When Sheryl Sandberg resigned as COO of Meta – the parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and others – in early June, the public statements didn’t always match what was reported as the on-the-ground reality.
She was praised by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, as an “amazing person, leader, partner and friend”. But press reports suggested that the relationship had ruptured. (Meta did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
Sandberg’s stint lasted far longer than the five years she signed on for: she was the yin to Zuckerberg’s yang for 14 years. Her replacement, 44-year-old Javier Olivan, is entirely different to his predecessor. And in both COOs’ ways of working, you can see how the CEO-COO relationship can play out.
“The COO is a relatively modern phenomenon that has grown a lot more in the last 20 years,” says Stefan Stern, visiting professor at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass) at City, University of London. “It’s a recognition that one superhero boss can’t do everything.” CEOs who install a COO are those who have come to the understanding that they’re not vainglorious and need help running their business.
Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg’s differing duties
For companies like Meta – formerly Facebook – splitting responsibilities for a multibillion-dollar business makes sense. Stern even believes it’s a vital role for medium-sized businesses, though responsibilities will be different. “The hierarchy is pretty flat between them,” he says. “If people are talking to the COO, they think they’re getting through to the CEO as well because they work so closely together.”
“There are a lot of interesting lenses on the dynamic of these relationships,” says Cory Munchbach, COO of BlueConic, a customer data platform with bases in the US and Europe. Munchbach became COO at the company after graduating up the ranks. “I was employee number 17,” she says. For her, the reason her relationship with CEO and company co-founder Bart Heilbron works is the level of trust between the two.
Munchbach hasn’t escaped the realisation that she, like Sandberg and Claire Hughes Johnson, who until April 2021 was COO at tech giant Stripe, are all women answering to male CEOs. “You can look at this in a couple of different ways,” she says. “On the one hand, you have an opportunity to be in the room where it happens. But we’re still not seeing enough women get into the top seat.”
“They need to have a good working relationship but if it’s too close, there can be difficulties with that,” cautions Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. “If the COO is in the pockets of the CEO, then you don’t get as effective management.”
A good COO should be able to give unencumbered feedback, rather than slavishly, sycophantically supportive words, Cooper believes, pointing to a political, rather than business-based, example of a dysfunctional relationship. “When we saw Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab going on the airwaves all the time, he was a COO in some sense,” he says. “Someone needed to let this man know his behaviour was not appropriate.”
For Munchbach, the ability to speak truth to power is crucial. “At the end of the day, we can have a very strong disagreement, but knowing we’re approaching it from a company-first perspective,” she says.
The importance of the CEO-COO relationship
Division of labour is also important in the CEO-COO relationship. The strongest COOs are independent and able to put their own mark on a company, while not contradicting the CEO’s output.
They’re often seen as a chief of staff, or given a specific responsibility – in Sandberg’s case, she was tasked with keeping the governments and politicians regularly monitoring Meta onside. “They need to give feedback on how the operations are actually going,” says Cooper. “If one role is more strategic, and the other is more operational, there have to be clear lines of communication between the two, and unencumbered feedback.”
While every CEO-COO relationship is different, Cooper believes the strongest ones place their CEO at the crux of external engagement, while the COO is more focused on internal operations. “As a CEO, you’re dealing with all the stakeholders, but you have to know what’s going on and trust your operations person that they will deliver, and are delivering, to enable you to do strategic stuff with the board, or be an external relations person,” he says.
And COOs need a high emotional IQ to be able to handle tricky internal operations – and to rein in the CEO on occasion, or to tell them no. “You need to be valued and trusted on your own level of competence, to the extent the CEO is prepared to take feedback from you,” says Cooper.
Yet COOs also have to check their ego at the door. While it’s inevitable that anyone holding a job starting with a “C” will want to be in the C-suite, and eventually lead it one day, they need to recognise who is in charge. Sandberg’s high media profile, and her willingness to speak on subjects that Zuckerberg tried to shy away from, might have caused tension between the two.
“Good leadership teams are often double acts,” says Stern. And in seeing how one duo broke up, other executives can avoid the same pitfalls. In terms of models to follow, Munchbach recommends a three-pronged approach: CEOs need to think about why they’re bringing in a COO, and therefore be aware of their shortcomings. They need to trust that person. And they need to understand it’s a partnership. “When the rubber hits the road, it is the two of you in the room figuring out ‘what are we going to do about a recession?’,” she says. “The hard choices are made between us.”