Defining a COO — it’s surprisingly tricky

So you’ve found yourself as a COO in a start up and no one seems to be able to tell you what you should be doing? UpDownLeftRight’s Chief Operating Officer Richard Craig sheds some light on his own experiences…

A CEO, CTO and COO walk into the pub, the barman says ‘tough week?’, the CEO replies; ‘Pretty much, I had to send our pitch deck out to some investors and answer a few questions’, the CTO chips in with ‘ Yeah I had to build the marketing website, it’s something I’ve done a hundred times but it always takes up loads of time.

The COO finally gets to tell his story ‘Well, I’ve been dealing with our manufacturing partners, reconciling our books, I’ve had to make sure the creative are stocked up with post it notes, I’ve been working on our sales strategy with our sales guys, taught our research department how to write a concise effective report, been in discussions with our lawyers concerning 3rd party contracts, tweaked our 18 month financial model, written up all the staffs 121’s and now it looks like I have to buy these two a drink as well..’

So the core proposition of your company has been defined; you’ve hired some clever chaps and chapesses to deal with your design, engineering and software requirements and then unleashed them with a stack of post it notes to make the magic happen. Your CEO is already out and about looking for more cash. Everybody else has a job title which pretty much explain what they do; head of user insight, chief technology officer, you introduce yourself as the new COO.

Your new team ask you; ‘So what do you do?’

This question might, as it did me, incite a small amount of panic in you because there isn’t really a clear definition on what your role is. Sure the internet is full of dictionary definitions:

The COO is responsible for the daily operation of the company and routinely reports to the highest ranking executive, usually the chief executive officer.

But that doesn’t actually tell you WHAT you’re meant to do every day.

Which is why I went with the Urban Dictionary definition: COO — a shortened, lazy version of cool.

Equally unhelpful, but at least it’s funny..

If you spend a bit of time researching what the role should be you’ll find that there really isn’t an actual job spec that fits all situations, the closest is that the role of the COO is defined by their relationship to the CEO and the business needs at the time.

There is a great article in the Harvard Business Review which explains why it’s so difficult to pin down what the COO does, as well as describing the 7 types of COO that they found in big business: The Executor, The Change Agent, The Mentor, The Other Half, The Partner, The Heir Apparent and The MVP

But I would say that if you’re working in a start up you’re likely to find yourself falling into The 8th COO definition — The Jack of All Trades.

When I started my role I found myself as the only person on the team without a ‘hard’ skill; I can’t draw, I don’t know how to code and I certainly don’t have any idea about electrical engineering.

In order to quell the fear that you might be ‘found out’ and then fired for not having a definable skill I found that it’s important to remember that a huge part of running a successful business is in the infrastructure and support those people who are making your product need so that they can concentrate on the areas that they excel in.

Also the actual use of Excel will seem like dark magic to them, which you can use to distract and amaze as needed.

Problems will always arise that fall outside of the clearly defined roles that other people have and as the COO I’ve found it’s my job to take ownership of them and locate solutions to those problems that may or may not have an obvious solution. And these problems can be big or small; from we need some plates for the kitchen to what happens when we open an office in the USA?

So given that there is no clear definition of what the role is and what duties will fall in your remit what is the key skill you need to excel?

If I had to pick one skill it would be organisation. As COO you’re the most likely to have work falling in multiple unrelated work streams as well as need to keep on top of what everybody else is doing in the company so you can be informed when you are making choices which will impact the business as well as organising your teams time when you need support.

Learn to love a list, an excel spread sheet and the militant use of your calendar.

So now you know that there isn’t really a job spec for the role that you’ve found yourself in. Congratulations!

You’ve now got the freedom to make the role your own, to fit into one of the 7 definitions or maybe you’ll take the 8th definition and be a Jack of All Trades like me or maybe there’s a 9th definition waiting for you to make it.

But whatever you choose I think you’ve fallen into the dream job and just remember no matter what happens, these immortal words of Douglas Adams..

‘Don’t Panic’

Post written by Richard Craig, COO of UpDownLeftRight.