The chief operating officer (COO) may be the least sexy job in the C-suite, depending upon whom you ask. But it’s also one of the most important, especially for young companies looking to balance being first to market a life-changing innovation with responsibly running a business. Founders often prefer to focus on scaling their technologies and services rather than tending to operational details that are critically important to a company’s success.
My own introduction to the world of operations happened mid-career when I was working in a software upstart. I proactively proposed the role to my boss when I realized there was a tangible gap between the company’s ambitious vision and our ability to execute at the operational level.
Immediately upon assuming the COO position, I was thrown into the inner workings of the company. I was privy to the CEO’s closest-held plans for the company, including the ultimate endgame, our exit strategy. I delved into data detailing how the company was performing and began to get my arms around every functional area for which I was responsible -- sales, marketing, product delivery and people. The magnitude of the opportunity before us was exhilarating, and the role was extremely rewarding.
The head of operations job requires a steely focus upon the art and science of execution. It’s one thing to have a strong vision, but without execution, a company is nowhere. Or, as saying goes, "I’d prefer B-class strategy and A-class execution than A-class strategy and B-class execution." That’s why startup founders, small business owners and entrepreneurs should consider hiring COOs -- particularly if they recognize in themselves that they are not operators. Operations-minded business leaders bring key pairs of characteristics to an enterprise.
Practical and pragmatic.
COOs tend to be more experienced and measured than other potential early hires (read: they have more gray hair). People who excel on the operations side of businesses master juggling tasks and staff. They take matters of importance seriously, and many possess the experience needed to resolve problems swiftly, efficiently and with tact. COOs, especially those with careers spent in more traditional industries like manufacturing and logistics, present startups with vast anecdotal, practical and transferrable experience.
When I became COO, I had been privileged to have led product marketing, product management, sales, product development and professional services organizations in my career. I knew that effective leaders had to be able to motivate and get teams to work together to advance the mission at hand. One of the key ingredients to success in any leadership role is to help colleagues understand the why of what is being asked, to see how their position contributes to the company’s goals and overall success. If you can connect each person to the company’s mission, typically, colleague engagement will be off the charts.
Trustworthy and technical.
COOs commonly rise up the ranks at one company or accumulate diverse experience from having worked across a small set of companies over the course of their careers. Many establish solid track records of loyalty to a given industry or company. They get to the executive position because of an ability to speak the language of a particular industry while making workplaces and the people who staff them more efficient.
Communication is also key because the need for it permeates an organization. If your company hits a roadblock or an employee fails to meet an objective, you’re suddenly in the position to provide situational context to the CEO and to connect the lesson from the mistake to the rest of team. COOs must find a balance between teaching moments, leading by example and instilling trust.
Detailed and deliberate.
Many startup founders and CEOs zoom in on their company’s bottom line or zoom out on their 10-year innovation roadmap. The details surrounding both tend to be less important than reaching end-goals -- often by any means necessary.
COOs, on the other hand, are fundamentally detail-oriented and logistically powerful people. They complement CEO ambition with measured, operational understanding. Good COOs understand the complex inner-workings of businesses and foresee potential bottlenecks in bringing the next product or service to customers.
It can be difficult for some entrepreneurs and business leaders to accept that they might not be the strongest operational member of their team. Indeed, many CEOs are scrappy inventors disguised as business executives -- or not disguised at all in their t-shirts and jeans. Startup founders bring the big, transformational ideas and technological know-how that make people excited to come to work every day. Seasoned COOs can fill-in critical voids left hazy by those visionary entrepreneurs, by bringing their highly operational expertise built upon years of managing people and processes. Crucially, the work of a COO can provide insightful pragmatism to a young company poised to take over the world.