The CEO/President and the COO/Operations Relationship

My CEO coach was explaining the organizational chart, stating to me “you work through your leadership team, and you guide them to confide in one another: “complain up” if they don’t have something good to say about the boss, leadership team, or company and “compliment down”, pointing out the positives and guiding to overcome the negatives.” It made perfect sense as drama has no place in the workplace and the goal is results to run a profitable business.

CEOs in construction tend to operate through “seagull management,” defined as “The act of a higher-level executive on an organizational chart flying in, crapping on direct reports leadership responsibilities, and flying out.” An example would be a CEO walking on a job site and reprimanding a superintendent directly in front of their operations professional or without the operations professional present.

Although the CEO and COO have two distinct sets of responsibilities, the overlap of capabilities and interest of both individuals to be directly involved is significant. Why? Most founders of construction companies started by wearing both the CEO and COO role within their companies, and at some point, dividing those responsibilities gave them the freedom from oversight of the day-to-day operations to work on other initiatives for overall business growth.

When a CEO is disciplined enough to clearly define, divide, and relinquish responsibilities within the company’s organizational structure and hire the right people under them to excel in leadership roles—the right results happen.

The most common challenges a COO faces when working with their CEO mirror similarities to when a person goes from single life to married life. It takes recognition by both parties that they are not the sole decision-maker in the household.


  • In marriage, would you adopt a child without working as a team with your spouse to do so? When a CEO hires a new project team member or another executive without the COO being in agreement with the hire, they essentially just adopted a new family member without thought for their partner.
  • Would you put your oldest minor child in charge of your household finances without discussion with your spouse? When a CEO makes changes to the organizational chart, reassigning responsibilities without discussion and buy-in from the COO and other executive team members, it can not only cause the CEO to lose credibility but also adversely affect the company.
  • Would you call your spouse’s doctor or personal trainer without consent and change the plan he has in place with your spouse? When a CEO directly gets involved with vendors and subcontractors to change a plan without agreement from the COO or other executive who was assigned the vendor or subcontractor arrangement, it quickly demonstrates the CEO’s control issues. Hopefully, if you don’t like the result you are seeing from your spouse’s trainer or doctor, you will talk with your spouse and agree on how to manage the situation, or the spouse may agree to make a change. Affording your direct reports that same courtesy goes a long way.
  • Would you make significant changes to the function of your home without your spouse being involved? When a CEO makes a significant change to the work environment, including implementing new software, employee policies, and so forth, it can adversely affect company production. Working with operations and lead executives within the organization to streamline the implementation of change is imperative to the CEO and their reporting executive’s relationship.
  • Ever bought an expensive toy without discussion with your significant other only to find the enjoyment level of ownership was diminished after they found out? When a CEO takes on a job that is not within the agreed “Go-No-Go”, they should get ready for a similar feeling. If you aren’t open to at least hearing from your COO the challenges that could occur, whether you take on that job or not, then you are showing complete disregard for the person you chose for that role.

Tips for the CEO/COO Relationship:

1. CEO, remember, you chose them for the job, and COO, remember, you chose them. You both want the relationship to flourish. Even plants need water and occasionally fertilizer to grow appropriately.

2. Communication doesn’t just happen

  • Write out clear expectations of one another annually. (Click here to download a Sample Performance Expectations for Director of Construction)
  • Set regular one-on-one touch points and keep them—just like a date night with your spouse, the longer you go without one, the higher the probability of conflict.
  • Discuss what accountability looks like. Just like in marriage, your spouse and you have specific times you call, text, or connect for transparency in your relationship; offer the same mutual respect for your right hand in business.
  • Discuss how you can best work through conflict with one another. Without the ability to talk through and gain buy-in, whether in agreement or not, the relationship will fail.
  • Plan what gets celebrated. Do you formally celebrate contract signing or project milestones? What does that look like?

3. People cannot most effectively serve two masters, and a leader cannot most effectively manage more than 10 direct reports, especially if they are a doer-leader with other responsibilities beyond directly managing and motivating the people assigned to them. Effective use of organizational charts helps you as a leader.

4. Executives need coaching and training too. Just like marriage counseling is often too late once a marriage is in trouble, the same holds true in a CEO/COO relationship. Career, business, and marriage coaching and counseling are designed to enhance the relationship and prevent divorce.

The most successful CEO/COO relationships are built in time, maintained by time set aside together, and they continue to flourish with mutual goals and understanding. No matter your personal marital status you can improve your business relationship with your key personnel with the understanding that “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

How’s it going for you?

Suzanne Breistol


1 Comment
  • Steve Fales

    Thanks for these insights. I can see how this is a hugely important concept for CEOs and COOs to grasp. You’ve done a great job of laying it all out.

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