Operations leaders are the unsung workhorses behind many startups. Whereas different C-suite roles are outlined based mostly on the work that wants doing, the chief working officer (COO)’s role is defined in relation to the chief executive officer (CEO).
However the COO-CEO dynamic could be a double-edged sword. Primarily based on a spot survey I ran this week, of 29 operations (ops) leaders who’ve lately left roles, virtually seven in 10 cite a management group dynamic as the commonest issue of their determination to go away their submit.
The success of an ops chief relies on how nicely they will work with the CEO, and the way a lot the 2 roles belief one another to ship of their respective areas — way more than another position within the management group. Till CEOs can recognise, empower and belief their COO to make choices and really lead, they’re limiting their capability to operationalise and scale the corporate.
Numerous accountability however (normally) not a part of the founding group
COOs should not normally a part of the founding group. Solely 17% of ops leaders, surveyed by COO group COO Stories in 2020, had been founders. Founding groups are fairly often a CEO/cofounder pair and at a sure level, the founders determine they should get out of the weeds and rent their very own Sheryl Sandberg.
Becoming a member of the founding group in such a senior position could be a tough dynamic to navigate. You’re the third wheel becoming a member of two or extra individuals who know one another very well already.
Most individuals get into startup operations or ‘ops’ in one in every of two methods. Some work their method up the person contributor route: the ops supervisor to go of ops to COO pathway. Fairly just a few leap ship from a company straight right into a senior ops position at a startup, because the skilled expertise you get from company coaching are typically value-add in a start-up atmosphere.
“Sadly, it’s typically infeasible for an exec to supersede the founder — even after they’re a root reason for the underperformance.”
Whether or not promoted up from a person contributor or employed from the skin as a non-cofounder COO, the ability dynamic is closely weighted in favour of the founders. As one COO informed me: “Sadly, it’s typically infeasible for an exec to supersede the founder — even after they’re a root reason for the underperformance.”
Examine even a small variety of COO roles to one another and there’s such divergence in areas of accountability and possession that it’s virtually not possible to come back to a single definition. As second-in-command to the CEO, the COO picks up whatever is needed, serving to the CEO cowl areas that they and another cofounders don’t have the capability or the ability set to ship on.
COOs want the complete help of the CEO to succeed
Because the incoming COO, you’re anticipated to take accountability like a founder — and to resolve issues like a founder.
Earlier than you’ve had an opportunity to optimise what’s already there, you tackle accountability for making the enterprise run easily. That may look similar to what’s anticipated of a founder: working late to get it executed, responding to conditions out of hours, and getting artistic to resolve issues for patrons — even when it means being the one taking the complaints or hiring a van to drive one thing to somebody in an emergency. So you’ll be able to’t assist however really feel the loyalty and emotional funding of a founder too.
However the effectiveness of a COO might be hampered by CEOs who take pleasure in quite a few unhelpful behaviours. Whether or not it’s selectively withholding data that will affect operational determination making, agreeing on one factor and doing one other, reversing choices already made and communicated to the group, and even berating COOs publicly for choices taken with out full context. These behaviours go away COOs feeling pissed off and undermined.
One COO good friend stated lately of leaving a latest position: “The CEO discovered it very exhausting to let go and would take conferences with out me to maneuver ahead an agenda that was completely different to the one we had agreed in a number of planning conferences.”
One other COO I spoke to was anticipated to regulate prices and ship outcomes, however with none visibility of the monetary mannequin or runway, because the CEO stored tight management of each of these issues.
The best way to get it proper
So how can firms get essentially the most out of COOs, make them really feel valued and empower them to do their greatest work? Right here’s what firms can do to get it proper.
From the place I’m sitting, the factor that makes folks go the additional mile and ship outcomes for the corporate is how they’re revered, trusted and backed up by the CEO and different founders.
I requested real-world COOs, “In an ideal world, what might your final CEO have executed that will have empowered you?”, and listed here are their solutions to that query:
- Clear boundaries between my work and theirs. Not treading on every others’ toes, and splitting obligations based mostly on strengths.
- I believe CEOs and COOs want a shared imaginative and prescient for the organisation. Be clear on targets and expectations. Keep away from setting objectives that nobody on this planet might have achieved. Make clear expectations moderately than making me guess.
- Guarantee senior leaders are aligned on objectives and expectations, and make investments time staying in sync (no less than as a lot as you spend with extra junior hires).
- Equity — embrace me across the desk that different senior leaders are at, or give me a board seat if all the opposite leaders have one (significantly if I’m the one non-white man). Pay me equally.
- Allow COOs to construct their very own relationships with the board/traders/advisors, moderately than feeling like these must be 100% owned by the CEO.
- Thought-about operations as one of many key capabilities and a strategic companion of the corporate as a substitute of a “filler/again workplace position.” Executed the position themselves for a bit so they’d have had some appreciation and empathy.
- Enabled the COO to construct their very own relationships with the board/traders/advisors, moderately than feeling like these must be 100% owned by the CEO.
- Being open to outdoors views, and listened to me. Have critically thought of my enter.
- Invested in my private improvement. Focus on my profession/improvement/position evolution in a significant method. Supplied suggestions. Had common communication channels for suggestions and help.
- Listened to private suggestions.
- Not bullying publicly or privately. Not criticising group members publicly.
- Not overridden my choices behind my again.
- Enabled me to rent key roles as we scaled (head of individuals, workplace supervisor).
- Let me do the job I used to be employed to do. Belief that although I won’t be an business skilled, I nonetheless know what I’m doing. Belief me to do my job.
Information flash: a lot of this similar studying applies to each human in all places. All of us wish to be revered, handled pretty and trusted with data in order that we are able to do job.
After all, non-founder COOs do have that one key benefit over their founder friends, which is that they can stroll away. They will swap firms; commerce up roles; begin their very own factor; or go away tech solely to change into a vegan chef if they need. They will stroll. That is the chance that CEOs might do extra to grasp and settle for. Undervalue your COO and so they could very nicely stroll away.
Kelsey Traher is COO at Marvel