Alda Leu Dennis of Initialized Capital, Sima Sistani of Houseparty, and Deeptha Khanna of Johnson & Johnson with Fortune's Leigh Gallagher at the 2018 Most Powerful Women Next Gen summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Stuart Isett/Fortune
By Andrew Nusca
December 12, 2018

OK, so they may be a little biased.

But three top executives—one general partner, one president, and yes, one COO—argued at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Wednesday that the world should train the limelight a little less on the chief executive officer and a little more on the chief operating officer.

You know, the person who’s actually getting things done. (Ahem.)

“It’s actually to the detriment of the company that the visionary has the power because often that person is not equipped with the information” to actually run the company and make decisions, argued Alda Leu Dennis, general partner (and former COO) at Initialized Capital.

It’s no disrespect to the CEO, of course; that executive has an important role to play. But perhaps we should rethink the power structure of the modern company to give the organization’s visionary less of it, the executives seemed to say.

You want to avoid operational leaders simply “cleaning up the mess” of a CEO, said Houseparty co-founder and COO Sima Sistani. It’s better for a COO to focus on “making the company better” through “execution.” Unfortunately, in today’s get-me-a-Sheryl-Sandberg world, “women, more often than not, become a scapegoat.”

Gender came up several times during the panel discussion, which was moderated by Fortune’s Leigh Gallagher. The technology industry in particular is packed with young white male CEOs; that’s a hazard to the balance of any leadership team, let alone an entire company.

Sistani said that prioritizing diversity and inclusion “has to be a value, has to be a core tenet of the founding team.” Her company, for example, allowed 12 to 18 weeks of paid family leave, beyond parental, from its first day. That’s a credit to a diverse leadership team, she said. “It has enabled us to hire and retain diverse talent.” Ironically, she added, the first employees to take advantage of the policy were new fathers—but crucially, its existence has helped change minds so that employees of all genders “think that’s the norm.”

Diversity is reflected in numbers, but inclusivity means empowerment, Sistani said: “It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about empowerment, agency, making people feel they can be change-makers in your organization. Diversity is about perspective.”

Deeptha Khanna, president of the global baby care unit of Johnson & Johnson’s consumer business, agreed. “Diversity is a number,” she said. “But inclusiveness is a behavior.”

In contrast to Leu Dennis and Sistani, Khanna took a different perspective on the COO’s balance of vision and execution. Though she agreed that operational excellence is absolutely essential in the role—”You can’t anything done without people focused on operations…you have a responsibility to deliver results,” she said—she said the lack of COOs in Fortune 500 companies, compared to tech startups, is a sign that some vision is necessary to back all that action.

“In the industry I’m in, in general, they don’t distinguish between operations and executives,” she said—because excellence in both areas is expected in the same role.

Not that there aren’t commonalities. Sistani offered a metaphor for her role in her fast-growing organization.

“I see my job as being the doctor,” she said. “When you’re scaling, every week or month could be incredibly different. I operate triage.” In the beginning, Sistani needed to recruit talent and pay them, so she functioned as HR lead until those tasks were set and delegated. “I just suture and put it out there and figure out how to operationalize it and make it efficient. If I’m doing my job well, I’m putting myself out of a job every month. That’s how I see it.”

Then she cited attorney Anita Hill, who spoke at the conference earlier that day: “It’s about power and alignment.”


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