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]