Sunday 21 July 2019

Hiring the right COO could give you back 50pc of your time

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook
Sheryl Sandberg, billionaire and chief operating officer of Facebook

Dylan Collins

When it comes to discussion about roles, the chief operating officer (COO) tends to come in a distant third. Most writing and media reporting tends to focus on the CEO or the CTO (you can see the technology bias of my reading habits).

It's possible that even the chairman and investors get good coverage. And then, somewhere in the distance, is the COO.

The COO is a near-mythical beast. It's a role which is very under-appreciated (or certainly under-written about). It arguably has much more complexity than a CEO position.

As the stewards of reality, COOs are usually the first people I seek out in any company. Vision, whether commercial (CEO) or technical (CTO) will always be easier to both talk and write about.

It's a set of positive adjectives set in the comfortable future with infinite money, resources and attention.

The COO, however, lives in the present where you're dealing with legacy debt (sometimes both technical and financial), imperfect teams, unrealistic timelines and half-optimised products.

So you can see why COOs are probably kept away from media in the first place.

To be clear though, this isn't a case of "the COO is right, the CEO is tripping balls". Startups, by definition, are selling something not yet built. That requires someone who can drag the future into the present tense. A good CEO needs to be capable of time-travel. A good COO needs to operate within actual laws of physics and stay firmly anchored in the present.

Over the years I've probably learned more from the COOs I've worked with than anyone else. Watching them join a company, evaluate and start making changes is a pretty breathtaking exercise.

The very best can sometimes give you back 50pc of your time.

Possibly because of the above, the COO position remains the hardest role to hire. At any stage of a company, it's almost the first position I start thinking about, even if the lead time is probably measured in years. Part of the challenge is the broad remit. This can include all of finance, HR, process, reporting and legal. So it opens up quite a range of character types. For example:

(i) The former-CFO COO: CFOs often either inherit the COO position or get promoted because of the volume of financial process in the company.

(ii) The former-project manager/ops director COO: project managers tend to have the core juggling skills to be a COO. So this is often a good place to begin interviewing.

(iii) The former-management-consultant COO: this is also a good place to begin your COO search. Management consultants are trained in the dark arts of logic.

(iv) The former-lawyer COO: even though, I've yet to see one in the wild, I can believe that they exist (perhaps having formerly inhabited some sort of 'business affairs role). Again, this is dark matter territory.

The most useful metaphor is a character generation process from your favourite RPG. Basically, background maketh the role, so it's critical that you truly understand the real nature of your business and focus your search accordingly (think 'warrior' versus 'mage' versus 'thief').

If your company has a lot of transactions, think about a CFO or a management consultant background (even if your company isn't in the finance sector). If there's a lot of product customisation and support, think about a project manager background.

If you're an early startup (up to about 20 people), the various COO duties are probably being handled by founders or possibly a combination of early hires. As you go beyond that size, the complexity of your company starts to move from being linear to logarithmic. This is when you'll probably start thinking about the COO role in much more depth.

"But one of our founders already is the COO," you might hear. Well yes: I'm sure they (and you) think they are. And I have seen a small number of natural COOs. But believe me, they've been in the minority. In general, talent isn't enough: you also need what I (elegantly) describe as experience-based experience. My COO interviews tend to involve asking the candidate to recount the various nightmarish company situations they've been in. The good ones can talk about this for hours.

Do good COOs make good CEOs?

Not always. The discipline and ruthless focus on details is sometimes not what you want in a CEO.

Yes, you want your CEO disciplined and ruthlessly focused, but more on communicating the vision and the mission. His or her energy is often more key to the company than many investors can really understand.

The relationship between COO and CEO is always extremely interesting (somewhere between Game of Thrones and House of Cards) but the value proposition remains the same: a good COO is one of the best investments you can make in a company.

@MrDylanCollins is CEO of SuperAwesome and Venture Partner with Hoxton Ventures, an early stage VC fund.

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