What a COO does and how to hire one

riding shotgunWhen the CEO  is too busy to manage the production quotas and other operational factors of an organization, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) steps in to fulfill that responsibility. Often known as one of the top executives or the senior vice president in the corporate hierarchy, the COO reigns over the day-to-day activities of an organization, reporting back to the Board of Directors on a regular basis.  So the focus of the COO is on operations management, which means he or she is responsible for the development, design, operation, and improvement of the systems that create and deliver the firm’s products/services.

The basic tasks of a COO:

  1. Marshal limited resources as set out by the CEO  and the board of directors to the most productive uses with the aim of creating maximum value for the company’s stakeholders.
  2. Lead by developing and cascading the organizations strategy/mission statement to the lower ranking staff, and implementing appropriate rewards/recognition and coaching/corrective practices to align personnel with company goals.
  3. Plan by prioritizing customer, employee and organizational requirements
  4. Maintaining and monitoring staffing, levels, Knowledge-Skills-Attributes (KSA), expectations and motivation to fulfill organizational requirements
  5. Drive performance measures for the measurement of an operation’s performance and consideration of efficiency versus effectiveness, often in the form of dashboards convenient for review of high level key indicators.

The role of a COO differs case by case

The COO job description and reporting structure should correspond to the needs of the organization. Discussing what the organization hopes to do in the coming years, what kind of leadership will be necessary to fulfill those goals, and what role the COO is expected  to play in relation to members of the existing senior team will determine a vision for the COO position.

The link with the CEO role is essential. It could come down to:

  • Reducing excessive CEO workload and enabling the CEO to allocate time to major external initiatives
  • Balancing or supplementing the skills of the CEO
  • Building the organization’s capacity to implement a strategic or growth plan
  • Planning for CEO succession

Questions a company should be able to answer before hiring a COO

  • What is the organization hoping to accomplish by hiring a COO?
  • If the position is new, why is it being created? If it is being restructured, what are the reasons for the change?
  • How will the position’s role and responsibilities be defined? Will the position focus on program, administration/operations, all internal matters, or some variation on these models? How might the position change in the years to come?
  • What skills and qualifications are you looking for in a COO? Which of these things are must-haves, and which are negotiable?
  • What, if any, organizational changes are you hoping to make through the COO position? What obstacles exist to making those changes?
  • What will be the COO’s role in any major strategic initiatives the organization is undertaking or planning to undertake?
  • What will be the organizational/reporting structure? Will the COO be second in command to the CEO? Will there dotted-line/matrix relationships, and if so, how will they be handled?
  • What are the dynamics of the current relationships between the staff and the CEO? How will a new person (and, if applicable, a new or restructured position) change these relationships? Is the staff supportive of these changes? How will the dynamics and communication patterns between the CEO and staff need to evolve when the COO is in place? What communication has there been with staff around these changes, and what additional communication is needed?
  • What authority will the COO have? What decisions can the COO make alone, what decisions will be joint between the COO and someone else, and what decisions will be out of the COO’s hands? Whom will the COO supervise?
  • What will be the relationship between the COO and the board?
  • What do members of the leadership team see as the key challenges for the COO? Key success factors?
  • What is expected of the COO on the part of the ED and others? How will the COO’s performance be evaluated? What are the criteria? Who will play a part in the evaluation? Are adequate resources available for the COO to carry out what is expected of him or her?

Questions about the Candidates

  • Does the candidate have the necessary skills, experience, and temperament to be a COO generally? To fit this position in particular? To fit this organization?
  • What resources (network, mentors, etc.) can the candidate and the organization access to fill in any gaps in skills or experience?
  • What is the candidate looking for in a supervisor? How much autonomy does he or she want and/or expect? Does the candidate work best with a hands-on supervisor or one who doesn’t intervene unless asked?
  • Is the candidate interested in becoming an CEO at some point? Could the candidate step in as CEO on an interim basis if necessary? What does the candidate see as his or her timeline in the COO position?
  • Is the candidate comfortable with being second in command (or being on a par with other senior managers, depending on how the position is structured), and doing a large proportion of his or her work behind the scenes?
  • Is the candidate someone the CEO can grow to trust enough to delegate critical organizational priorities to him or her?

Entrepreneur: In some companies, the COO is a figure of power–a coach, a counselor, a master of process engineering, a CEO-in-training. Yet just as often, the COO gets almost no respect; he (or she) is a glorified paper-pusher, someone willing to handle odd jobs that the important executives prefer to avoid. Batman and Robin may be a Dynamic Duo, but it’s a sure bet that Robin sometimes wonders about the resume value of being a perpetual sidekick.

In fact, a good many management experts believe the COO’s real job is to babysit a dysfunctional CEO. “Ninety percent of the COOs I run into,” says one of our subscribers, “are put in place by boards who realize their charismatic, walk-on-water, given-to-flashes-of- brilliance CEO really doesn’t have the skills to run a business.”

This may be a cynical view, but the fact remains that company founders almost never feel that a COO is an essential part of their core management team. And as a latecomer, the COO typically has to carve out a job by taking tasks and authority away from the CEO and from other top executives. Not surprisingly, the COO’s job often ends up as a political battleground.

Still, there are COOs who have quietly helped build great companies, who have become the CEO’s closest confidant and a caring, trusted leader for the rank-and-file.

Sources: Bridgestar, Entrepreneur

For available COO positions take a look at Lintberg.

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