21. Transitioning Roles: From COO to CEO

This is Part 2 in our transitioning roles series. Our special guest is John Saroff, CEO of Chartbeat.

12/14/20234 min read

In this episode we discuss what a CEO does, and how a COO can build competence in these areas:

  • Vision

  • Fundraising

  • Board relationships

  • Setting the tone for the culture

We then discuss the following with John:

  • What is the role of a CEO and how does it differ to the COO role?

  • Do you have a COO now? Why not?

  • How does the stress of the CEO role differ to the COO?

  • As someone who has suffered from depression, how has that influenced your time as CEO?

  • What do you wish you would have known when you transitioned from COO to CEO?

  • When you transitioned into the CEO role, did you struggle with role definition?

  • When is a COO ready to take the CEO role?

  • How do you become emotionally available to employees?

Listen here



John Saroff is Chief Executive Officer of Chartbeat, Inc., an ecosystem of enterprise solutions that enables media companies to grow reach and revenue. Chartbeat serves more that 1,000 brands globally, including The New York Times, BBC, ESPN, BuzzFeed, Paramount, Warner Bros., Hearst, and McClatchy. The company brings together Chartbeat, the industry-leading content analytics software for digital publishers; Tubular Labs, a comprehensive analytics solution that delivers a unified view of social video audiences; and Lineup Systems, a bespoke tool for providing media companies with revenue management software. John has worked on the cutting-edge of media and technology for 24 years, at companies ranging from Google to NBC. He holds a joint degree in law and business from Columbia University and is a graduate of Haverford College.

  • Career development and CEO transitions. 0:06

    • Bethany shares how she spent her 20s experimenting with different identities and careers, feeling less ashamed about her lack of progress.

    • Brandon: Inspired by Pierre Trudeau's career path, he pursued various manual labor jobs in his 20s without a clear career goal, focusing on enjoying life and graduating from university.

    • John Saref: As CEO of Chartbeat, he transitioned from Google and NBC Universal, discussing how a CEO can build competence by galvanizing the organization and stakeholders around the company's vision, mission, and purpose.

  • Leadership, vision, and communication skills for CEOs. 3:32

    • Bethany emphasizes the importance of having a clear and compelling vision as a leader, which she believes is essential for inspiring others to work towards a common goal.

    • Brandon agrees that vision is crucial, but also acknowledges that it can be challenging for ordinary people to articulate a powerful storyline in a way that is both competent and charismatic.

    • Brandon: Product background helps with vision and storytelling (black slide technique)

    • Bethany: Keep presentations simple and focused on the future (no bullet points, no visuals)

  • CEO responsibilities and skills. 7:40

    • Bethany and Brandon both played key roles in fundraising rounds, learning investor thinking and complementing the CEO's strengths with their own areas of expertise.

    • Fundraising is like another sales cycle, requiring collaboration and pairing off with different people to add value and secure investment.

    • Bethany emphasizes the importance of communication and empathy for CEOs in investor relations and customer meetings.

    • Bethany and Brandon discuss the importance of building relationships as a CEO, with Bethany emphasizing the value of having a strong relationship with key stakeholders.

    • Bethany and Brandon also touch on the topic of setting the tone for the company culture, with Bethany noting that as CEO, you are setting the tone rather than just toeing the party line.

  • Career transition from corporate lawyer to content acquisition at NBC. 14:19

    • John Saroff transitioned from corporate lawyer to content acquisition at NBC after feeling unfulfilled and depressed in his law career.

    • He networked extensively and interviewed with 26 people for the job, eventually getting hired by Mike Stipe, who is still a close friend.

    • Saroff emphasizes the importance of finding a career that aligns with one's passions and values, rather than simply chasing the "brass ring" of partnership.

  • CEO responsibilities and stress. 17:21

    • John Saroff, former COO, describes the difference between the CEO and COO roles as "enormous" and "really different," respectively.

    • John Saroff does not currently have a COO, having taken over as CEO after his predecessor left to start a company sold to Twitter.

    • John Saroff describes the stress of being a CEO, comparing it to being the "least bad choice" with a small team and limited resources.

  • CEO stress, depression, and mental health resources. 21:00

    • John Saroff highlights the stress-reducing aspects of being a CEO, such as having ultimate decision-making authority and being accountable for the company's success or failure.

    • Bethany agrees, noting that the lack of authority to make decisions without the CEO's approval can be immensely stressful for team members.

    • John Saroff discusses his struggles with depression as a corporate lawyer and how he found support through therapy and medication.

    • He emphasizes the importance of mental health resources for employees and stigmatizing mental illness in the workplace.

    • Saroff shares his success story of managing depression and anxiety, encouraging others to seek help.

  • Leadership, vision, and growth as a CEO. 26:19

    • Bethany shares her struggles with perfectionism and feeling like she didn't measure up in her 20s, despite being high achiever.

    • Brandon contrasts their backgrounds, sharing how he didn't have a full-time job until age 28 and didn't have traditional experience, but found success as a CEO.

    • John Saroff reflects on his early days as CEO, realizing the importance of having a clear vision and mission for the company.

    • He emphasizes the need to identify what the company is the best in the world at, and how it can move the economic engine and fire up employees.

  • CEO role and coaching employees. 30:59

    • John Saroff describes his CEO role as a "very involved coach" drawing on experiences from college leadership roles.

    • John Saroff emphasizes the importance of coaching and communication as a CEO, using examples from his experience as a Liverpool fan and a New York Giants fan.

    • Saroff believes that meddling can be healthy if employees understand why the CEO is involved, citing the example of a client who only tells the CEO the truth.

  • CEO mindset, emotional intelligence, and self-care. 34:45

    • John Saroff emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and emotional reserves for CEOs, citing it as a key trait for success in the role.

    • Bethany highlights the need for CEOs to be able to operationalize and inspire their teams, while also taking on ultimate accountability.

    • John Saroff emphasizes the importance of taking care of oneself holistically to be successful in any field, especially as a CEO.

    • He practices active listening and reminds himself that his opinions are just that, while acknowledging the feelings and opinions of others.

    • John encourages listeners to take action and make the transition to their desired career, emphasizing that it only takes one "yes" to make it happen.