New research from headhunting firm Norrie Johnston Recruitment has shone a light on the bewildering range of responsibilities that fall under the aegis of chief operating officers (COOs). 
Based upon interviews with UK and overseas COOs in the firm’s contact book, the study notes that, in addition to managing a broad spectrum of departments, the role mainly involves continuous business improvement, optimising operational processes and driving key change projects.
Other priorities are keeping the business running, delivering cost efficiencies, shaping the future of the organisation and designing frameworks to turn strategy into operations.
More than three-quarters of the participants reported that the role has evolved to have a greater emphasis on driving business and digital transformation, creating new commercial opportunities and overseeing the allocation and prioritisation of corporate resources.
Some 62% of those interviewed feel that they are strategic figures, while 46% say that they are heavily involved in talent management. Business areas that the majority oversee include transformation and change, facilities, strategy, HR and IT. Two fifths also have additional governance over finance, marketing, R&D and supply chain or procurement, with teams reporting into them from across all those parts of the business.
One in five also have the sales function reporting into them. In terms of their professional backgrounds, 73% had previously held operations director roles before moving into the role of COO, while 40% had led transformation and change and 20% came up from production.
The diverse nature of the COO’s role has sparked interest among workplace scholars for many years – indeed, back in 2006, authors Nate Bennett and Stephen A Miles wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “In many cases, the COO is there to help make the CEO’s vision a reality. Sometimes, the COO is expected to make the CEO more effective or more complete. Often, the plan is for the COO ultimately to fill the CEO’s shoes.
“But in all of these constructions, the CEO is the magnetic force with which the COO must align. This makes asking the question ‘What makes a great COO?’ akin to asking, ‘What makes a great candidate for US vice president?’” They added: “The role is structurally, strategically, socially, and politically unique – and extraordinarily situational.” 
With all this in mind, what can a junior manager eager to become a better leader learn from the high level of adaptability that COOs demonstrate in their work? And how should COOs and CEOs develop the most effective working partnerships?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Those last two words of the Bennett and Miles quote – ‘extraordinarily situational’ – offer by far the greatest insight into the nature of this role. What the COO is, or means, will vary from one organisation to the next. At a broad level, COOs are the crucial link between strategy and operations – tasked, in other words, with ‘making it happen’. And the faster business environments change, and the more disruptive technology becomes, the more organisations will need to be strategically adaptive.”
Cooper explains: “Instead of working to three- or five-year horizons, which is how the majority of senior management teams would like to measure and monitor progress, organisations are having their planning phases shortened by developments outside their control. The hugely important operationalisation of the senior team’s strategic intent falls squarely upon the shoulders of the COO. In that sense, adaptability is paramount – and in cases where this role is carried out successfully, we can certainly look to it as a platform for role modelling constructive skills and behaviours.
“A COO is the person who is understanding the plans, dealing with competing priorities and responding to changes in the environment. And all of those competencies have been identified as crucial to the long-term survival and sustainability of organisations.”
Cooper notes: “I’m reluctant to cite the trendy buzzword ‘VUCA’ here [standing for events deemed to be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous], as I think it’s often used as an excuse for a failure to implement classic scenario- and contingency-planning techniques. Talk of ‘VUCA-prone’ firms tends to make me think of organisations that have been around forever – to the extent that, if a time traveller were to drop in from the past and visit one of these universities, hospitals, restaurants or hotels, they would know exactly where they were. They may not recognise some of the data-management systems – but, fundamentally, the end-user experience would be much the same.
“Rather, this topic reminds me of the work of Burns and Stalker,  who examined how organisations flourish in different environments – ranging from the stable, where the internal bureaucracy is working, to the dynamic, where events are fluid and therefore harder to read. The latter conditions are where you need a COO who is so keenly attuned to external forces and the ‘making it happen’ programme that the dynamic environment becomes navigable.”
She adds: “On the point of how COOs and CEOs should nurture effective relationships, in my experience the better senior leaders have always understood that the link between strategy and operations is crucial. You cannot allow strategy to be devised in one part of a business by one group of people – however well intentioned or informed – without a dose of realism: that firm grasp of how to turn raw ideas into something that people will need to engage with every day. A CEO will not deliver anything of substance without a good COO. So each figure must respect the talents that the other has brought to the table, and recognise that their partnership is essential to success.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on adaptability