The right leadership is essential to any successful company today. But leadership isn’t just about a visionary CEO with a plan to change the world; while the CEO sets forth the company’s vision, the COO is the one who establishes the day-to-day processes and operations to ultimately execute and deliver on the shared vision.
Even if the COO takes a more behind-the-scenes role, an operational expert is the key to making visions come to life. We see this type of relationship — the visionary (CEO) and the integrator (COO) — as described in the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) and on display at many of the world’s most well-known companies: Apple, Facebook, Salesforce, Disney, and more. COOs come in many different flavors; they are brought on for a variety of different reasons, and their responsibilities vary from one organization to the next, based on the needs of the company and the strengths and weaknesses of the CEO.
And, as the role of technology in delivering a company’s vision and success continues to increase, an effective COO is even more important. At Awecomm, we often come across new clients with visionary CEOs who have amazing plans for high-tech solutions and significant growth, but the organization does not yet have the necessary technology foundation in place to get to where the CEO envisions. Your COO must be someone who recognizes the need to address all the company’s capabilities (including technology) in order to set the organization on the right path for success. Fortunately, many of these new clients absolutely recognize the technology capabilities required within their organization. Some recent clients and experiences have caused us to reflect on the critical relationship between CEO and COO.
CEO Perspective & Challenges
A CEO may often lay out a grand vision for their company while over simplifying how it will be achieved. Part of this is because at a high-level, it is simple. It also conveys a message to the team that there is strong belief it can, and will be, realized. There is a fine balance here, because the team executing must buy in to the vision and receive the required support from the CEO. The big picture view is always simpler than the actual details involved. If the CEO doesn’t recognize this and trust his or her leadership team with the details, the plan (and often the company) will not be successful in the long-term.
The CEO may also view the solution to their goals for the company as a single achievement, rather than an organized process that needs to be repeatable, profitable and scalable. Without the perspective of everything that is needed across all different departments and projects to implement this process, even the simplest vision is nearly impossible to achieve because it is not a single step to realize the vision, but several actions and steps over a long journey.
Another challenge may be the CEO does not, and in many cases should not, have the perspective of the intricate details required to make the vision a reality. If they are effectively balancing time working “on” the business, and not “in” the business, they may not have the ability to determine all of the crucial processes and milestones that will be involved. The CEO needs a trusted and engaged team to establish the roadmap that will enable the organization to move faster and do more to be competitive. The whole team must be engaged and driving the necessary changes, but also not lose sight of what is critical for business to be successful today.
Of course, these challenges and perspectives from the CEO only create half of the gap that must be closed between CEO and COO.
COO Perspective & Challenges
The CEO who recognizes and understands this gap, knows this is where a great COO, and CEO-COO relationship, determines the success or failure of the vision. While the CEO is more externally focused with a long-term vision, the COO acts as their right-hand man/woman and is focused on where the company needs to execute in order to be successful. In other words, the executive needs operations to problem-solve and implement to figure out the how of the company’s long-term goals.
The strength of the COO lies with the fact that they know the people, the staff and the systems, and that he/she understands the resource issues and the impact that huge changes will have on operations. They also must recognize the capabilities of the organization today and what they need to be tomorrow. This overlap of understanding of the vision and execution of the plan is critical. The CEO may have provided the COO with an ultimate destination, but the COO is often the one who understands the investment, people and effort required to get there. If this information is not communicated and shared between the CEO and COO, then delays in implementation or requests for additional resources will create friction in the organization.
Due to the very nature of the COO’s position, they are generally consumed with day-to-day delivery of services. They are focused on the current business model and maximizing the company’s profitability today, this month or this quarter. How they balance this focus with continuing to move the organization toward the vision is key. If they do not share the CEO’s vision for the company or completely buy in to the changes that are required, the vision will never be realized. The COO must believe in the vision and connect teams and resources to realize the vision, while maintaining current business operations.
In all instances, the COO will not have perfect balance between today’s business operations and actions required to advance the organization. They will also be challenged to have all team members engaged and working toward realizing the vision. This widens the gap between CEO vision and COO execution.
Closing the Gap
To ensure a company gets the most out of the relationship between its CEO and COO, it is essential that the COO is engaged, excited and fully committed to the CEO’s vision for the company. The COO must ensure that all foundational items (especially the right technology) are in place to keep their path to the ultimate vision, roadblock-free.
For their part, the CEO needs to trust the COO’s roadmap to achieve company goals and ensure it is on track with the appropriate pace. A culture of change within the organization is a must, and as the most visible leadership, it is essential that the CEO leads by example to allow this mindset to flourish company-wide. A CEO must also understand the fact that change instigated by the COO is a process, and that multiple steps must be followed to get to the end goal. A, B and C must be completed before D, and the CEO needs to have the patience and trust in the COO to execute the smaller pieces of the broader plan. This means that the CEO’s vision has to have small victories and successes along the way; the COO may not completely understand the end result, but they need to see where the company has to be 12 months from now and be able to break out the CEO’s vision into attainable segments.
In addition, staying connected on the vision and execution of the plan is very important and often challenging. At Awecomm, we do this through annual strategic planning as a team, quarterly alignment meetings, and weekly operations meetings that keep us delivering services today, while maintaining the right balance on where we need to be for our future vision to be realized.
Ultimately, the success of the relationship and many times the organization, comes down to how much can either the CEO or the COO close the gap by understanding each other’s challenges and perspectives. If each can close half of the gap, that is a great start!