So far I’ve spoken about what a COO is responsible for, but have not said anything about the day-to-day activities that a COO may engage in.
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Note: I am a big believer in outcome-focused thinking. That’s why I started by talking about the outcomes a COO is accountable for. So as for the question of what should a COO spend their time doing, the answer is: whatever allows them to most effectively achieve the necessary outcomes. What those things are very much depends on the particular circumstances of the company and organisation, so there is certainly no universal prescription for what a COO should focus on.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I offer the following as a sample of some typical things that may occupy a COO’s time:
Internal communication. Information is the lifeblood of an organisation. Poor internal information flows lie at the root of many organisational ills: poor morale, lack of alignment, lack of initiative and accountability. A COO needs to go to significant effort to communicate important information and context within the organisation.
Process creation and implementation. If information is the blood, culture is the muscle, and processes form the bones. Process often has a bad name because it is poorly implemented, but good processes provide the scaffolding that allow the organisation to operate effectively. A COO is ultimately accountable for ensuring good process within the organisation. In many cases that means having direct involvement in creating or updating processes, and ensuring they are taken up across the organisation.
Resource allocation. This is where the strategic rubber hits the road. You know what you want to achieve, now how do you allocate your (always limited) resources in a way that maximises your chances of achieving it? This is a complex problems with a lot of constraints, especially given that one of the biggest ingredients in the allocation process is people.
Dealing with emergencies. Shit happens, at a rate proportional to the size of the organisation, and if nobody else is in a position to deal with it on their own, it eventually makes its way to the COO. The variety of things that can happen in an organisation is limited only by the variety of things that can happen in any group of people. Some examples: personal crises, team conflict, sudden resignations, security incidents, and so on.
Organisational design. A good organisational structure (reporting lines, accountabilities, role definitions, divisions of responsibility) becomes quite important to efficient execution relatively early on in an organisation’s life. Although large parts of organisational design can be delegated to functional leads, the responsibility for the overall shape and efficiency of the organisation lies with the COO. Good organisational design is a labour-intensive process that involves making difficult tradeoffs in the context of the company’s strategy and life stage.
Executive recruiting. One of the most powerful things a COO can do is to make sure that the senior leadership of the company consists of a group of people who are appropriately skilled to perform their duties in the context the company finds itself in. Given that the context changes over time, the COO will likely find themselves needing to hire senior outside talent at one point or another. Identifying and wooing quality talent is labour intensive, and cannot fully be delegated.
People management. Amongst all the other duties, it is important for a COO never to forget that they are a manager of people. Senior folks managed by even more senior folks often get a raw deal in terms of management. This, in my view, is a mistake. Every individual in the organisation deserves support and assistance in succeeding and growing their careers. That includes the COO’s direct reports. In this instance it is particularly challenging as the COO has to manage people who have far more expertise in their functional domain than they themselves have.
The above is reflective of my experience working in a B2C marketplace company. Other COOs might have a different mix of responsibilities, especially in cases where there are larger sales or operational aspects to the business. And of course, the divisions of responsibilities between CEO, COO, and People Operations / HR can vary depending on the idiosyncrasies of the organisation.
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