What will the COO of the future look like?

Major changes are on the horizon for the COO’s role. Is it a case of evolve to survive or become extinct?


What will the future COO look like? Chief Operating Officer

The COO’s role has largely been to ensure that operational processes run smoothly and efficiently, establish strategy for productivity and performance and work with the C-suite to set the corporate vision and culture. But the Covid pandemic has changed everything. Organisations are navigating a new hybrid workforce, ongoing supply chain disruption, geopolitical uncertainty and shifting customer demands. 

In many cases it is the COO, rather than another member of the C-suite, who is spearheading operational changes in the post-pandemic world. And they are well placed to do this. Crisis management is the COO’s area of expertise, notes Abigail Vaughan, COO for HR and payroll specialist Zellis. Resilience is now a priority for building organisations back stronger.

“Changes to the workplace and the pace of business post-pandemic, together with rising customer expectations, require stamina, resilience and contagious positivity,” says Vaughan. “It feels like we’re awakening from hibernation. And as the COO you need to help wake people up as fast as possible to avoid being left behind.”

But while COOs are taking the lead in rebuilding their enterprises, how does that translate to the new hybrid working landscape? Does the COO need to learn new skills for this evolving environment?

Adaptability will be key

James Bradley is COO at facilities management provider The Churchill Group. By its nature, Churchill has staff that work onsite and in locations that vary from offices to trains, so he is well versed in the challenges of dealing with a disparate workforce. He says internal communications are important when navigating the management of a distributed workforce.

“Meaningful and effective communications are key to cultural cohesion across the business and ensuring that we’re all working to the same goals,” he says.

Vaughan has also found she has to sync up more with other teams in the company. “Long gone are the days when every department could pursue its own objectives and it would come together at some point. 

“To maximise the impact of change, all areas of the company need to work together on the same things. Otherwise, siloes and frustrations arise and not only do your own employees become disengaged because it feels difficult to get things done, but your customers become aware of it.”

More than ever, COOs must be adaptable. Simon Nolan is senior partner at executive search firm Page Executive and says this means understanding and adopting new technologies and the supply chains that relate to their industry.

“The pace of change is unrelenting. The mark of a successful COO is one who can move with the times and implement new skills needed for their business,” he says.

Nolan says operations in the digital world have become more complicated as customers expect to be served and attended to in different ways, usually with a multichannel approach to the business. “COOs need to manage the expectations of technology and infrastructure against the commercial demands of the business. Finding that balance can be challenging because the role is evolving.”

The mark of a successful COO is one who can move with the times and implement new skills needed for their business

But could the COO evolve to the point of becoming extinct? Liz Parnell, COO at Rackspace Technology, believes so.

“COOs traditionally focus on KPIs and metrics, delivery and revenue but much of that is already automated,” she notes. “Now it’s about people and understanding the needs of employees as we navigate new hybrid-working styles. To a great extent we are now ‘chief empathy officers’. People have always been a business’s most valuable asset, but the ability to listen to and understand the needs of employees has never been more important.”

Parnell says that COOs will need to use their intuition and emotional intelligence for the business’ needs: to add value in breaking down internal silos; integrate new business and understand their workforce. Unless they continue to listen to staff feedback during the changes, trust will be broken.

“The key skills required now are transparency, honesty and empathy, and clarity in communication and flexibility – a decision made today may no longer be the right one in two months’ time. So, awareness and humility to adapt are vital for this working era,” she explains.

How will the COO role change in the future?

Parnell suggests that while every organisation is working towards a better-defined post-pandemic reality, “the truth is that no one has this figured out”. This, she says, is clear from the diversity of approaches, “from Elon Musk expecting staff in the office full time, to other companies experimenting with a four-day working week.

The return to office will likely be slow and will rely on encouragement. The challenge will lie with middle management who will be implementing behavioural changes and it will be a great test of their leadership skills. 

“My advice to them is to lead by example, to be able to honestly and authentically feed back the benefits of the in-person, onsite experience.”

