What does a COO actually do?

Last Friday Cem Guralp hosted the latest in our series of events for our portfolio companies and the wider startup community. This one was about the the role of the COO and sought answers to the question “what does a COO actually do?”

As with previous events Cem had collected data to inform the debate. In this case he had asked a bunch of COOs a range of questions and looked to draw some insights. The first point I want to draw out from the event pertains to slide 9 in the presentation Cem gave to kick off the event and which I’ve embedded below. 9 COOs that Cem talked to gave 21 different areas they described as key responsibilities. There is commonality across different businesses between the roles of CMO, CFO and most other executive functions, but not so with the COO, where the roles are hugely varied. Maybe the best way to think about it is that the COO does the things that the CEO doesn’t.

After Cem’s presentation we had a discussion chaired by our own Paul Fisher with panelists Sean Cornwell, Bart Swanson and Spencer Hyman (thanks guys) and the second point came quite quickly there. That point was the distinction between a COO who is a true partner to the CEO and a kind of late addition to the founding team, and the COO who is a head of operations. The former is involved in every area of the business and typically joins pretty early in a company’s life, whilst the latter has a clearly delineated area of responsibility (e.g. logistics) and typically joins a bit later.

My final point is another piece of advice from the panel, which is that if as a CEO you think you need a COO, and you can be clear about what you want them to do (and ideally what that would allow you to do differently) then it’s time to make the hire. Conversely, simply feeling overwhelmed by the workload and wanting someone senior to delegate stuff too probably isn’t sufficient.

[slideshare id=29108562&doc=coopanelpresso-131211075855-phpapp01]
  • David Norris

    Thanks for sharing Nic. I was hoping to make the event but was unable to join.

    I’ve been a COO three times now in three different start-up / growth companies and the job role is different every time, due in part to the role the founder/CEO wants to play, the type of business and the stage of growth. The role also changes as the company grows.

    Here’s my blog on the same topic…

    Algebra: What is the role of a COO?; http://www.david-norris.co.uk/2013/02/algebra-what-is-role-af-coo.html

  • Thanks David. That’s very interesting. Do you think the COO also has a role to play in validating the vision and strategy?

  • David Norris

    Yes. I can’t remember who said it but “vision without execution is hallucination” is a favourite maxim of mine. Part of defining a strategy is helping the CEO get organised around research and planning, uncovering options and pulling together the thinking. I’ve found that the COO can play a strong supporting role in strategy definition although in early stage companies, ultimately the CEO needs to own strategy. Tightly coupled with strategy is a plan to execute – they are Yin and Yang.

  • Couldn’t agree more, and ‘vision without execution is hallucination’ is a great quote.

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