COO: The Chief Operating Officer

The Chief Operating Officer (COO) is a role that’s hard to define. A surface definition is easy enough: They are the second in command among executives and oversees the daily operations of a business. However, there’s no definitive path to becoming a COO. People ascend to the role from a variety of different backgrounds with a variety of different skills. 


Unlike other well-defined executive roles such as those in human resources and finance, there’s no evidence that their skills are readily transferable from one industry to another. Even different COOs within the same organization may approach the job differently. The current one might focus on completely different duties than their predecessor did. The job descriptions for COOs vary greatly in terms of responsibilities, control, and reporting structures. 

To add to the complexity, not all businesses even have a COO. In every industry, there are companies that flourish with and without one. One common thread throughout COO roles is that it’s a job defined primarily by its relation to the CEO rather than its structure or work performance. 



Types of COOs

Despite their variability, COOs can be broadly categorized by the reasons they’re hired. Depending on an organization’s stage of development and the skills of the CEO, there are seven basic reasons a company will hire one: 


The Executor COO

When the daily operations of a business are intensive, overseeing them is too much for one person. In this capacity, they focus on implementing internal strategies and plans while the CEO develops long-term strategies and handles external roles. This type role occurs frequently in businesses that have complex daily operations or function in highly dynamic marketplaces, such as airlines and tech firms. 


The Mentor COO

Young founders often lack the managerial and business experience to effectively control what they’ve created. In these cases, a mentor with experience can be brought on board to help guide the CEO and develop the business. COOs in the mentor role generally don’t aspire to replace the CEO as some others do. 


The Successor COO

Sometimes the COO is brought on as a part of a de facto executive search and training period. Working under the current CEO, the COO has the opportunity to learn about the company and its people from the inside while there’s still a safety net in place. This can be a formal, acknowledged process in succession planning or a more informal step to gauge a possible CEO’s ability and performance. If all goes well, this type of COO will eventually take the reins as CEO. If not, they’ll likely leave for other opportunities. 


The Change Agent COO

When a company has a major initiative, change, or expansion planned, they’ll frequently bring in a change agent to lead the transformation. COOs of this type focus on helping businesses execute specific strategies designed to accomplish their goal. This role is often an interim position that’s only designed to last through the transition phase. Change agent COOs may be brought in any time an organization needs to make a major shift to function effectively. 


The Complement COO

There are two roles that focus almost exclusively on positioning the COO as a partner to the CEO. The complement role, sometimes called “the other half,” involves choosing a COO who will act as a counterpoint to the CEO in knowledge, personality, or skills. If a CEO is a big-picture thinker, a COO who is detail-oriented and meticulous may be brought in. Obviously, the qualifications for this role will vary based on the personality and skills of the CEO. These types of partnerships are one reason that the role of a COO can’t be standardized. 


The Partner COO

Another role is the partner. In this case, the COO isn’t meant to provide a counterpoint to the CEO, but to act as more of a co-leader. Some CEOs work better with a partner. The partner COO often shares many similarities with the CEO, and they work well together. As with the complement, the requirements for a partner COO will vary widely based on the existing CEO. Sometimes this type of CEO/COO partnership is established from the beginning. In these cases, the COO was often a co-founder. 



Some employees are so valuable to a company that executive leadership will promote them to avoid losing them to a competitor. While this move can be seen as a possible preliminary step in identifying a successor, it can also be simply an attempt to retain a top performing executive. Generally, when a company hires a COO from within, it’s an MVP role. 


Qualifications for a COO

When you’re recruiting a COO as part of an executive search, identifying what role you want them to fill will be crucial to finding the right person. Of course, there is often overlap between the roles, making a customized job description even more vital. Although the role of COO is constantly evolving, there are some qualifications every COO candidate should have, such as:

  • Extensive industry experience — at least 10 to 15 years
  • A minimum of a Bachelor’s degree, but preferably an MBA, as well as other industry-specific degrees and certifications 
  • Proven track record of delivering results
  • Driven to meet objectives
  • Leadership skills and experience
  • Ability to detect and solve problems quickly
  • Strong grasp of data analytics and performance metrics 


Recruiting a COO

Determining exactly what your company needs in a COO is your first step in recruiting one. Ghost Mountain can take some of the hiring burden off of you by identifying potential candidates and interviewing applicants. When candidates who meet your requirements are identified, you can schedule interviews with your internal search team.

Give yourself plenty of time to make a good decision. If you’re feeling stuck in the process, reach out today for a consultation to discuss your staffing needs and learn how Ghost Mountain can help you find and hire the best candidates for your organization. 

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