by Dave Spencer

State of the corner office: the evolution of the Chief Operating Officer

May 08, 2018
IT Leadership

As corporate culture shifts, the need for agile COOs is at all-time high as more companies embrace a technology-driven future.

leaders executives in a row blurry
Credit: Getty Images

In the last decade, traditional C-Suite titles have expanded to include new roles like Chief Brand Officer, Chief Diversity Officer and Chief Happiness Officer. These changes in leadership functions reflect new priorities for businesses and underscore the importance of a C-Suite that can adapt and evolve to better meet the needs of shareholders, employees, customers and other constituencies.  

The COO role is not exempt from the leadership transformation. Historically thought of as the operations arm of the CEO, the function of COO has evolved to become not just about resources and efficiencies, but about people, collaboration and empowerment; and it’s never been more important. In fact, a recent 2018 Global Human Capital Trends study conducted by Deloitte found that a symphonic C-suite is the defining quality of organizations best suited for disruption – even more so than automation, robotics and AI. With integrity and reliability being the foundation for any workplace ecosystem to be successful, “trust” has become the driving metric for the modern COO. 

The “CEO” for employee-led business growth

As CEOs are pressured by stakeholders to have more public-facing roles for their respective companies, COOs will undoubtedly become the face of the company for employees. Whether it’s guiding the sales team, facilitating collaboration across departments, or having an open-door policy for staff to discuss company initiatives and development, COOs will need to own a greater role in becoming the connective tissue between people and business operations. The same goes for external operations – COOs need to be ambassadors of trust for customers, ensuring there’s infrastructure and functioning back-end processes that support and elevate customer experiences.

The CFO’s right-hand partner for strategic expansion

It’s a given that global organizations must ensure cross-team alignment as they grow through M&A and market expansion – and it will be crucial for COOs to develop closer working relationships with CFOs who help companies navigate these areas. As global companies continue expanding their products and services into new markets – and dealing with the regulatory considerations of doing so – COOs will need to team with their CFOs to grow business, improve decision-making and control spending. Everything from lead generation and sales automation to product introduction and post-sales support – all functions within the CFOs remit – will require considerable involvement from a COO to foster continued growth.

The CIO’s coach for scalable technology implementation

Technology is a clear enabler of business growth – emphasizing the need for greater C-suite collaboration as emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, become commonplace and ultimately fully integrated across various lines of business. Why? A recent McKinsey study identified connectivity-driven business models, AI and IoT system implementation and cybersecurity as make-or-break factors for incumbents looking to disrupt their offerings and grow revenue.

Having a digital-first mindset also ties back to your employee engagement strategy. A recent survey conducted by Randstad US found that a company’s use of digital tools is the leading factor for making a workplace attractive in the eyes of employees and prospective talent, citing this as a reflection of a company’s overall reputation. Clearly, technology is an irreplaceable component for an effective employee engagement strategy, as your talent wants to not only feel your brand is pushing the innovation needle but adopting next-gen tools to get you there.

But how has the COO role evolved as more companies continue experimenting with technology to drive greater value for their customers? While the CIO and COO have historically had distinct roles and responsibilities, a greater focus on innovation and technological investment across industries has increased the need for COOs to guide CIOs (and vice versa) to ensure capabilities tie back to greater business objectives.

For companies interested in navigating these digital efforts successfully, their strategy must start with a Chief Operating Officer capable of identifying and analyzing organizational needs and matching them with innovative solutions that support their organization. It will also be incumbent upon the COO to model the use of new solutions to maximize team productivity, insights and collaboration.

The modern COO connects the dots

These amplified roles not only mean COOs will be expected to bring an extensive technology, finance and leadership background to the table, but effectively augment the C-suite by helping them matching investments and operations with short-and long-term strategic objectives. There’s a reason business schools across the globe are forging closer ties with the technology sector – having a solid, diversified education is a crucial foundation for future business leaders.

Companies are getting larger and more complex with each passing year, raising operational challenges that will only cause headaches, lackluster growth and competitive obsolescence without a well-trained COO in place to navigate. The world is evolving, and businesses are transforming along with it. It’s only natural that the executive roles driving these efforts change as well to reflect the financial, technological and operational expertise needed to succeed in today’s business landscape.