Three lessons COVID-19 CEOs can learn from Mr Johnson’s & Mr Cumming’s CEO/COO relationship

Let’s say, for the sake of argument and I know there are some flaws in the analogy, that Mr Johnson is the equivalent of a COVID CEO and Mr Cummings the equivalent of a COVID COO in business.

In normal times the CEO/COO relationship is tricky. In times of pandemic, it’s positively problematic. COVID-19 CEOs and COOs are like no other CXOs, whether they like it r not.

At the risk of teaching granny to suck eggs, here’s a reminder of what a CEO and COO are, and what they should be doing:


A CEO is (or you are), and it’s worth pointing out the obvious because some forget it and others ignore it, the chief executive officer in your organisation. This should be obvious. Unambiguous, as it were. The title is, as they say, “what it says on the tin”. The giveaway word is “chief”. Just reflect on the word “chief” before reading on or you may wish to replace the word “om” with the word chief it in your next yoga session.

You as CEO do three things and three things only. Or should.

  1. Help the people you lead to thrive
  2. Grow or ensure your organisation is flourishing
  3. Balance the needs of stakeholders

I have worked with many CEOs, all of them driven but each of variable IQ and EQ. Few do all three things well.

Some are brilliant at No2 and less so at 1 and 3, except in delighting shareholders, of course.


Your COO is your Chief Operating Officer and sits on your operating board and, in some companies, sits on your main board along with you and your CFO.

The role and purpose of your COO is to keep your organisation’s promise with its customers. Nothing else, in my view.

I know that’s controversial as many boards like to say that their COO “runs the business day-to-day” and their CEO “does the strategic stuff”.

This is tosh IMHO, because:

  • Your CEO must lead the business day-to-day. They can’t duck that, I’m afraid. Try as they might.
  • Your board and people working in your organisation need to be in do doubt who is the boss – it’s you, the CEO. Full stop. Your COO reports to you. Your COO is not some joint CEO-type-person. Write a woolly COO job specification and you are begging for trouble and endless politics.
  • People like to drive a wedge between the COO and CEO if they can. Don’t be doing with that. It’s a total waste of time.
  • The “strategic stuff” is meaningless management-speak and guff.
  • A strategy is a sentence describing how your organisation will achieve its purpose. It consists, usually, of one line as in: “our strategy is to grow by rapid acquisition, globally”. There’s no “stuff” to be done on strategy.
  • Everyone on your operating board is involved in the implementation of the strategy, not just your you or your COO
  • But only your COO is responsible for customer satisfaction
  • If your customers are unhappy call your COO. Only one point of contact. One point of control. Only one person can or should fix it.
  • In the old days, they would be called Head of Production or Head of Services.
  • Today they are heads of “delivery”. [Side note: “delivery” is the one word I have tried to stop using but can’t. I wrote to Lucy Kellaway when she was the doyenne of eliminating management-speak at the Financial Times to ask her advice. “Never” she replied  “should the word delivery appear in a sentence in which a van does not also appear.]

So, is the role and purpose of your COO in your organisation clear and crisp or is it part of the problem on your operating board? Be honest.

All, except the pathological and narcissistic – and I have met a few of those – are capable of so much more if they made small changes in their behaviour and if you and your COO can change yours just a little the impact can be big.

So the three lessons you can learn from Messers Johnson and Cummings without getting into the politics of it are these:

  1. The impression is that Mr Johnson doesn’t call all the key shots. He should. And if you are a CEO so should you and everyone should know that it is you, and you alone, who calls them. Mr Johnson should not have allowed Mr Cummings to give a press conference alone in No 10’s Rose Garden. It confirmed the impression of leadership ambiguity at the top.
  2. Mr Johnson is not paid to lead us, “the people”, but to lead his Cabinet, his MPs in Parliament who represent us and to lead his senior staff. His job is to create an environment in which they thrive so that we all will thrive. Since Mr Cummings, Mr Hancock, and Mr Raab – to mention just three – will not go down in political history as “the greatest leaders at a time of pandemic” it’s clear that Mr Johnson is falling short of the high standards in his leadership of them. If they are not doing well it’s his responsibility as is the performance of your CXOs. Sack them or help them but don’t ignore them. That’s would be a dereliction of your duty.
  3. Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings appear to have a shared purpose (P), a shared strategy (S) and a shared behaviour plan (B) – that is a perfectly shared PSB in my leadership model. The not so tiny flaw is that their PSB is not shared by most if not all of the people they co-lead and they are, sadly, co-leaders. Sadly, because joint leadership never works as well as single leadership. Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings reflect many singularly driven CEO/COO relationships in business, particularly in start-up, early stage and rapid growth contexts. In these cases the CEO and COO usually co-founders “have a vision” which phrase of itself should set off alarm bells and they fail to take others with them but rule with rods of iron. Don’t do it. It will end in tears. And while the day will come when Mr Johnson will use those famous words ” we are leaving Downing Street for the last time” he is unlikely to shed a tear as Mrs Thatcher did because she loved the job and I have a hunch that Mr Johnson doesn’t – but one way or another Mr Cummings won’t be there to save his legacy.

Your COO won’t be there to save your legacy, either.

Ciarán Fenton

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