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COO or CFO? Which path to take?

Michael Jameson's Profile

COO vs CFOI have recently had two opportunities come my way and, frankly, I'm a bit stuck. One is a CFO role at a software company (~25 people, in revenue and growing, looks interesting) and the other is a COO position at a tech hardware company (~80 people, nearly breakeven, also looks interesting). I have never been in either role and although I am more familiar with the CFO role (having reported to one or "acted" as one on occasion for many years) but the COO role looks very interesting and I'm a "hands-on" type with a lot of technology operations and mfg experience. So I think I can do both jobs but I'm not sure about which direction to take.

Can anyone help me with insight as to which would be a)the more interesting and challenging path, and b)the better career choice? Is one better than the other? All input is greatly appreciated.

Answers

Dabney Wellford
Title: CFO
Company: Wellford Consulting
(CFO, Wellford Consulting) |

Michael,

I would look carefully at profitability, cash situation and the overall market potential. Also look at the existing executives and determine their dedication to the Company goals. COO goals are great to gain operational prowess, but you also have to gain an understanding of the sales side - what are the challenges, successes and dedication. (This is also true for the CFO role.)

Good Luck!

Sarah Jackson
Title: Associate Editor
Company: Proformative
(Associate Editor, Proformative) |

In deciding which direction to go, it can be helpful to look at the most basic building blocks of job satisfaction... the fit between your specific abilities and the specific job.

To that end, you might want to take a look at Proformative's

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It analyzes and benchmarks a person's skills to a specific job title or the job title one aspires to.

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Enjoy!

Best... Sarah

Topic Expert
Cindy Kraft
Title: CFO Coach
Company: Executive Essentials
(CFO Coach, Executive Essentials) |

Michael,

Congrats on having two opportunities ... that's an enviable position I'm sure many would covet!

In making your decision, I think you need to look at your longer term goals. What's your 3-to-5-year plan? Since it's VERY difficult to get a CFO role if you haven't held one before, that's a consideration. On the other hand, operational CFOs are high value targets ... but if you forego the CFO route and that is your long-term goal, have you made it more difficult to get that position?

And, culture fit is critically important. Sometimes the role might be great but if the corporate culture isn't a good fit, it will only lead to serious dissatisfaction particularly when you can't accomplish much.

Warmly,
Cindy

Topic Expert
Jim Quinlan
Title: CFO, Managing Director
Company: Trinity Group, BlueGold, Genergy, Wellco..
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Managing Director, Trinity Group, BlueGold, Genergy, Wellcount) |

Congratulations on the choice!

You need to look at the venues to determine which is the best opportunity, fits you culturally, good peer, etc., as others here have noted. Assuming they are equal in those terms, the position themselves are very different even though, as note here as well, there are overlaps in desirable skills. Obviously, the COO focuses more on operations, supplies data to the CFO, and uses the reports and analyses supplied by the CFO; accounting skill is helpful, but not needed. The CFO collects the data (without burdening operations) and reports in ways that help operations. CFO is more of a support, service role. So, each is different, you should go where you are happiest which, I hope, is where you can perform the best.

All in all, COO is a more direct route to CEO as making the business function is more a basic need while finance only supports it.

Topic Expert
Scott MacDonald
Title: President/Owner
Company: AlphaMac Resources, Inc.
(President/Owner, AlphaMac Resources, Inc.) |

COO is the way to go. The financial arena is one of endless frustration and frankly too much personal liability for the pay they can offer. Plus, if you have done the CFO thing, it is time to try something different.

Mark Stokes
Title: CFO
Company: Private
(CFO, Private) |

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), but having been both, my recommendation would be to go for the CFO position. Why? Because being a CFO is one of those foundational experiences which will help you at every step of your career, including future moves you may make into the role of COO or even CEO. If you get a good shot at the CFO role and last a few years (no easy feat these days) then you will get directly exposed to all sorts of things that you will be a step away from in the COO's chair. This includes things like fundraising execution and documentation (difficult and boring, but great skills and experience), comp plan structure, with luck some international work including setting up subsidiaries, being a "go-to" guy at the board level for the #'s, and much, much more.

The fact is that being a CFO now will make you a much better COO/CEO later, but if you go the other way, to COO first, you may not get to come back. Either way, congratulations and good luck!

Ronald Bella
Title: In Transition
Company: In Transition
(In Transition, In Transition) |

The question is really line or staff. The CFO is purely a staff position. Your authority is limited to the finance side of the business. Others are in charge.

The COO position has line authority. You may take the input of the CFO into account but as a COO you are where the buck stops.

For myself, I've had COO responsibilities while the CFO of one organization and I preferred that level of authority and the ability to contribute to the operations of an organization. If your interest is only the finance and accounting side, you may be lost there. On the other hand, if your interests are in going beyond the CFO level then the COO I would regard as a promotion because you are now in control.

Topic Expert
Mark Richards
Title: VP of Finance & Operations
Company: RBA Consulting
(VP of Finance & Operations, RBA Consulting) |

Michael,

First, assess the potential success of each of the firms. I look for strong management team, product that fills a need in good size market and protectable IP. If any of those are lacking, then you need to give it some serious thought as to whether they will succeed in the long-term.

Second, if these are 'first-time' CFO/COO roles - then you need to see how closely the role description matches the CEO's views. What is written and what is possible can often be quite different - so while the CEO may say they want more help, ensure they will let you perform the duties in the role.

Third, CFO vs COO - best advice is to follow your passion. The more interest you have in a role, the more likely you will be successful. In the COO role, you will not be completely separated from the world of CFO, given the size of the firm you describe, my guess is there is a controller, so there will be a need for the CFO-type analysis.

James Emmons
Title: President
Company: Genral Electrodynamics Corporation
(President, Genral Electrodynamics Corporation) |

First, it is special that you have two opportunities to pursue. My suggestion to you is for you to evaluate both situations as to what can you bring to each role?
Will you be able to gain new knowledge, is the culture such that you can help others learn and grow, can you be a game changer by improving the culture of the company.
Good Luck!

Rich Wong
Title: Consultant
Company: Independent Consultant
LinkedIn Profile
(Consultant, Independent Consultant) |

Good answers from people so far and I'd reiterate what Cindy had to say and add that if you've always had your eye on the CFO suite then this is your chance to take it and scratch that off your finance bucket list.

If you're finance and haven't been worried about when you'd get to the CFO seat then you have the option of going into operations where you'll have to make more "on your feet" decision making and build on your executive career. Taking this option doesn't hurt you if you want to get a CFO role later on, in fact depending on your career a few years down the road it might even help you more as more and more CFO's have taken on the COO role as well.

Good luck, an enviable position to be.

Topic Expert
Edward Abbati
Title: Vice President of Finance
Company: Location Labs
LinkedIn Profile
(Vice President of Finance, Location Labs) |

I have done both roles. I can tell you this that when you go into a small company as a CFO, you have the opportunity to do a lot more than just count numbers. For example, I was involved in contract negotiation, legal and sale operations. I most cases, most small companies just don't have the resources to handle every function that a large company can. That is why you have the opportunity to do a lot more in a small company as a CFO which something makes you look like a COO.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

I agree, having been the CFO or interim CFO (in name or function) for many a smaller company $10-$100M range, I have also performed the COO function as well.

The only real reason to split the jobs is resources (lack of your time, increased span of authority, etc.) as the business grows.

The more areas of business you have interaction with, responsibility and authority over, the better a business person you can become and more marketable are your skill sets.

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