Every organization eventually comes to the point where discussions turn to the possibility of bringing on a number two or chief operations officer. But due to the rarely visible, misunderstood role that an operations chief plays, prospecting for one can be a difficult task.
We have addressed the question of how to hire a COO elsewhere. However, what is more often problematic for CEOs looking to bring on a trusted second is defining exactly what the COO should be doing and why that is valuable.
As is often the case, before an organization, and their CEOs, begin to really drill down into what they want in an COO, it makes sense to ask if the hire is really necessary and what value they will bring. Yet these critical questions frequently go unanswered.
Experts agree that the role of the COO is one of the most misunderstood and least defined in the C-suite. It can be challenging to extrapolate specific trends from the reasons that companies and CEOs give for bringing on operations chiefs. This in turn makes the question of what a COO is expected to do a very difficult one to answer.
Here, we discuss this challenge and put forth the proposition that, perhaps, instead of prospecting for a COO on the basis of a set category of requirements, there may be more benefit to considering a list of end results you want to achieve and then working back from there.
What does the COO actually do?
Answering this question is often part of the problem. No one can tell with any degree of certainty exactly what a COO should be doing in an organization. Part of this is due to the limited understanding we have of the role, with Accenture describing it as “perhaps one of the least understood roles in business today.”
While this sounds incongruous at first pass (considering that companies and their officers have been subjects of unrelenting study for decades), it does make sense. The COO role is not one that we find in every single company, compared, for instance, to other roles such as the CMO, CFO, or the all-pervading CEO. In fact, at various points in time, certain companies drop the role entirely and divide up the responsibilities amongst other offices, while some only return to fill the role after hiatuses of varying lengths, as Microsoft did.
Another reason for the uncertainty surrounding the role however, is the amorphous nature of the tasks that COOs typically carry out. Ernst & Young described this trait as being “chameleon-like”, the pinnacle of adaptability, which should be a more relevant trait in a COO than a “single set of skills that can be easily identified in any business.” As a result, understanding exactly what they should be doing can be unclear, largely because they are so good at fulfilling different roles.
But a few attributes have stuck however, and of these, one is strikingly constant: the COO often acts as a trusted second to the CEO, the yin to their yang. In this position, an operations chief may carry out various responsibilities, depending on what is needed. However, whatever those job descriptions may look like, their overall responsibility is often to supplement the skills, abilities, duties, or goals of the CEO.
What value does a COO bring to your organization?
The job of a CEO can often be a tough one, and while in this role, there is often so much to do. While a lot of those tasks can be handled by other members of the C-suite, organizations can sometimes find themselves needing an enterprise-wide operational view in dealing with these problems.
Since the CEO will typically have a lot on their plate, we often see companies choose to bring on a COO at this point to provide that extra operational guidance. This frees up the CEO to pursue strategic tasks such as leading the company into the future and other public-facing roles. However, this is just one of the ways that COOs typically add value to organizations.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, there are at least seven other ways in which operations chiefs are brought on to add value. These include being brought in to catalyze firm-wide change, retaining a valuable lower-level officer, recruiting a more experienced hand to mentor the CEO, and procuring an executor to transform operations.
For Linda Kozlowski, former COO at Etsy, the value that a COO brings is in business operations, particularly “how you operate your business, think about strategy, and move the business forward in growth.” Although she admits that the “role is custom to every company and requires deep self-awareness from the CEO and founder to outline the specific skills and qualities they need in a partner.”
Therefore, at the core of it, the value that a COO brings largely depends on how clear the vision for their intervention is and how this is communicated in prospecting for and finding the right candidate.
What should the CEO-COO dynamic look like?
As explained earlier, the CEO and COO will typically maintain a close working relationship. Therefore, one of the most important things to get right during the recruitment process is to ensure that this is a hire both individuals are comfortable about.
There needs to be a healthy degree of trust and chemistry between CEO and COO. There should be an honest, open relationship between them, and they should also be able to function as complementary parts of each other. As CEO you are going to be spending a majority of your working hours with your COO, so they should actually be someone you are comfortable sharing ideas and working with.
The COO should also be versatile enough to adequately hold the ship when the CEO is not in office. As Kozlowski emphasizes, “the most successful COOs are Jacks – or Jills of all trades.” In addition, the COO “should exude similar leadership traits to the ones you possess so the team feels confident relying on them – and the business doesn’t skip a beat.”
One red flag to look out for in this relationship is a potential tussle for relevance or power with the CEO. The COO absolutely needs to be someone who recognizes that “their job is to run the plays, not call them.” The CEO also should be willing to share the spotlight so they and the COO can function as a truly effective team.
Hiring a functional, effective COO
With a clearer idea of the COO’s role in mind, it becomes easier to identify what organizations want or need in their chief of operations. Kozlowski advises conducting a bit of self-assessment on the part of the CEO in fleshing out this part. Questions to ask include:
It also makes sense to seek input from your executive team and board of directors on these questions. Having that broad insight will help you create an accurate picture that you can then draw on in identifying what the perfect COO will look like for you.
Prospecting for a COO is never an easy one, and it’s even harder when you’ve never had one. But with a clear idea of what value you expect a COO to bring to yourself as a CEO and your organization as a whole, you will be in a better position to make a hire that not only helps your company grow, but also helps you become a better leader.
Cowen Partners has a strong record of identifying and recruiting Chief Operating Officers for public, private and non-profit organizations. Contact us if you would like to discuss recruiting an exceptional COO for your company.
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