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The art of operations

by Colleen Killen-Roberts

Divisional Vice President of Entrepreneurship

The COO seat: Being a No. 1 second banana

As they enter second stage, leaders of growth companies realize they can’t do it all. They need an operations professional who can keep the home fires burning so the CEO can focus on making deals, building relationships and slaying dragons.

Like all partnerships, the relationship between a CEO and chief operating officer (COO) is a complicated one. There is no standard recipe for success here, and the role of the operations executive tends to vary greatly from company to company. Yet I do believe there are guidelines as to what makes a successful second banana — and ultimately, a dynamic duo. Here are some key takeaways from my experience:

Operational DNA — In terms of skill sets, I believe a COO is someone who values structure and is comfortable holding people accountable. Perhaps most important is having strong communications skills and the ability to create something from nothing.

Know thyself — Both the CEO and COO need to be clear on what they bring to the table. Ideally they should have complementary strengths, weaknesses and temperaments. For example, if both want to be front and center, a lot of momentum is lost. More often than not, the COO is a natural supporter and encourager of his or her leader while the CEO is the visionary and strategist. This combination of talent works well.

“Make it happen” — Those three words pretty much sum up a COO’s job description. Your objective is to make the CEO’s vision a reality. What you do best is executing the business plan.

Drinking the Kool-aid — In most second-stage companies, the CEO is the one who started the business. It was their dream, and they’ve taken the risk. So when the COO comes on board, he or she needs to realize it’s not about them. They are the executor of the strategy, not the creator of it. (Albeit the COO may be a contributor and help articulate it.) More important, the operations executive must buy into the CEO’s big-picture thinking. Granted, you may be committed for different reasons. But if you can’t genuinely believe in their vision, then you’re not in the right job and should move on.

Be prepared to be the bad cop — The COO role is sometimes unpopular because many employees resist structure, rules and accountability. COOs have a different perspective than CEOs and are able to see what’s working, what’s not and what needs to be changed. Implementing those changes often requires difficult conversations and confrontations, which is not a lot of fun. But given experience, these situations can be handled with kindness and humility.

 Culture champion —  On the brighter side, the COO plays a major role in company culture, something the CEO doesn’t really have time for. This is an area I particular love because relationships are incredibly important to me. Skilled operations executives are able to create an environment that everyone in the organization wants to be part of. It’s not just about getting the work done, but connecting in a way so it’s more fun getting the work done together.

Be clear on boundaries — Usually the CEO manages what happens outside the walls of business, while the COO manages what happens inside those walls. This inside-outside relationship usually works well as long as you each know where boundary lines are drawn and respect the other’s areas of expertise. For example, at a service company I worked for, the CEO was the rainmaker and handled the content part of what we did, along with the deliverables. I stayed out of his lane on anything related to that and managed our resources and growth from a financial perspective. I was also his eyes and ears when he was traveling and kept him connected to the business. Yet I believe there can be some overlap as long as you stay connected.

Empowerment — The CEO needs to be supportive and stand behind the COO. Otherwise, the operations executive doesn’t have the authority to do their job. For example, at one company I worked for, cash flow had gotten tight, and we started to get a lot of phone calls from vendors. I asked the CEO to let me manage the situation. He agreed, but a couple of vendors went to him directly. He told them it wasn’t his area and that they would have to deal with me. This was an important moment in our relationship. Had he caved in and agreed to their requests, it would have undermined my efforts — and made a difficult task impossible.

Relinquishing control can be hard for entrepreneurs. Yet they have to slowly pry their hands off the steering wheel and let the COO take over. Otherwise, the operations executive is just going to be an administrator rather than a problem-solver who can transition the company to the next level.

Trust and respect — Trust is a huge part of this partnership. But it’s something the COO need to earn over time with their actions, so the CEO knows you’re in it for all the right reasons.

From my experience, the CEO-COO relationship is mutually fulfilling. The visionaries don’t often have the temperament or processes to hold people accountable. And an operations person, someone who is a good soldier, may not reach as high as they can without a visionary pushing them to think bigger. When you have the right formula, everyone wins — including the organization.

(Published Feb. 4, 2019)