How Does a Chief of Staff Differ from a COO?

In the second installment of Tyler Parris’ three-part series on the chief of staff role, he digs into how the it differs from that of a chief operating officer and what that means for your organization. If you missed part one of this series, you can find it here.


Chief of Staff Venn Diagram

Figure 1: The spectrum of task complexity between traditional executive assistant and VP/C-suite roles.

Because chiefs of staff perform functions spanning both the tactical world (much closer to a traditional executive assistant) and the strategic world (much closer to VP- or C-level executives), they often get confused with other roles.

I previously contributed to Maddy Niebauer’s excellent VChief blog on the confusion between chiefs of staff and executive assistants. Still, one question I frequently get from board and CEO clients is “What’s the difference between a chief of staff and a chief operating officer?”

It’s a great question, if for no other reason than money. According to Salary.com, the U.S. national median salary for a chief operating officer (COO) in 2017 is $440,000 with a $588,800 total compensation package. For a chief of staff (CoS) it’s a $190,000 average salary and $222,000 total comp.

Although we like to think that everyone has common definitions of these roles, generally people do not.

This might be one compelling reason why David Sze of Greylock Partners advised Reid Hoffman to hire a CoS early in LinkedIn’s existence. As a savvy investor, he likely wanted Hoffman to have operational support without paying for a full-fledged COO.

The short answer to our question is that a CoS is a “COO-lite.” The longer answer is complicated because, although we like to think that everyone has common definitions of these roles, I submit that, generally, people do not. Similarly, when I ask a room full of leaders to distinguish a COO from a president, they all answer with equally confident, varying answers. Also, while less common, it’s not unheard of for a COO to have a CoS. I myself served more than two years as chief of staff to a president and COO and have met a dozen or so others with the same background. Some moved into the COO role immediately after the CoS role, like Elaine Rocha at AIG Investments, Rebecca Goodman-Stephens at Berdon LLP, Christian Cañas at Quick Leonard Kieffer, Keith Miller at CGFNS and Katie Dealy at 30 Million Words. So, if these people progressed from one role to the other, the two roles can’t be the same, can they?

Toward a common definition

In their book, “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO,” Nate Bennett and Stephen Miles outline seven motivations for creation of the COO role and group them into three categories:

Firm-focused motivations:

  1. To provide daily leadership in an operationally intensive business
  2. To lead a specific strategic imperative undertaken by management, such as a turnaround, major organizational change or planned rapid expansion, or to cope with a dynamic environment

CEO-focused motivations

  1. To provide a mentor to a young or inexperienced CEO (often a founder)
  2. To balance or complement the strengths of the CEO
  3. To foster a strong partnership at the top—the two-in-a-box model

COO-focused motivations

  1. To teach the business to the heir apparent of the current CEO
  2. To retain executive talent that other firms may be pursuing, absent an imperative from the business for creating the position

If you take someone with outstanding organizational skills, analytical chops and a deep understanding of the people and cultural norms behind an organization’s values, processes and technologies, serving the motivations outlined by Bennett and Miles, we have an adequate definition of the COO role.

In my book, “Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization,” I landed on a short definition for the CoS: A chief of staff is a catch-all role, filled by someone with exceptional organizational and people skills, who handles all manner of tasks not covered by an existing member of an executive’s leadership team or administrative staff.

People with chief of staff titles span a range of experiences, backgrounds, seniority levels and particular emphases based on the market factors and organizational dynamics of their organizations and the leadership styles of the executives they support.

Using these definitions, even a CEO who has a COO could use a chief of staff to fill gaps not covered by the COO or other VP- or C-level staff. It just becomes critical for the CEO to define the swim lanes of the various roles.

If you view the Venn diagram above as a spectrum, most COOs fall to the far right and most chiefs of staff fall somewhere in the middle-right of the spectrum. From this perspective, you could see the CoS as a sort of minimum viable product of operational support for a CEO or board, whereas the COO represents something more akin to a flagship product with a more comprehensive set of features and benefits. They’ve been around the block a few times more. They’ve sat at negotiation tables with larger dollar amounts at stake. They’ve led enterprises.

This is not a slight to chiefs of staff, who share many core skills and characteristics with COOs. However, chiefs of staff are in the middle of that shift from one side of the spectrum to the other and may be picking up many executive functions, capacities, behaviors and experiences for the first time. People with chief of staff titles span a range of experiences, backgrounds, seniority levels and particular emphases based on the market factors and organizational dynamics of their organizations and the leadership styles of the executives they support. They go by various titles, from Chief of Staff to Business Manager to Manager/Director of Strategy & Planning. They range in experience and seniority from executive assistant (usually in small to medium organizations) to senior vice president (usually in large organizations).

I submit that, from the CEO’s perspective, a CoS has one key advantage over a COO, however. A CoS is committed to his or her principal executive, not the board or staff—except through that principal executive. The CoS represents the principal executive but isn’t a principal executive, and thus leads from behind. The principal executive maintains control and supervision of communications, governance, technological progress and, perhaps most of all, confidentiality with a trusted thought partner in that isolated space known as the top. Whereas the COO might have designs on the CEO’s office some day and have his or her own agenda for influencing the CEO, the CoS is enough steps removed to not be an immediate threat and can therefore be an even more deeply trusted advisor.

The chief of staff could provide enough operational street smarts to fill a COO gap for a CEO until a full COO might make sense or the cost could be justified. You wouldn’t want to make this trade just for the money, however, because it comes with corresponding tradeoffs in experience and sophistication.

About the Author

Tyler Parris

Tyler Parris is a Hudson-certified executive and career coach, former corporate chief of staff and author of “Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization.” His career has spanned operations management at Intellectual Ventures, program management at Advaiya, Inc., technical editing at Microsoft and computer networking in the United States Marine Corps. While much of Tyler’s time is spent helping organizations successfully use the chief of staff role, his broader focus is creating coaching interactions with senior leaders that create capacity, raise awareness and change behaviors.

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