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Riding Shotgun book summary

Riding Shotgun book cover

The role of the COO

This was pretty much the only book I could find about the role of a Chief Operating Officer (COO) and what it is that they actually do in their day to day jobs. I can't say that this book really answered that question, but I suppose it has to do with the exceptionally particular nature of the COO position.

The key takeaways from this book are pretty much summarised in the first few chapters. I found the rest of it to be mildly interesting (it's filled with interviews and anecdotes from past COOs / CEOs) but ultimately, there was not much that was sufficiently concrete to take-away and apply.

Just to note, my highlights only come from the first 3 chapters. The latter half of the book deals with identifying, hiring and retaining COOs, something which I am not particularly interested in at the moment.


  • The overriding goal of a COO is to provide sufficient high-level support to the CEO
  • The position is unique for a number of reasons:
    • The diversity of roles to be played in relation to the CEO (follower, devil's advocate, strategic partner, mentor, heir, etc.?)
    • It is a highly visible role, particularly to internal audiences. Alignment of visions of the CEO and COO is therefore critical.
  • A critical element in successfully implementing the role is a trusting relationship between the COO and the CEO
  • The COO is the second in command and has responsibility for day to day operations of a business
  • 7 main motivations identified behind the creation of a COO position are:
    • To provide daily leadership in an operationally intensive business (firm-focused motivation)
    • To lead a specific strategic imperative undertaken by management e.g. turnaround (firm-focused motivation)
    • To serve as a mentor to a young / inexperienced CEO (CEO-focused motivation)
    • To balance or complement the strengths of the CEO (CEO-focused motivation)
    • To foster a strong partnership at the top (2 in a box model) (CEO-focused motivation)
    • To teach the business to the heir apparent CEO (COO-focused motivation)
    • To retain executive talent (COO-focused motivation)

The Chief Operating Officer role today

  • "I think what a COO does is just what the job says - operations - that is, execution of the plan. I had to make the quarters, get the products out the door, hire the right people and organise according to the business plan."
  • "Selflessness and a good balance with the number one person - those are two of the more fundamental things. Then there are 3 other things that are critical. First, they have to be very competent. Second, they have to be able to lead collaboratively, not hierarchically. Third, they have to be performance and results-oriented."
  • There are 5 or 6 levers that a CEO has to have his hands on. (Implication is that the rest of the divisions can report to the COO.)
    • Strategy
    • Solid financial model
    • Scale of operations through acquisitions and divestitures
    • Identification and development of the leadership team
    • Culture and setting the tone

The job of the number two

  • When the COO role is designed to oversee operations, the best candidate is clearly someone who has demonstrated that he or she can lead and manage operational detail and deliver results. Such an individual is results-oriented, nearly obsessed with timely production of product, cost control, hiring the right people, leading the team and ensuring execution of strategy. To be effective, this COO needs to:

    • establish credibility with the operational people at all levels;
    • be a strong communicator;
    • be capable of managing several things at one time; and
    • be able to make sound operational decisions.
    • Challenges faced by COOs in their job
  • Developing a trusting relationship with the CEO . Trust is characterised by an expectation held by each party that the other will not, through words, actions or decisions, behave in a way that takes personal advantage of the relationship.

  • Building effective communication at the top . The number 1 and 2 have to communicate with each other, formally and informally, so as to be completely in step. Examples include locating the offices next to each other, habitually bcc'ing on emails.

  • Managing the organisational hierarchy and conveying authority, that is maintaining the right amount of hierarchy between the CEO and COO depending on why the COO was hired. More generally, a key feature of the COO role is to simultaneously be a loyal follower to the CEO while also serving as a strong leader to others in the organisation.

  • Boundaries between a COO's responsibilities and those of the CEO

  • Relationships with other members of top management . One of the COO's first challenges is to develop relationships with direct reports that discourage them from seeking back door access to the CEO.

  • Relationship with the Board . Many COOs notice that it is difficult to be recognised for their contribution because of the long shadow cast by the CEO.

  • Keeping ego in check. The COO must "recognise and accept that his major task is making the number one look good".

  • Career aspirations. COOs need to understand how strong their desire is to be the number one.

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