Think big. Find and reward talent. Earn credibility.
Those are the three hardest-earned lessons I’ve learned after more than two decades of work as a chief operating officer and top leader of several different organizations in various industries.
The COO job comes with a lot of pressure and stress. We must earn the trust of the CEO and the loyalty of team members, all while making sure the company trains run on time. On top of that, the rapid recent changes in technology, the job market, and workplace dynamics mean that COOs now need an unprecedented scope of skills and personality traits.
In my past six years of work here as a COO—the third time I’ve held that job at an organization—I’ve helped lead a dramatic boost in employee engagement and customer satisfaction, even while converting from physical locations around the country to a largely online operation with thousands of employees.
It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile and valuable. The role of COO is a good fit for someone who thrives on daily challenges while keeping an eye on the business horizon and strategizing for the future.
To be an effective operations chief, your COO should be able to:
• Think big. One big lesson from an executive role early in my career was the importance of broadly viewing what the overall business needs, instead of focusing narrowly on the specifics of what I was hired to do. It is so key to understand other parts of the business, even if they aren’t directly relevant to the day-to-day role. This also helps COOs develop a vision for the business, which is actually very different from a plan. In a previous job, I spent a week creating charts and papers as part of a plan for how to approach the job. What I really should have been doing was preparing a vision – a compelling picture of how the organization should be viewed in the world and how it can achieve something bigger and better than what it is. The nuts-and-bolts of everyday execution are always important, but vision and philosophy, conveyed effectively, are what gives work meaning and purpose and aligns the organization for growth.
• Find and reward talent. A top priority for any incoming COO is to identify the strongest people, align them and keep them happy. The best people in a large organization aren’t always in the best spots – an incoming COO must uncover and activate hidden talent. I firmly believe that having a more diverse workforce with different backgrounds and perspectives—and that includes gender, race, personal preference, experiences—makes organizations more effective. I’m also a big believer in AI technology to help take the guesswork and subjectivity out of talent promotion. By monitoring individuals’ performance in real time, COOs can make better decisions on who they should be spending time and money on—a crucial factor in determining an organization’s pace of change and competitiveness.
The modern COO also must build genuine relationships—not just transactional ones—on multiple levels. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone, but it does mean engaging with everyone and making them feel heard, while listening for what is really needed. Caring about your team members’ job satisfaction and their future goals, and constantly thinking about how you can help their career development is a critical piece of being a COO, feeding into higher retention rates, better morale and higher productivity.
• Earn credibility. A bull in a china shop will win attention and possibly fear, but it’s not a sustainable work model. Your new COO should be going for small wins in the initial weeks, which will enable them to learn about the business and the capabilities of its employees. Being in listening mode also allows the new COO to identify the more profound steps needed to change entrenched cultures, and learning a business holistically gives the COO credibility throughout the organization—a valuable asset when it comes time to implement change.