COOs are emerging leaders in advancing business agility

Responsibilities are growing as pandemic continues and COOs see business performance stagnate

To avoid stagnant business performance, COO responsibilities must continue to drive business agility

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, C-level leaders have re-evaluated their responsibilities in light of an emerging focus on business agility. To withstand the shock of new consumer demands and employee needs, C-level leaders invested heavily in agility. That meant new priorities across the entire C-suite.

In particular, the operational strain of the pandemic placed newfound demands on chief operating officers—and presented newfound opportunities.

A new global survey of 200 C-level leaders conducted by ESI ThoughtLab has thrown new light on the growing importance of the COO. The operational focus of COOs has put them at the epicenter of decisions around agility: the strategic imperative to survive and thrive in challenging times.

That is likely to remain true for years to come. If anything, COOs believe the scope and significance of their responsibilities will only expand in the future.

COOs are crucial to agility

Since the beginning of the pandemic, COOs have become a linchpin in their organization’s efforts to boost agility.

Of those surveyed, 20% say they currently play a key role in driving agility. While that number trails behind CEOs and CIOs, COOs also say their responsibilities will increase over the next one to two years.

Compared with their peers, COOs are less likely to rate their processes, strategies, and systems as agile.

The growing role of the COO is unsurprising, given their operational focus. Many COOs are involved in organizational, tactical, and technical tasks, such as creating business models, developing agile cultures, and building agile ecosystems of partners and suppliers.


of COOs rate their organization’s digitization strategies as agile

As businesses struggled to adjust to the pandemic, these tasks became paramount to the organization’s survival.

In response to the pandemic, 8 out of 10 COOs say their main responsibilities comprised streamlining processes and cutting costs. Half say they have been responsible for coordinating agility efforts across the enterprise.

COOs double down on agility

As agility remains a priority for businesses worldwide, COOs will expand their role over the next one to two years. Specifically, COOs expect to play a key part in driving agility throughout the enterprise and across multiple dimensions.

Why are COOs doubling down on business agility? It might have something to do with their belief that their business is not currently meeting agility goals. Compared with their peers, COOs are less likely to rate their processes, strategies, and systems as agile.

For example, just 15% of COOs rate their organization’s digitization strategies as agile versus 39% of their C-level peers. Only 10% rate their data management and security as agile, compared with 41% of their peers. Most strikingly, 3% of COOs rate their risk management and compliance as agile versus 34% of their peers.

Renewed focus on customer and employee experience

Over the past year, C-level leaders have become increasingly concerned that their business lacks the skills and talent needed to remain agile. As a result, COOs are expanding their focus to include hiring and employee experience. Coaching employees will be the top area of growth—a 23-point increase.

To make further strides toward business agility, COOs plan to focus on managing agility programs, creating new business models, and creating systems to reward performance against agility goals.

Notably, COOs see a relationship between customer experience and employee experience. To them, the health of the company, and overall employee satisfaction, are tightly linked to customer success. With that in mind, COOs expect to be more involved in meeting customer needs. The percentage of COOs who say they will put customers at the center of agility strategies over the next year or two is up 20 points compared with now.

However, COOs might have to convince their peers that there is more work to be done. While a third of C-levels rate their organization’s customer experience as agile, only 18% of COOs agree. This gap highlights COOs’ understanding that customer service is becoming more imperative across the enterprise, particularly in times of business disruption.