Scale-Up Board Spotlight: THE COO
In the second instalment of our series focusing on each of the key scale-up leadership roles, we take a more detailed look at the role of the Chief Operations Officer (COO).
When a start-up begins to scale, one of the most common additions to the leadership team is the appointment of a COO. With business growth dependent on the ability to execute, it stands to reason that ventures at this stage find they need to bring in someone whose focus is on operational delivery. However, the role of COO can be difficult to define and even harder to fill.
For founder CEOs who find themselves increasingly stretched as their business scales, appointing a COO as a “number two” to whom they can delegate a range of responsibilities may seem like the ideal solution. COOs often act as the right hand of the CEO but, to have a real impact, they need to be brought in with a clear remit that aligns with the strategic vision and priorities of the business.
Getting this right means getting the most out a COO hire, as well as being able to attract the right quality of candidate. It is likely that the COO will cover multiple business functions – but definition can be achieved by setting parameters around which areas they will be responsible for, the challenges they will need to address, and how this fits into the overall growth strategy.
In many cases, the main objective of the scale-up COO will be to drive commercialisation and facilitate growth through a combination of the following:
Put in place robust systems and processes
Address challenges in product development and / or project delivery
Build multi-disciplinary teams
Restructuring and organisation change
Manage cultural shift during scale-up phase
Manage stakeholder / customer relationships
Translating the remit into an ideal candidate profile is an equally important step in the hiring process. The required skills and experience will be directly linked to the responsibilities, but some of the most commonly desired qualities include:
Previous COO (or equivalent) experience
Relevant technology / sector experience
Track record of scaling operations, gained within a similar environment
Blend of operational, technical and commercial skills
Change management experience
Experience of leading highly skilled, multi-disciplinary teams
Skilled communicator at all levels
As with any role, having a clear outline of both the remit and the ideal candidate is vital to being able to identify and engage the right people for the position. For COOs, some of the key attraction factors include:
The technology / IP is often key to capturing interest and many COO candidates will have a specialism or expertise in a particular field. If there is a strong alignment between this and the technology focus of the business, the opportunity is likely to be much more attractive. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood of their skills and track record being directly transferable – thus de-risking the hiring process by bringing in someone who is able to have a rapid and profound impact on growth.
The role of the COO, especially in more established companies, can become less challenging once effective and scalable processes have been put in place. When a business reaches this stage, it is not uncommon for the COO to start thinking about their next move and how best they can deploy their skills and experience. For this reason, the scale-up opportunity is often a compelling one – as it represents an environment where an accomplished COO can have a huge influence in driving success.
COOs, particularly those with an entrepreneurial mindset, are often attracted by the opportunity to work with innovative technologies and disrupt a market. These individuals are often willing to take on a degree of risk in joining an entrepreneurial business where their knowledge and experience can have a tangible impact. That said, when considering an opportunity, most will want to conduct thorough due diligence on the technology, strategy and set-up in order to fully understand the risk profile.
The prospect of having equity in a business offers a real chance for COOs to share in the success of the company. This often proves to be a deciding factor for candidates considering a move and is particularly attractive to those coming from larger businesses with fewer chances of obtaining equity in their current role. Indeed, these COOs often express willingness to take a reduction in salary provided there is a robust exit plan in place.
A COO can be many things and, perhaps more than any other leadership position, it is a role that can be tailored to fit the stage, sector and circumstances of the business. That said, it is important to distinguish the COO from a “jack of all trades”. It is a high profile appointment, often the obvious successor to the CEO and, with the right person on board, it is the key to unlocking growth potential.