COO vs CEO: the differences

In the complex hierarchy of corporate governance, two pivotal roles stand out: the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and the Chief Operating Officer (COO). These positions are fundamental to the strategic management and operational efficiency of any major corporation. While they may seem similar to the untrained eye, their responsibilities and focus areas are distinctly different, yet complementary.

The role of the CEO

The CEO holds the top spot in the company and is primarily responsible for making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, and acting as the main point of communication between the board of directors and corporate operations. CEOs set the company's vision and strategic direction, often focusing on long-term goals and external relations. They are the face of the company, involved in high-level stakeholder interactions and decision-making processes that directly affect the company’s trajectory.

The role of the COO

The COO, on the other hand, is often seen as the second-in-command, especially in larger organisations. This role is more internally focused, primarily dealing with the day-to-day administration and operation of the company. The COO’s responsibilities include overseeing the execution of company strategies, managing operational leaders, and ensuring that business operations are efficient and effective. They are directly involved in the creation and implementation of operational policies to enhance productivity and profitability.

Key differences in focus and responsibilities

  • Strategic vs operational focus: While the CEO is concerned with strategic growth and vision, the COO focuses on the best ways to execute these plans operationally. The COO ensures that the company’s internal operations align with these strategic directions.
  • External vs internal: CEOs typically engage with external stakeholders: investors, the media, and other corporate partners. Conversely, COOs deal more with the internal affairs of the company, such as human resources, procurement, and project management.
  • Visionary vs implementer: CEOs are often tasked with providing visionary direction for the company, setting long-term goals and strategies. COOs are implementers; they take the CEO’s strategies and ensure their effective implementation across various departments.

How they work together

Despite their differences, the CEO and COO roles are complementary. A strong CEO/COO relationship is critical, combining visionary leadership with operational acumen to ensure that the company not only dreams big but also achieves its ambitions efficiently. The COO often reports directly to the CEO, providing not just feedback but also a ground-level view of the business operations, which is crucial for informed decision-making at the top level.


Understanding the distinct roles of the CEO and COO can significantly enhance one's perspective on corporate structure and leadership dynamics. By delineating responsibilities that drive both strategic and operational successes, companies can thrive under the guidance of both a CEO and a COO, each playing a critical role in the organisation’s success.