We’ll see the role morph into empathy officers who take the lead to advocate on behalf of their employees

Opinions, though, are divided as to what the future COO will look like – or whether they will exist at all.

Parnell is adamant that the role – at least as we recognise it – is on its way out. “I don’t see the role of COO existing in five to 10 years because of the current evolution of the workplace,” she says. “We’ll see the role morph into empathy officers who take the lead to advocate on behalf of their employees, with being head of business integration to break down silos for the betterment of an organisation’s future.” 

Vaughan says she doesn’t believe that every company needs a COO or that the role is needed all of the time. The role, she says, “usually grows out of a specific need to ‘fix something’ and as organisations evolve and mature, the need for the role should be kept under review.”

But she adds that when it is needed, “what will remain true is that it will be a broad, multifaceted role, with responsibilities specific to the context you’re working in and require the role holder to be highly collaborative and able to adapt.”

But Nolan maintains that the COO will retain its position as a crucial part of any senior leadership team, regardless of a business’s size, industry or commercial interests.

He says: “It is in the best interest of any company looking to be ahead of the curve to have a COO. The COO is the person who has to deliver on behalf of the customer and drive success.”

5 tips for recruiting a COO

With the role changing so extensively, what should hirers look for in a COO? Dr Becca Franssen, partner at international executive search firm, Perrett Laver, pinpoints the new key elements.

Spend time on the job description

One of the most important elements of a C-suite executive search is a clear job description that will attract the right talent for the role. Identify exactly what roles and responsibilities your COO will undertake, and how they will be expected to provide value to the organisation. Make sure it captures immediate and long-term duties to help your company thrive and grow.

This is particularly important for organisations undertaking change programmes. It can be tempting to keep a job description intentionally vague, in the hope of ‘knowing the right candidate when you see them’ but a clear job description helps candidates evaluate their expertise against the brief and submit tailored documentation to help you make the right decision. 

Identify the right qualities for the role

The COO’s role is flexible. They oversee the daily running of an organisation but also need to be able to step into the shoes of the CEO. While there isn’t a defined set of skills needed for every COO, particular qualities immediately set the right candidate apart from the competition. 

Adaptability is paramount. In a fast-changing business landscape, the ability to think on your feet has never been more important. Resilience is also essential, as is the need for problem-solving skills to turn potential roadblocks into opportunities.

Think outside the box

Discard assumptions of what makes a typical COO and look beyond your immediate networks and recruiting pools. Continue to challenge your preconceptions when you’re interviewing, reviewing CVs and writing job descriptions. While a potential candidate might not have gone to the most prestigious university or received the best degree, they could have other characteristics that uniquely suit the role. 

A consequence of thinking outside the box is that it naturally leads to greater progress in D&I recruitment practices, addressing bias around gender, faith, race, age, ethnicity and sexuality. Executive search firms play an important role in helping organisations uncover leaders who represent a range of backgrounds, languages, education and life experiences. By identifying potential candidates who don’t seem the most obvious fit, you might challenge even your own assumptions about what the next COO will look like. 

Hiring a COO is also an opportunity to challenge organisational inertia: to think differently and creatively about processes and systems and to ask important questions about why things are done a certain way. Being open to different types of candidates can help the business grow and evolve. 

Seek transformational leaders

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for digitally literate minds across senior management. There is a need not just for business growth but also for business transformation. The search for a chief transformation officer (CTO) has multiplied across executive searches, with many companies seeking to hire an outstanding candidate to spearhead innovation. But a CTO isn’t always needed if you have a COO who will lead transformation and innovation from the outset. Candidates who show a data-driven, analytical and creative mindset are ideal for companies recruiting their next COO.

Consider compatibility

Involve a variety of stakeholders during the selection process to see how the potential COO would add to the team. While the successful candidate will need to fit in, be cautious of finding someone who is too similar as that can lead to group think and, ultimately, stagnation. 

Consider the role’s breadth. A good COO needs to be analytical and engage with people across every level of the business. Understanding the dynamics of an organisation can be just as important as understanding cash flow or strategy planning.