Finding Your Strengths As a COO

Cameron Herold, founder of COO Alliance, on the importance of a great chief operating officer.

I launched the COO Alliance (www.COOAlliance.com) because I recognized the important, impactful role this position plays for the CEO. The COO, when you hire one, will produce a massively powerful and positive impact on your business. COO means chief operating officer, though often it would be the same as a general manager or a vice president for operations, but with a more senior title.

Entrepreneurs build companies, but at some point, they need someone who can run the day-to-day operations for them. It makes sense that sharing the load would lighten the CEO’s burden. He can then afford to take a sick day or get a good night’s sleep. It also allows them to focus their energies on the two or three things at which they excel and are uniquely capable of doing. Entrepreneurs are visionaries, but they often lack the detail orientation to get things done and in the right way.

This relationship provides a yin and yang dynamic. It is a unique form of balance at the very core of the company, a business soul mate for the CEO. When I worked as a COO at 1–800-GOT-JUNK?, I established a weekly meeting with the CEO to keep us in sync. It was akin to a date night not only to keep your finger on the pulse of matters, but also to build the relationship, communication, and trust between you and your COO. And as an Entrepreneur or CEO, you need to understand that these meetings are necessary for your second in command if you want that person on the same page as you. You should keep these meetings no matter what; they are critical. More than any other business relationship as you grow, the CEO-COO relationship is key to your growth because this key person will often take larger operational and strategic projects off your plate. They’ll often end up with entire areas of the company reporting to them so that you can better leverage your time.

It’s important for these two people at the heart of a company to understand each other beyond a casual and professional level. Your COO should know intuitively which problems to bring to you and which to resolve without the need of consultation. As CEO, you have a lot to deal with, so the more your second-in-command can do to keep obstructions out of your way, the more you can focus on the bigger issues. Your COO has to read your mind and anticipate things you may not.

That level of trust does not happen without conscious effort, as I’ve heard again and again at the COO Alliance. Most CEOs don’t want to deal with every minute detail of a problem; they want a summary and a resolution. But that requires a communication plan to filter questions and know what needs to be seen and when, what constitutes success, what sorts of empowerment and support are available, conflict-management strategies, and established operating principles that dictate the boundaries of the COO’s decision making.

Before you hire a COO, you need to be honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are and identify the areas of the job you don’t love doing so you can find someone who has strengths in those areas and enjoys those aspects of the business. I read a helpful article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Misunderstood Role of the COO” that addresses precisely this. They discovered seven different types of COOs: outward facing, inward facing, technology focused, sales and marketing focused, operational focused, engineering and product focused, and financial focused. Seven completely different types of COOs, so when you say, “I need a second in command,” it’s kind of like saying, “How high is up?” You need to be clear about the important skills that are not within the scope of your unique abilities. Then find the COO whose unique abilities match with what you need.

For example, if you really hate IT and finance, like I do, then you shouldn’t be doing them. If you were hiring a second in command for my company, you would be looking for someone who loved those two functions. That would, if nothing else, allow you to push those items off your plate to someone who relishes them.

Suppose that you’re not a very detail-oriented person. Then you want someone who can get down in the weeds and monitor the metrics while you take more of a bird’s-eye view of matters. Or maybe you have a strong vision of where the company should go, but you are terrible at starting projects. In that case, find a COO with a great deal of initiative, who can get the ball rolling while you concentrate on growing the business.

That said, more often than not the people I talk to who think about hiring a second in command don’t even have an executive assistant yet. First things first: hire your executive assistant. After that, you should have about six months before you need a second in command. Be careful when you do that you don’t give the person a title that is beyond them. Unless that person really is a COO, you end up paying a lot more than you should, the person gets an inflated sense of importance, or they’re trying to fill a role that requires much more seniority.

Consider starting with a title of general manager, which could lead to a director or vice president of operations title. The COO title is appropriate when your company gets to about 100 employees.


Some sections of this piece originally appeared on the EO Entrepreneurs Organization Blog.