The COO Problem: Misconceptions and Mistakes
I loved my time as a COO—Chief Operating Officer—working alongside brilliant entrepreneurs and helping them effectively operationalise their equally brilliant ideas. We COOs tend to be seen as generalists, less visionary than the CEOs we support and the bucket where all the ‘boring tasks’ seem to land. Now that I’ve coached hundreds of professionals through this crucial role and transition, I’ve come to understand the enormous potential of this role, shadowed by its unique challenges.
Why is it so hard to define the role of a COO?
The competitive landscape, the company’s strategy and the CEO’s preferences and predilections all shape context for the COO role. The needs of a single startup are different at different times, and thereby are constantly redefining the COO role for that company and individual. Every COO role is completely different and therefore the skill sets of COOs are equally diverse. Different startup operating models, sectors and industries require different capabilities from the COO role.
CEOs are also often at a loss trying to articulate what a good COO is, their specific need for this role, and even where to find someone qualified. This mystery surrounding the role itself and lack of clarity in what a company even needs out of a COO means that many in the role struggle to realise their full potential. They’re not given the latitude they need—or even the access—to fully succeed.
Arguably, the COO role is much harder to navigate than the other C level roles, in fact even possibly more challenging to navigate than the CEO themselves—largely in part due to a lack of clarity around areas of responsibility and things that are (or aren’t) within their oversight.
Why is it so hard to know when to hire a COO?
All of these issues around role clarity, level and influence in the business lead to a high level of imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence within those in post. It also makes it incredibly difficult to construct a model or framework for the right time to hire a COO that is ‘one size fits all.’ Rather, it becomes a nuanced decision based on the type of company, industry, size and stage, business model, what the business needs and the profile of the CEO Founder.
So what does the COO actually do?
In its most effective form the COO role is second only to the CEO. The COO is able to be a constructive challenger and servant leader at different times, depending on what is needed. The COO is the only other C level (outside of the CEO) who truly works holistically on the business as well as in it, working to systematise the organisation, establish cross-functional ways of working, create the operating model, design flows of information, create feedback loops, set up organisational structure and use all of these tools to execute on the business vision.
When I hear that “the COO is just doing the things the CEO doesn't want to do” I feel like it does the role a disservice, and that perhaps the opportunity for a great second-in-command is missed. As COO my role changed and morphed a lot over time, and I got to do all sorts of different brilliantly interesting things and manage many different areas of the business and even lead the leadership team for a period. I loved it and felt a true partner and trusted advisor to my wonderful Founder CEOs.
This is the experience of many of my successful COO peers and COO coaching clients; without a clear role, a remit to operate across the whole business and a strong relationship with the CEO and other key stakeholders across the business there is an open question as to whether the COO will be successful.
These are the five mistakes most companies make when first hiring a Chief Operating Officer, and how you can avoid them.
1. The COO is incompatible with the CEO.
The COO needs to complement the CEO in terms of their Zone Of Genius, their skills, experience and their behaviours. The role of CEO as external and COO as internal is quite often an unhelpful oversimplification as quite often there can be overlap in these two roles, even when one role is more externally-facing.. A COO needs to be carefully selected to match what the business and what the CEO needs.
2. The business is too young and not scaling.
Bringing in a COO before there are signs of scale, or a proven need for operationalising (for example, if product-market fit has not yet been achieved) can mean the COO does not have enough to do and is therefore significantly under utilised.
3. The CEO doesn’t trust the COO.
If the COO joins the team and can’t establish a trusting, balanced relationship with the CEO, the COO will be unable to succeed in the role and the company will suffer as a result. The foundation of success in this role is created by being able to balance working for the best of the business whilst working closely with the CEO/founder and understanding their needs and wants. In some instances the COO cannot work well with the CEO at all and ends up being unsuccessful that way. This is the most common reason in my experience that COOs are unsuccessful and end up leaving after being hired.
4. The COO isn’t given proper permission.
If the COO is not given the proper remit to operate, they end up systemically squashed. They become a Chief Admin Officer, or perhaps become a VP of Operations with an over-inflated title. In either scenario the COO in post will not fill their potential, be particularly impactful and the role in that context will remain a shadow of itself.
5. They should actually be the CTO/CRO/CPO instead.
Often, COO is a catch-all role when someone should clearly be on the leadership team, but the parameters of their responsibility are unclear. The COO role will continue to feel like a shoe that doesn’t fit, and even in cases where the person understands their role and remit, they never entirely lean into the operations part of their role to become as impactful as they could be.
The COO role is an amazing role and opportunity and can be amazingly impactful for a business when the right COO is hired into the right business. There are however many reasons why COOs are unsuccessful in this post that relate to the confusing nature of the role itself, their own behaviours, experience and skills, the organisational power they wield (or don’t) and whether they create the right relationships in the business. Time must be taken to truly understand and make sure the right person joins the organisation at the right time and is set up for success.