Experience has taught me that no matter how well-designed, the chief executive officer-chief operating officer leadership structure can easily fail. In fact, over my 30 years in the nonprofit leadership business I’ve seen many more CEO-COO duos crash and burn than succeed. I’m reminded of one of my earliest experiences, when I was chief of staff to the president of a three-campus community college. When the president asked me what I thought about his adding a full-fledged chief operating officer to the executive team – responsible for all internal operations – with the title “executive vice president,” I enthusiastically endorsed the move. A major player in the region, the president was already spending more than 50 percent of his time on building relationships with key stakeholder organizations along with supporting and interacting with the college board of trustees. He’d become dangerously overextended at the expense of both internal operational oversight and the external relations agenda. Neither was getting the attention it deserved, so adding a top executive who’d directly manage all headquarters administrative support functions and campus operations made the best of sense.
Assigned to put the CEO-COO implementation strategy together, I thought I had come up with a fail-safe plan, including recruitment of a qualified internal candidate to fill the executive vice president role, a clear division of CEO-COO labor, a detailed executive vice president job description, a CEO-COO communication plan, etc. But it didn’t take three months for us to realize the structure wasn’t going to work, so the initiative was abandoned. The failure wasn’t for want of meticulous planning; the culprit – as is so often the case – was the president’s inability to take a hands-off approach to internal operations. His new executive vice president was actually doing a pretty good job of supervising members of the executive team, and his personality meshed nicely with the president’s. But the president couldn’t – short of a brain transplant at the Mayo Clinic – keep his fingers out of the operational pie.
In light of the pretty dismal history of CEO-COO partnerships, I’m really pleased to report that United Way Suncoast on CEO Suzanne McCormick’s watch has beat the odds. Three years after creation of a chief operating officer position (now titled “Chief Strategy and Operations Officer”) to work in partnership with Suzanne, the top leadership duo is functioning smoothly and producing the hoped-for benefits, as Suzanne recounts in the podcast she recently recorded for this blog. One reason for the unqualified success of the partnership at United Way Suncoast is Suzanne’s rock-solid commitment to the CEO-COO structure. Another is Suzanne’s careful tailoring of the partnership to United Way Suncoast’s unique environment. While Suzanne did, indeed, significantly reduce her involvement in internal operations in order to devote more time and attention to the governance and external relations functions, she holds monthly one-on-one meetings with members of her executive team at which her chief Strategy and Operations Officer is an active participant. And beyond merely sitting in on these meetings, Suzanne’s COO functions as an active “thought partner,” adding real substantive value to the discussion of complex issues while building her credibility.