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Now is time for a new entrant to the board – the chief agility officer, with executive responsibility for transforming how work gets done in an organization, not what works gets done. A disruptive influencer, the chief agility officer will relentlessly focus on reducing time to market for new products and services, improving responsiveness to external pressures and releasing the organization’s potential to innovate.
Perhaps it should be the chief operating officer’s (COO’s) remit? After all, the COO should have the responsibility for systemically driving improvement to operations. The Harvard Business Review highlighted in 2006 in an article entitled “Second in command: the misunderstood role of the chief operating officer” that the COO is a diverse role with no standard set of responsibilities. Mostly, however, the role has accountability for executing day-to-day line-of-business responsibilities on behalf of the CEO – the role is less so about transformation.
So how does an organization become more agile if it isn’t the CDO, CIO/CTO or COO’s remit?
The CAO would be solely responsibility for transforming the way work gets done, not what work gets done. Therefore the heads of service lines/business units and the COO maintain all their focus on executing against operational objectives and strategy. The CAO takes accountability for measuring the way work gets done, identifying systemic improvements and agreeing with her or his peers on the board how these improvements should be delivered. The remit is intentionally broad and can include:
- Facilitating the removal of organizational silos.
- Coaching agility with the leadership team (which will often have only ever experienced traditional ways of “command and control” working).
- Taking executive responsibility for removal of systemic blockers experienced by the teams.
- Implementing agile portfolio management practices to reduce the time taken from someone having an idea to starting the actual delivery work.
- Adoption of “beyond budgeting” approaches.
Understanding what makes for a successful chief operating officer is vital because the effectiveness of COOs (or ranking operations executives by whatever name they are called) is critical to the fortunes of many companies—and could be to many more. As we will suggest, the second-in-command executive is a role that by rights should become increasingly prevalent. It is prevented from doing so, perhaps, because it is so misunderstood.
How can a title accommodate such diversity and still be meaningful? Answering that question requires a shift in perspective. The key is in the orientation of the role. While other jobs are primarily defined in relation to the work to be done and the structure of the organization, the COO’s role is defined in relation to the CEO as an individual.
As we will explore in the following section, that relationship can take various forms. 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 U.S. vice president?” A Southern Baptist? A foreign-policy wonk? A charismatic campaigner? A centrist? It all depends on the other half of the equation, the first name on the ticket. This, then, is why COOs remain mysterious as a class: The role is structurally, strategically, socially, and politically unique—and extraordinarily situational.
Seven Kinds of COO
- The Executor
- The Change Agent
- The Mentor
- The Other Half
- The Partner
- The Heir Apparent
- The MVP
What the COO Owes the CEO
- True Respect
- An Ego in Check
- An Eye on Execution
- Coaching & Coordination Skills
What the CEO Owes the COO
- Clear Decision Rights
- A Lock on the Back Door
- A Shared Spotlight
A Role on the Rise?
- As we continue to demystify the role of the COO, more companies will benefit from more effective leadership.
Chief Agility Officer. Sounds like an executive for a clan of ninjas, or the self-given title of a football coach. Alas, the “agility” this title refers to is the corporate variety, not the physical. This one is technically a proposed position, but it derives its moniker from the growing agility movement, a corporate philosophy that emphasizes eschewing a rules-based work process in favor of an organization that is highly responsive to change. The chief agility officer, in that sense, is “tasked with creating and nurturing an Agile culture that pervades the whole organization.”