School For COOs?

Feb. 8, 2007
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.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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