Joanna Pinkerton and Emille Williams Discuss the CEO-COO Partnership at COTA

by | Jan 17, 2023 | Articles, CEO Professional Growth

Joanna Pinkerton

This “Greatest Hit” post originally appeared at in January 2020.  It is even more relevant today than three years ago in light of the tremendous leadership challenges facing transit authorities and other public/nonprofit organizations these days.  Although the CEO-COO executive leadership model might be overkill in really small organizations, focusing the CEO on strategic innovation and external relations and the COO on internal operations makes good sense in larger, more complex organizations, such as the Central Ohio Transit Authority headquartered in Columbus.  In the video interview featured in this post, Joanna Pinkerton and Emille Williams provide practical, how-to guidance on making the CEO-COO structure work.

In the video interview I recorded with them in January 2020, Joanna Pinkerton, President/CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), and COTA’s Deputy CEO, Emille Williams, explain why COTA’s version of the classic chief executive officer-chief operating officer (CEO-COO) structure works so well for the transit authority of the second largest and fastest growing metropolitan area in the Midwest.  Perhaps most importantly, Emille’s focus on internal operations makes it possible for Joanna to concentrate on her working relationship with the COTA Board, the formulation of long-run growth strategies, and COTA’s relationships with key stakeholder organizations in Greater Columbus.  As Joanna points out in our interview, APTA’s awarding COTA its Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award in both 2018 and 2020 certainly validates the executive leadership model that Joanna and Emille have been testing and fine-tuning over the past three years.

A two-person executive office consisting of a chief executive officer and a chief operating officer is a staple in the for-profit sector.  And these days I’m seeing various versions of this configuration more frequently in larger public and nonprofit corporations where several senior executives once reported directly to the CEO.  As COTA has demonstrated, there’s a pretty compelling reason for adopting this executive management structure:  freeing up the CEO to focus upward and outward – interacting intensively with her board of directors, promoting her organization’s image in the wider world, and building really solid working relationships with key stakeholder organizations, such the county commission, city council, community college, chamber of commerce, etc.  In light of their heavy dependence on local tax support, and the widespread and perhaps growing skepticism of large public corporations, public transit authorities should at least consider following COTA’s lead by dividing the chief executive function into a CEO and COO.

But despite the powerful rationale for the CEO-COO structure, it tends to be quite fragile and prone to erode quickly, especially in its infancy, and has proved to be challenging to sustain over the longer run, as I’ve learned over the course of a number of coaching sessions in recent years.  I’m reminded of a coaching engagement around five years ago involving the CEO and COO.  Their executive office partnership was clearly endangered.  Tension had been pretty high from the very beginning of this (in context quite daring) executive management experiment and had recently grown to the point where a parting of the ways (meaning the COO’s exit, of course) seemed almost certain.  The culprits threatening what seemed like a very sensible step forward on the executive leadership front?  Perhaps most important, the CEO, who’d risen through the staff ranks and been at the helm for a decade, was just plain unable to disengage from hands-on involvement in internal operations.  He was constantly looking over his COO’s shoulder, often second-guessing her decisions (most recently questioning her choice of a new CFO), and even rushing to the rescue when he thought an issue wasn’t being handled well.

Their radically different styles exacerbated the tension.  The CEO was a real people-person, a true hail-fellow-well-met, who’d warmly welcomed a steady stream of executive team members through his always open door.  By contrast, the COO employed a much more formal and aloof management style, expecting her direct reports not only to make appointments but also to provide her with detailed issue analyses before meetings.  No wonder the senior executives who’d reported directly to the CEO felt cut off and emotionally abandoned.  And it didn’t help that this CEO and his COO had never worked out a formal process for regularly communicating with each other, identifying issues, and nipping problems in the bud.

I’m pleased to report that this endangered CEO-COO partnership survived, and, five years later, it appears pretty solid.  Why the turn-around?  For one thing, the CEO was willing and able to muster the self-discipline to change his micro-managing ways.  Also, these executive office partners set up a weekly meeting to discuss issues that might jeopardize their partnership, and the CEO at least once a month chairs the weekly executive management team meeting, providing his former direct reports enough access to ease their angst.  But the problems that threatened this precious, high-stakes relationship might have been avoided if the leadership duo had taken the time at the get-go to anticipate the issues that might threaten the relationship and brainstorm ways to prevent them from developing.

At COTA, Joanna and Emille have demonstrated that the CEO-COO structure can yield a powerful return if it is well-designed and meticulously managed.  If you’re considering moving to a version of this classic executive structure, you’ll definitely want to watch the following video, which is chock-full of practical guidance.

About the Author: Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists CEOs in building rock solid partnerships with their boards.

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