Is the COO an Endangered Species?

A recent study of corporate C-suites discovered that the chief operating officer is slowly vanishing. Is a similar trend happening in associations? Data and an executive recruiting expert don’t quite see eye to eye.

The chief operating officer appears to be on the way out.

A least that’s what a recent research article by Gary Neilson, a partner with consulting firm Strategy&, would have you believe. Neilson, who used data from a Crist|Kolder Associates study [PDF] of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 company C-suites, found that just 36 percent of those organizations employed a COO, down from 48 percent in 2000.

A possible explanation for the decline, he told the Washington Post this week, could be the shifting role of the CEO, as corporate boards hold them more personally accountable for organizational performance. That means CEOs are becoming more ingrained in the day-to-day operations of the organization—essentially doing the work of the COO.

Is the same thing happening in associations?

Possibly, according to data from ASAE Association Compensation and Benefits studies dating back to 2006. While the research doesn’t provide a perfect comparison, in 2006, 30 percent of the associations surveyed reported having a deputy executive director (a similar role to a COO), and by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent. Factors like budget size and staff size also affected the likelihood that an organization had a COO.

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Despite that data, Catherine Lux Fry, a director at executive search firm Vetted Solutions, said her organization is seeing a trend in the opposite direction.

“We just completed a COO search for the American Counseling Association. We’re currently conducting COO searches for the American Society for Quality and for the American Dental Hygienists Association. And those are all new COO positions,” she said. “We also just did the chief of staff role at the American Institute of Architects, and that was a role that was already there, but it was an even more enhanced position. So we’re actually seeing, in many cases, more COO roles created as opposed to the opposite.”

Whether an organization has a COO comes down to its unique situation, Lux Fry said. Certain questions should be asked when making that decision.

“You’re looking at what are the board directives—what is the mission of the organization, what does the CEO need to be doing—and then you go down from there,” she said. “If a large part of the mission is to make sure that the profession is being well represented in an exterior-facing way, and that the CEO can’t or shouldn’t be focusing all of their time on doing the day-to-day management of the organization, that’s always a good indicator that it’s time to bring on a COO.”

The strong COO hiring that her firm has seen speaks to the rebounding economy and the overall health of associations, Lux Fry said.

“We’re seeing this role become very crucial in many cases. This is the person charged with making sure that the trains leave the station on time and that the organization is working sufficiently and successfully,” she said. “And I like the fact that we’re seeing organizations add the COO role, because frankly I think it shows they have the funds and the opportunity and the vision to move forward in that direction.”


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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