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The Unsung Hero: Your Chief Operating Officer

Our business and popular culture celebrates entrepreneurs who launch new businesses for their vision and daring – and rightly so. Innovation has been a cornerstone of this country since its founding.

However, as someone who partners with CEOs of middle market and emerging growth companies to recruit top talent to help propel their businesses, I feel not enough attention is given to the individual who integrates the founder’s vision into an actionable plan for success.

I’m referring to the Chief Operating Officer, a critical role that is often misunderstood. When people think about the leadership team in an organization, they will usually envision the CEO/president/founder, the CFO or controller, and the head of marketing/sales – often overlooking the COO entirely.

CEOs are top-of-mind because they attract attention and embody the vision of the organization. They are the face of the venture in the community, focused on big accounts and recruiting key people to support the company’s vision. What they don’t like to do, or aren’t as good at, are the day-to-day operations that are key to business success. They do not usually enjoy getting immersed in the details and prefer to think about strategy and the big picture. When it comes to daily activities for operations, managing cash, ensuring employee engagement on a regular basis, meeting expectations and goals, CEOs should rely on a COO to make things happen.

As a rule, COOs tend to be more introverted, drawing their satisfaction from getting the job done. They generally don’t need public acknowledgement. They don’t seek the limelight; their reward is success. And, contrary to popular belief, they often don’t aspire to be CEOs. The most effective function for COOs in smaller to middle markets is the second-in-command role and running internal affairs.

Almost by definition, COOs are very precise. But they also are collaborative, have opinions and like to express their point of view as constructive input. In short, it’s a more nuanced and complex role than even I’d appreciated earlier in my executive search career. Here are a few things I’d ask Eph founders to consider:

  1. If you are spending more than 25% of your time working in the business instead of on the business, you should strongly consider hiring a COO to run your day-to-day operations. When you are caught up in running the details of the enterprise, then you are not using your time and talents to help it grow. The time you are spending on running details is draining you of the energy and excitement that you get from working on the business. Your employees sense your lack of satisfaction and it interferes with the overall vision you established.
  2. Similarly, if – like many startups – your team is primarily made up of innovators or creators, a COO can make their work better, too. While it’s great to have people who can come up with ideas, you need someone in-house to make these ideas a reality.
  3. Once they are in the role, COOs usually work hard to take as much as they can off the CEO’s plate. COOs need to be relentless about doing this so that the CEO can focus on business success.
  4. Sometimes CEOs are reluctant to hand something off. COOs need to know that it’s a process to get CEOs to delegate, so it’s imperative that they always ask for more than what the CEO assigns, and look for ways to make the business run more smoothly.
  5. COOs need to have a meeting with their CEOs at least once each week, during which the COO leads a discussion about key aspects of the operation, such as identifying the goals for the week, examining upcoming projects and challenges, and identifying, discussing and solving issues.

Thankfully, most CEOs with whom I’ve worked understand that COOs make their businesses infinitely better by helping them to run more smoothly. Likewise, the feedback I’ve received from COOs over the years demonstrates to me how passionate they are about what they do and how committed they are to seeing their organizations succeed.

Adam Kaplan ’95 is a Retained Search Consultant and Founder of Kaplan Executive Search, located in Southfield, Michigan. He can be reached at adam@kaplanexec.com. A version of this article originally appeared on the company’s blog.

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