School For COOs?

On the job training.

How do such people as Lehigh Technology's Anthony Cialone acquire the skills to become an effective COO? Douglas Eberle of Green Office Systems has grown up in his father's business. But is he an exception?

"I am not aware of a school for COOs," says BBK's Timothy Hassenger. "Most of them have come up through some sort of plant floor rank and usually have gotten some formal technical expertise along the way -- an engineering degree, for example -- and have [acquired] people skills and all that stuff that goes into making somebody into a true senior officer -- plus experience," he states.

"Probably the best training I got for operations was in the industrial engineering department," recalls Lehigh University's Joel Sutherland. "It got me involved in equipment -- and I was even doing machine design; and laying out cams." He complemented that experience with a degree in what today is known as supply chain management. It taught him about dealing with customers, suppliers, warehousing and distribution.

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Do You Need A COO?

Significantly, and a point current and would-be COOs should keep in mind, when Sutherland became a COO his duties weren't whatever the CEO didn't want to do. They were not defined by default. Rather, Sutherland stresses, his responsibilities were defined by "intelligent discussions" about how he could best utilize his time and what other resources, such as new equipment and more trucks, he might need to be an effective COO.

It's essential, believes Insight's Karen Myers, in discussions between a CEO and COO about their respective roles that the chief executive recognize they are creating a partnership. "The CEO has to understand, number one, that there are some things they're not best at, whether they are interested in them or not, and number two, that's OK, that it's all right to have a partner," she stresses. "If you can get those two things in place with the CEO, then you can usually find a COO who is happy to take the other side of that partnership."

Well-prepared by experience and education -- or not -- there's some informal evidence that COOs aren't particularly well understood or respected by others in their companies. Nearly two-fifths -- 37.5% -- of the people responding to a recent IW online poll said their COO could not operate a flashlight, much less their companies. Another 32% thought their companies probably needed a COO, but they weren't sure what he or she was supposed to do. In other words, two-thirds of the poll respondents had serious doubts about their COOs' abilities or didn't have a good fix on what the COOs were supposed to be doing.

In contrast, 27% of poll participants insisted their companies couldn't operate without a COO, while another 3% of respondents identified themselves as CEOs who said they needed a COO to help run their companies. But together they accounted for only a third of those responding to the online poll, conducted late last year.

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