Sep 21 2023

Why Have a COO?

The following is a guest post written by my dad, Bob Blumberg, long-time tech entrepreneur and now startup advisor and board member (yes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).

To create a successful and sustainable, growing and profitable business, the leadership of the company must have both strategic and tactical understanding and capability.

For this purpose let us define “strategic” as having the understanding of the customer, his problem, need, or desire, a knowledge of his own industry, its past, present, and likely future, how developments in other industries can be applied to his own, and how to envision the product or service that will succeed.

In contrast, “tactical” is the understanding of how to get things done, how to accomplish the strategic goals.  It is composed of the knowledge of how to organize and structure, who and how many to hire or assign, how to market and sell, how to best the competition, how to produce and sell it profitably.

More often than not, these two mind- and skill- sets do not reside in the same person.  If that is true, it is critical that the CEO recognize it, and hire or promote a COO with the complement to his own ability.  If the CEO is strategic, his tactical counterpart could be COO or a VP of Sales, Manufacturing, Finance or HR, that he is willing to listen to.  Similarly, if the CEO is tactical, his strategic counterpart should be COO or a VP of Marketing, Engineering , or Product Marketing/Management.

In either case, the strategic leader should have deep background and significant experience in the industry, in competitors, his own company, or both over the course of his career.  The tactical leader can be more of a professional manager, with a broader range of experience, able to bring knowledge of different ways of getting things done.

Obviously, mutual respect between the two is essential.  Industry probably has many examples of this.  One that comes to mind is Facebook, where Mark Zuckerberg as a strategic CEO relied heavily on Sheryl Sandberg as his COO.  Although it is certainly possible to find both qualities in a CEO, it may be rare, and the successful CEO will realize where his talents are and are not, and hire or promote accordingly.

When my dad sent this to me, I responded with the following: Here’s a follow up question that I’d like to include in the post – at what size company do you think this kicks in? In Startup CXO, I wrote that for really early startups of 10-15 people, when a CEO says they need a COO, it can be a crutch because they just don’t know how or don’t care to do basic management work, what you’d define as tactical work. It’s often not fun for creative entrepreneurs. But maybe that’s not right, maybe it’s just the case that some people aren’t cut out to do that kind of work, and that’s ok. Dad’s response:

I think someone has to be looking at both from the start.  The complement to the CEO doesn’t have to have the title of COO, but needs to be on the team in some senior position, and have the respect of the CEO for his/her complementary skillset.