What is the Difference Between a Chief of Staff and COO?

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About 6 or 7 years ago, when I was beginning to explore where I wanted to take my career next, I did a deep dive into the career paths of Executive Assistant, Chief of Staff, and Chief Operating Officer (COO). As an employee of a startup, I was handling many different facets of the business and the Founder, and we were growing quickly. I knew it was just a matter of time before I needed leverage and would need to be ready for my next career move. So, I did what I always do in times of uncertainty, research.

What I found during my research remains true years later. These C-Suite, right-hand, shot-gun leader positions are complex and nuanced. The Chief of Staff role kind of hangs out in the middle between EA and COO and can flex and morph to serve the function of either, if necessary. However, they are still three very distinct and valuable roles to any organization. I realize that in large corporations, this may be a no-brainer. But as a self-taught Chief of Staff who works with, coaches, and consults for other small business owners and entrepreneurs, it is a real issue when they only have the budget for one hire, yet are unsure if they are looking for a COS, EA, or COO (and many want all three in one person).

I’d like to make sure we are clear on these roles so that leaders can make the right hire at the right time for their business and so that individuals, like me, can clearly understand the career paths available to them. I’ve already covered the difference between an Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff in a previous article, so today we’re going to dive into some of the main differences between a Chief of Staff and a COO. Click here to read why job titles are important within your organization.

The Main Differences Between the Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer Roles

  1. The Chief of Staff serves the leader first. The COO serves the organization first.
    This doesn’t mean that either role serves their primary stakeholder to the determent to the other, it simply means they have different primary responsibilities. The Chief of Staff’s focus is on maximizing the effectiveness of their Principal. The COO’s focus is on maximizing the effectiveness of the company through operational oversight and leadership.
  2. A COO can operate independently of a leader. Simply put, the role of Chief of Staff does not exist without a CEO, President, COO, Chairman or other senior c-suite executive. Their position is inextricably linked to that of their Principal. A COO, on the other hand, is often serving the best interests of the organization or the board, in ways that the Chief of Staff is not.
  3. A COO is more outwardly facing than a Chief of Staff. This is not to say that a Chief of Staff is never front and center; but they do usually operate behind the scenes. Hence why Chiefs are sometimes referred to as “shadow advisors.” A COO (particularly when they are serve as President & COO which can often be the case) is outwardly facing and regularly providing public messaging inside and outside the organization.
  4. The Chief of Staff and the CEO share a team. The COO has their own team. A Chief of Staff rarely, if ever, has direct reports (though perhaps a team of EAs or administrative professionals). A Chief of Staff works with and through the same team that the CEO does – other senior leadership team members. A COO has their own team and direct reports (VPs, Directors, Managers).
  5. A COO might have their own Chief of Staff. A Chief of Staff usually doesn’t have any formal direct reports. In addition, to the team referenced above, a COO may actually have their own Chief of Staff to maximize their effectiveness and handle the complexity in the role, particularly in a large company. A COS does not and rarely has any direct reports at all.

All three positions, Executive Assistant, Chief of Staff, and COO, are valuable team members in the c-suite. And each position has the CEO’s back in a different way. While in smaller organizations Chiefs of Staff and COOs can look an awful lot alike, it’s important to recognize the difference when hiring and when looking for your next career opportunity.

What else distinguishes a Chief of Staff from a COO? What role does your organization need next? If you are considering a career move, which path seems like the right one to you?

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