Managing the Future

I often hear CEOs say they want to hire a COO. But I am usually perplexed by the ambiguity of the COO role, even in the CEO’s own mind.

  • What department will the COO oversee?

  • Who reports to them?

  • How do they fit with the broader company structure?

The answers provided are usually hazy.

Oversight of operations, while critical, is different from core business functions. In my view, the six foundational pillars of a business are sales, marketing, product, finance, HR, and customer service. This leaves operations as a sort of meta-function. Specific industries (e.g., manufacturing) or situations (e.g., rapid scaling) may call for a dedicated COO, but most often what the CEO truly needs is better described as a chief of staff.

Unlike the operational breadth expected of a COO, the chief of staff has a narrower mandate: to monitor and facilitate the completion of the CEO's top priorities. When a CEO tells me they wish they had a COO, they usually mean they had someone to help them bridge the gap between their own strategic vision and the company's operational execution. That’s precisely what the chief of staff does.

A chief of staff does not add the same level of complexity and overhead of the COO, who typically comes with their own staff and an independent agenda. Rather, the chief of staff brings focus.

Their job is to be a force multiplier for the CEO him- or herself, tracking execution of strategic objectives, surfacing misalignments quickly, and protecting the CEO’s time from intrusions. As the CEO’s right hand, they keep each part of the organization accountable to the strategic plan through frequent communication, tracking of key metrics, and persistent follow-up on action items.

In this way, a good chief of staff frees you—the CEO—to focus on the responsibilities only you can fulfill: refining the vision, providing resources, building the culture, making mission-critical decisions, and delivering predictable performance.

If you are among the CEOs who could use targeted operational support without a full-time COO, reply to this email. I am happy to work with you on identifying a Chief of Staff who can be a force multiplier for you.

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“[Partnerships between the CEO and COO] depend on a rare chemistry that's hard to predict, and the stakes are high. If it doesn't work, the resulting trouble is worse than most. Compounding it, the CEO must then fire the COO fast, which is often a problem.”

—Ram Charan & Geoffrey Colvin


“Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”

—Peter Drucker


“Those who apply themselves too closely to little things often become incapable of great things.”

—François de La Rochefoucauld

Stat of the Week: Shrinking CEO Tenures

In S&P 500 companies, the median CEO tenure has dropped 20% over the past decade—from six years in 2013 to 4.8 years in 2022.

In specific companies, you can see even greater drops in CEO tenure. Boeing, for example, has seen top leadership turnover quicken, a trend not helped by the company’s recent catastrophes:

2024 Course Schedule

 For CEOs: Chief Executive Operating System (CEO-S) Course

Our flagship course in mastering the CEO role.

  • June 5–7, 2024

  • October 23–25, 2024

For HR Leaders: Take Your Seat at the Table

A 2-day workshop for strategic HR leaders. Use code MTF for 50% off!

  • May 14–15, 2024

 For Managers: Free Management System Certification

Over one day, get certified in a proven system for management excellence.

  • April 9, 2024

  • May 21, 2024

  • June 18, 2024

Feeling Overloaded?

 Every CEO goes through periods where they feel stressed by the demands of the role. A systematic approach to how you spend your time can help greatly.

Let me know if you would like to explore adding a fractional Chief of Staff, trained by us, to get your own customized system up and running. You can email me with a time that works for you or reserve a spot on my calendar here.

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