Congratulations! You’ve just been named Chief Operating Officer. You’ve got this. The path is clear. Just do more of what you’ve done before. Right? Maybe. Amazingly enough, not all Chief Operating Roles are the same. There are dramatic differences between different roles with the same title, requiring different approaches to onboarding for you to be successful. This article highlights what you need to do.

What’s the remit?

Let’s take two cuts at this: what you’re being asked to do and what’s its strategic importance.

Bennet and Miles proposed seven different approaches to the COO role in an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review in 2006:


  • The Mentor to young or inexperienced CEO. (Help them learn.)
  • The Partner for CEO so there are two leaders in charge (Help them think.)
  • The Other half – partner with different experience, style, knowledge base, or penchants to complement the CEO. (Help think.)
  • The Change Agent – leading specific strategic imperative. (Shield them.)
  • The Executor – leading execution of strategies. (Help execute.)
  • The MVP – given title because too valuable to lose. (Help execute.)
  • The Heir Apparent – being groom/tested as potential CEO/CEO-elect. (Carry forward.)
COO Focus


Onboarding with different remits

The four mandatories of executive onboarding generally apply: 1) Get a head start (and build relationships.) 2) Manage the message, (setting up a shared imperative.) 3) Set direction and build the team (from imperative through role sort.) 4) Sustain momentum and deliver results (with milestones and early wins.)

The priorities are going to be different for different remits.

  • Mentor, Partner, and Other half – Focus on your relationship with the CEO.
  • Change Agent – Set the new imperative and then follow on from that.
  • Executor and MVP – Focus on sustaining momentum and delivering results.
  • Heir apparent – Follow the general plan across all four steps.

Here’s how those play out:


As a mentor, partner or the “other half “of the CEO, over-invest in your relationship with that CEO. Help them be more effective. As a mentor, the role is like a temporary, full-time, in-house coach. If you mentor well, the CEO will outgrow you.

Partner and Other Half

The general prescription for mentors applies here as well. The difference is that Partners or Other Halfs” are more permanent. Invest to build your relationship with the CEO.

Change Agent

Decide if don’t care about surviving your own change as a change agent, it’s a temporary consulting assignment. Build relationships, set the imperative, team and operating cadence to implement your change and set up someone else – perhaps the CEO – to carry the changed organization forward after you are kicked out as a cultural mis-fit at the end of the change.

If you do want to survive your own change, make sure you’re setting up someone else as the bad guy. This could be an outside consultant, a VP of change management or the like. But when the change is done, you’ll have a public hanging to get rid of the person or people that inflicted so much pain on the organization so you can pick up the pieces and move forward much more positively.


This is the role most people think of when they think of a Chief Operating Officer. CEOs own three concurrent, overlapping processes: strategic, organizational and operating. The Chief Operating Officer is the CEO’s critical partner in operations. So jump into managing the operations effectively and efficiently.


If you’re promoted to Chief Operating Officer as a way to make sure the organization doesn’t lose you, keep doing what made you an MVP. Don’t get distracted by the title or the perks. Keep your head in the game you’ve been playing.

Heir Apparent

Deploy a two-step on-boarding: 1) as COO on its own and 2) as rising CEO. Watch out for what Ciampa and Watkins describe as “successor syndrome” in their excellent book, “Right From The Start.” Guard against the outgoing CEO seeing you as a threat and turning on you before you can take over.


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