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Should you hire a Chief of Staff or COO?
The major differences between the two roles + a free guide
Should I hire a Chief of Staff or COO? This question comes up for founders when they need to hire someone strategic on the leadership team but are confounded by a couple of things:
Not knowing what a Chief of Staff is (or does)
Not fully grasping the operational depth a COO brings
An inability to identify which role will bridge the existing leadership gaps more effectively
Determining whether the company size justifies the inclusion of either role
Navigating this decision means we need to dive deeper into each of the points above, taking a closer look at the characteristics, functionality, and distinct impact each role plays in the company.
Unveiling the Roles: Chief of Staff vs. COO
The Chief of Staff can be thought of as the right hand to the CEO (or rightly, their executive’s shadow) — a CoS tends to bridge their Principal’s strategic vision with its practical implementation across various departments in the org. While they’re not typically immersed in day-to-day operations, the CoS plays a crucial role in leading strategic initiatives, managing special projects that don’t have a natural owner, and often acting as a communication conduit between executive leadership and the rest of the company.
On the other hand, the COO is deeply embedded in day-to-day ops. From overseeing team leaders to ensuring that strategic initiatives are translated into actionable tasks, the COO is the person who maintains consistent and efficient organizational operations.
Perhaps one of the starkest differences between the roles relates to people: the Chief of Staff is a hardcore individual contributor and lone wolf who manages no one, while the COO manages a team or multiple teams. It would be highly unusual for a CoS to manage anyone outside of an executive assistant (and even that is a bit rare). So if you're considering hiring one or the other, it's important to match the role to the realities of your management needs.
Understanding the Operational Depth of a COO
A COO directly influences an organization's performance, sustainability, and scalability. Predictably so, COO’s own team-level and company-level goals or OKRs, while the Chief of Staff typically doesn’t, unless they are stepping into an interim leadership role or launching something from 0→1.
Owning team- and company-level goals means the COO is the one who is responsible for ensuring that the strategic vision and objectives of the company are translated into measurable and attainable results. This likely also translates to P&L ownership. With the burden of company-wide operational goals on their shoulders, COOs ensure that every department, every team, and every individual is rowing in the same strategic direction.
This ownership extends to crafting and executing operational plans that not only align with but also bolster the strategic objectives of the business, and it implicates the COO in a pursuit of operational excellence.
With respect to sustainability and scalability, the COO also designs and implements operational frameworks that work today and are built to withstand the challenges of tomorrow.
The bottom line is that the COO becomes an integral force in driving organizational success.
In contrast, while the Chief of Staff often finds themselves deeply enmeshed in strategy crafting, organizational planning, and even executive decision-making, the actual on-the-ground responsibility of operationalizing these strategies may fall beyond their scope (whether or not this is the case largely depends on the size of the company).
So, when comparing the two roles in the context of operational depth and direct impact on company and team-level goals, the COO emerges as the linchpin.
But this doesn’t mean the Chief of Staff doesn’t impact the company, it’s just in a different way! It’s important to highlight that the CoS would be the person that the CEO designates to run with new initiatives and ad-hoc projects that are high-impact for the org, not the COO. In many cases, a COO would be too busy and/or not interested in getting in the weeds on a new project, especially given their seniority. It’s also out of scope. They would have enough on their plate already and it’d all be high stakes.
So, the Chief of Staff steps into a dynamic role which becomes crucial particularly in scenarios where new projects or initiatives (while vital) might not align directly with the current operational focus of the rest of the leadership team. Free from the overarching responsibility for company-wide operations that the COO would hold, the CoS can lead such projects with focus and specificity.
Bridging Leadership Gaps
A Chief of Staff, while also strategic alongside the COO, often brings a more project- and initiative-focused lens to their work. So founders need to evaluate the nature of the leadership gap they’re looking to bridge. If the gap lies in streamlining comprehensive, company-wide operations, enhancing internal processes, and managing substantial teams across several departments, a COO might be the best choice. On the other hand, if the leadership gap is more oriented towards strategic development, managing specific high-impact projects, or acting as a strategic advisor to the CEO, a Chief of Staff might be a better fit.
In essence, the decision pivots on discerning whether the company needs a leader to fortify its operational or strategic fronts.
Something else to consider: the temporal and future-oriented demands of the company. Bringing a COO onto the leadership team signals a long-term, sustained commitment to enhancing and managing the structural and operational pillars of the company. This hire would be expected to not only manage the current operational landscape but also chart a course for scalable and sustainable operational growth.
Conversely, the Chief of Staff often works in a more temporally fluid space — projects and initiatives might be finite or transitional — and they step into different roles that address immediate strategic needs without necessarily getting embedded into a permanent operational role. So, the CoS can tackle urgent and high-impact initiatives while potentially developing into a leadership role as they and the organization evolve.
Weighing Company Size
Small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) might find themselves deciding between the need for strategic, project-focused leadership and comprehensive operational management. Resources need to be managed and allocated efficiently, and every new hire must be additive to the company’s growth and stability. In this case, the broader, more encompassing role of a COO, which typically demands significant resources, might be misaligned with the scale of the company, unless the org complexity or growth trajectory really demands it.
Alternatively, the role of a CoS, which can often be tailored to manage specific strategic projects or initiatives, might offer a more size-appropriate solution for SMEs: you get strategic leadership without embedding a fully-fledged operational role into the company. The CoS can bridge gaps and ensure strategic alignment and execution without necessarily entailing the comprehensive operational oversight of a COO.
The CoS role allows smaller organizations to add strategic leadership without the hefty operational and financial commitment a COO might need. Put simply, the Chief of Staff is a nimbler and leaner hire. But as a company grows (both in complexities and scale), they may need a more dedicated, experienced person to synchronize, manage, and lead various teams: enter the COO.
Ultimately, understanding current operational demands, strategic needs, and future trajectories will point founders in the right direction regarding which role, if any, is the best fit.
So, should you hire a Chief of Staff or COO?
The worst answer to this kind of question is: it depends (but it really does)!
There are so many more differences between a Chief of Staff and COO, but instead of writing about those in long-form, I created a high-level overview to highlight their respective impacts, responsibilities, and strategic orientations. Let me know what you think, and feel free to share this with any leaders or hiring managers who could benefit from it!
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If you’re hiring a Chief of Staff and want to learn more about the Chief of Staff role or need help accelerating your search with Right Hand, I’d love to talk. Just respond to this email or shoot me a DM on LinkedIn!
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Until next time, Right Hand fam! 👋
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