Can Project Managers Become COOs?

COOs responsibility is to manage business operations of an organization. Managing business operation is to run the operations effectively (doing the right things), efficiently (doing things right), increasing productivity, delivering quality products and services, and speeding to market its offerings to the respective market segments. The bottom line is to maximize profit by popularizing the brand of its offerings with quality and delivering according to the demands of its customers faster than its competitors.

The project managers’ role is to get work breakdowns from respective expert stakeholders (getting the right things) and executing them within time & budget and of quality (doing things right).

The COO’s role and PM’s role are similar but there are key differences;
1. COO is accountable for business, which is continuous, and PM is accountable for a snap shot of a business (project), which has a start time and finish time.
2. COO delivers the business objectives of an organization and PM delivers the business benefits of a project, which is part of objectives.
3. COO must have good business and process knowledge. PM can deliver better with business knowledge and process knowledge.
4. COO operates from the big picture view. PM operates from project view. COO role spans across all functions in an organization. PM role is to fulfil the needs of stakeholders of a project. The stakeholders can represent a number of functions.
5. Both roles need managerial expertise but COO role exceeds in leadership. The key measures of operations are cutting cost, increasing revenue, adding value to customers, and retaining customers and employees. The key measures of operations are controlling project within budget & time, manage scope and deliver with quality,

The business benefit of a project is generally specified by the management team. A PM should really understand the business benefit and should know how to measure the benefit. The benefits should also be measured progressively and presented so that everyone understands the seriousness of gaining the business benefit and their contribution towards it. The business benefit should not be taken lightly. That should be the main deliverable besides the technical deliverable of triple constraints (within time & budget, and of quality).

Once a PM learns to focus on business benefit as the main measure to determine the success of a project the PM climbs the first step towards COO. The PM then moves forward to learn multiple business benefits when managing a program constituting multi-projects for achieving an objective of an organization. Program management is the second step. When the PM moves forward to manage a portfolio of programs covering all objectives of an organization the enterprise business benefits are measured. Portfolio management is the third step. With these experiences the PM is now ready for taking the technical accountability of a COO.

Taking interest in a business will propel a PM to get involved in the business and learn from hands-on or by attending courses. Intensive observation of processes in relation to the business benefit will give a different perspective for process improvement.

The focus on business benefit will slowly lead a PM to get interested in the big picture of the business. The drive to get things done in projects, one way or other, instead of denying, blaming, and finding excuses but to coach and guide will add another step towards leadership. The experience gained by moving from Project Management, to Program Management, and to Portfolio Management will add to the journey to become COO.

Project Managers are good candidates for COO, provided they internalize the advices, processes, procedures, and guidelines specified in PMBOK. They should also commit to learn the domain business knowledge of the organization, processes to enable them, finance management, capabilities & collaboration required to execute, and sharpen the soft skills, including leadership.