On Being a First-Time Small Business COO

Many small companies grow to the size where the owner can no longer run the business entirely by him or herself. In some cases, the owner never realizes that the business is beyond a single executive/manager and the consequences are dire. In others, the owner is cognizant of the need and recruits an experienced COO, or perhaps promotes from within.

In the latter case we have a newly minted COO (or VP Operations, or some other title) who has been with the business for a while and knows it well but is now asked to take on an executive role for which they might not have a great deal of experience.If you are in the latter category, here are four recommendations to help you succeed.

Know the Owner’s Mind: It is crucial in your new role to understand how the owner thinks about the business and what their expectations are for you. The real challenge to the new COO is to become the crucial link between strategy and execution and in order to do so you must understand both. Frequent well-planned meetings are a must. Some of the meetings should focus on strategic subjects and others on operational detail.

If you have been working at the business in a different capacity, then you should be able to leverage your knowledge, but do not presume to understand the owner’s thinking without serious, ongoing discussions.

Know the Business/Financial Model: Understanding the Business/Financial model comes down to a simple concept: do you know how the company makes money? Actually uncovering the model may not be so simple. First, you must understand what your product or service is and why the client buys. In other words, how does the company create value for the client? Second you must have an intimate knowledge of the business processes that create that value. Finally, you must understand how the business process affects business finance, in particular cash flow.

Even if you have been working at the company for an extended period of time, as a new COO you must gain process knowledge. Review any documentation, if it exists. As is often the case with small business, documentation will not exist, so work quickly to document basic processes as soon as possible. In addition, study the company’s financial statements so that you will understand how the financial model is affected by business process.

Set Up Feedback Loops: Once you know the crucial information that you need to understand operations and finance, set up feedback loops that will continuously provide you with the information that you need. In addition to information from operations and finance, the third feedback loop that you will want to establish early on is one that reports to you on what is happening in the marketplace. You need to know how the current economic environment is affecting the business, as well as what your competition is up to.

Find a Mentor: If you are new to the COO role, particularly in a small business, finding a more experienced person to mentor you will help you establish yourself in your role. Use your business contacts and network to find someone with sufficient experience to guide you as you grow into the role. Even if you don’t currently know a COO, you would be surprised how many of them would be willing to serve as a mentor. Work at finding someone with whom you can communicate well and who is willing to work with you on a regular basis.

If you find yourself in the position of being a new COO in a small business, you have exciting times ahead of you, so step up to your new reality with enthusiasm. Welcome to the world of the COO!

What is the Role of the COO?

Recently, I came across an article (see the reference below) that supports the idea that in general, the role of the COO is misunderstood. The authors of the article contend that the role of the COO depended largely on the CEO and posited 7 different potential roles for a COO (or any operating executive) depending on the CEO and his skills, abilities and personality.

I found this interesting, as a colleague had posited a different idea, that the Role of the COO was dependent on the nature of the business and in particular, on the ultimate responsibility of the COO for the overall operations of the company. The member pointed out that while the COO often had direct reports that were in charge of different aspects of operations, since the COO was ultimately responsible for those operations, that fact would shape the role of the COO.

The basic theory of the article mentioned above is that there are 7 potential roles for the COO:

1. To implement the CEO’s strategy;
2. To lead a particular initiative, such as a turnaround;
3. To mentor a young, inexperienced CEO;
4. To complement the strengths or make up for the weaknesses of the CEO;
5. To provide a partner to the CEO;
6. To test out a possible successor;
7. To stave off the defection of a highly valuable executive, particularly to a rival.

Since the premise of the article is that the role of the COO depends on the CEO, it should not be surprising that that only role 1 and 2 above seem to relate directly to operating a company. The article itself points out that many of the COOs and other operating executives that they interviewed did not always focus on the day to day operations of the company, but often had other significant tasks to pursue.

On the other hand, as my colleague pointed out, the type of business and the operational realities would also seem to weigh heavily on what the COO must undertake in his or her role. The day to day operations of a manufacturer, distributor or service company differ greatly. The size of a company would have a major impact on what a COO is doing on a daily basis. In a smaller company, the COO is more likely to be a, dare I say “hands on” manager than in a larger.

In either case, Bennett and Miles do point out that in their research, the success of the COO depends to an extraordinary degree on how well the CEO and the COO develop a sense of trust, using the metaphor of “having each others back”. The relationship of mutual trust is often difficult to attain for various reasons both internal to the relationship as well as what the authors refer to as “Those seeking to drive wedges” between the two.

Personally, I believe that both the authors of this article and my colleague have uncovered different aspects of the COO’s role in the modern corporation. On the one hand, the relationship of trust between the CEO and the COO is vital to the COO’s success, but we cannot minimize the how the nature of the responsibilities of the COO will also color the role to a great extent. We will look at both aspects of the COO’s role in future postings.

In the meantime, I would be very interested to hear from the COO’s and other Operating Executives in the audience: what is your experience in your role as Chief Operating Officer?

Second in Command, The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer, Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles, Harvard Business Review, May 2006.