trust from the CEO and the authority to make decisions on the fly without the CEO’s approval.
The most valuable player (MVP) type of COO describes someone who holds a CEO or other C-level title at the time that a firm is acquired or another large form of change occurs that displaces the executive from their primary role. In this case, the MVP role is created to keep the executive in a C-level position to maintain influence and keep their expertise within the company. This type of COO role is the most generic and doesn’t give the COO any specific new responsibilities or purpose other than keeping them within the company.
6The heir apparent
When a company is succession planning, it’s common to bring in a COO who shadows the CEO. Typically, the heir apparent COO will enter into this role 6-12 months before taking over the CEO position themselves. This allows them to see the daily operations, start to manage C-level activities, and understand the business strategy. Because they’re planning to take over the business someday, they usually don’t have many of their responsibilities other than learning as much as possible and beginning to practice the role.
Cameron’s insight applies to organizations where leaders don’t always have the level of expertise to make the right call. To make the best decision for the business, a partner COO with specialized experience is brought in to advise the CEO or other departments on what to do. This role also helps improve decision-making abilities and ensures the company doesn’t lose focus on tasks it’s not equipped to handle.
According to Cameron Herald in episode 131 of our Supermanagers podcast,
“If I was going to be jumping out of a plane, the parachute never packs their own. They’ve always got somebody that they really trust, who’s got a lot of skill to do something that maybe they don’t have the patience to do. So they can be the one jumping out of the plane.”
In a lot of cases, COOs will adopt multiple types—sometimes this happens within a given day, and sometimes this evolves over a few years. The hybrid COO is someone who can act in multiple COO types throughout their job. They might also flux between responsibilities depending on the current state of the business, and the strategy, size, and requirements of external business stakeholders. The hybrid COO type needs to be flexible, agile, and a great communicator to be able to adapt well to this role.
Skills and strengths for COOs
COOs work most closely with CEOs and other leaders within the company. As their primary function is to take strategy directions from the CEO and distribute these into actionable tasks for individual departments, trust needs to be present at a lot of levels. CEOs need to have very high levels of trust in their COOs to operate on their own and make decisions that will be in the company’s best interest. And the individual departments also need to trust that the COO has made the right call for each leader. If there is no trust, it will be impossible to produce efficient processes.
Working as a COO means spending quite a lot of time independently reviewing processes and challenges, and then brainstorming solutions. Since a lot of your research and thoughts are going into your decisions, you need to have a lot of confidence that your own ideas are the best decision. This self-confidence will help with your ability to deliver a strong pitch to other leaders when suggesting which changes they should adopt. Self-confidence is also important when running COO meetings with internal and external stakeholders.
While a big part of the operations role is to plan tactics and execution, a COO needs to be able to think strategically as well. Being able to understand the bigger picture will help you accurately interpret the OKRs the CEO establishes. Then, when you’re working with individual departments at another time, you can effectively communicate the strategy’s purpose and value to each team. This skill is also important for ensuring that all developed tactics align well with the strategy.
Effectively implementing change across an organization isn’t easy. And it also isn’t easy to manage every high-level, business-wide problem that hits your desk every day. It helps to view yourself as a coach for the organization. Much like a coach of a sports team, you need to practice patience, empathy, clear communication, and honesty. Similarly, you need to be open to giving and receiving feedback as well as being coachable yourself, especially if you’re taking on the heir apparent or MVP type of COO role.
Being a COO comes with a lot of responsibilities that vary quite a ton—and even within a day, those responsibilities might change! How we work is changing every day as systems automate tasks and technology allows teams to connect from all corners of the world. So, the most important skill that any COO can adopt is to be great at adapting to new environments and change. The more agile you can be, the more likely you’ll be able to help your company navigate uncertain waters and come out more successful and productive than ever!