Unlike any other position at a professional services firm, the chief operating officer is simultaneously the practice’s most visible follower and the key individual responsible for leading the execution of strategy. According to Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles, by better understanding this striking contradiction in responsibilities, partnerships and COOs can more effectively lead their practices.
Law practices, accounting firms, medical practice groups, investment partnerships, and managerial consulting groups are often structured with a CEO and a COO. These positions are staffed such that the CEO is a practicing member of the profession – typically elected by the partnership for a finite term of service. The COO, by comparison, is primarily qualified based on business acumen and his or her tenure may or may not survive several “generations” of CEO leaders. Granted, there is variation from this description, but this is the predominant model. From this arrangement come a host of challenges for COOs that are unique to professional service firms.
Before trying further to understand this uniqueness in professional service firms, it is useful to describe some of the foundational elements of the COO role. Investigations of the role have identified four critical success factors for COOs. Briefly stated, success begins by building and communicating a business case that supports the timing and motivation for the creation of the role. Then, success depends on finding the person who represents the best fit to the opportunity. Finally, the last of the factors regards execution – no matter how “right” the COO is for the job, without sufficient ongoing support he is unlikely to add value. When all four of these steps are done properly the position can be an enormous asset to both the CEO and the company.
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