“Aik, the toilets are clogged again… I guess that’s operations, right?” – the guy in front of me looks at me awkwardly. He is one of my direct reports in the sales team. We’re in a 70-person, Amsterdam-based, SaaS startup and we’re growing at The Speed it Hurts. Minutes later, I was down on my knees. Ensuring water would flow again. In my mind, I juggled with the various fundraising options we had, to get us through the financial year. I was a startup COO. Hashtag: #startuplife #workhardplayhard…
Defining the role of a Chief Operating Officer (COO)
The relationship between the CEO and the COO
There’s this theory where the founding CEO is in charge of everything and hands over all (or part) of the operations to the COO. Yes! We have it defined, great.
But no we haven’t, because operations depend greatly on the company & industry and the part that gets handed over is fluid at best. The operations of an online marketplace are different from a SaaS business, which is equally different from an online food delivery platform. OK, so let’s say that we have really got it nailed.
But no, we’re still not there. It depends greatly on the personality of the CEO and yeah, of the COO too. And the extent to which you are synergetic. You want to have a complementary team right? Super complementary right?! No.
Because being ‘too synergistic’ means you are very different. Being very different might mean you don’t understand each other, have a different set of values or speak a different language altogether. You might end up killing each other.
It’s really hard to define what the role description of the COO should be. My best guess: do what is needed. Do what the CEO is not capable of doing or not willing to.
I’ve even seen COO’s defining strategy for the CEO, which is the complete opposite of operations as far as I can tell.
Roles & Responsibilities of a Chief Operating Officer
In Riding Shotgun – The Role of the COO, Nathan Bennett & Stephen Miles state this collection of goals, which define the role description of the COO position:
- Provide daily leadership in an operationally intensive business
- Lead a specific strategic imperative undertaken by management, such as a turnaround, major organizational change, or planned rapid expansion
- Serve as a mentor to a young or inexperienced CEO (often a founder)
- Balance or complement the strengths of a CEO
- Teach the business to the heir apparent to the current CEO
- Retain the executive talent that other firms may be pursuing
But hey! Sometimes Sales is your key operation! Think of a SaaS business that has their product nicely in place. You could argue that at a 90% profit margin, a disruptive product and no setup, it’s the marketing and Sales that is truly the operations.
Chief Operations vs. Chief Commercial
There are quite a few shades of grey. However, in order to keep things simple, I’ll focus on two types:
Chief Operating Officer (COO)
The structured, process and project-oriented executor that ensures that strategy gets acted on, in an orderly fashion. That everyone knows what to do and all problems get fixed. Data-driven & analytical person.
On a personality level this person asks: “OK, what’s the next action?” and ensures new ideas get prioritised versus existing projects. I always thought I was this guy, but I’m not.
Chief Commercial Officer (CCO)
The person that leads sales, business development and potentially marketing. Coaches individuals, sets targets, KPI’s (Data-driven & analytical just like the COO), processes and best practices and if he/she wants, outruns all independent sales reps.
On a personality level, this person is curious to listen to the customers as well as aggressive and opportunistic towards growing the company.
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