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Best Practices When Hiring a COO


The role of COO is a unique one. On one hand, they tackle the everyday operational side of the business that the CEO can’t. On the other hand, it’s often a title used in succession planning, grooming the individual in question to take on the CEO role one day. So it’s both explicitly tied to the CEO … and explicitly separate. No wonder hiring a COO can be confusing.

But in some ways, the COO is best viewed as a bridge. They bridge the gap between the visionary, big-picture strategy of the CEO and the daily details of actual operations. In many ways, this is an unusual combination of traits.

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Most people naturally prefer either the dreams or the details, and it takes a talented individual to be able to understand and apply both well. For this reason, it makes sense to treat hiring a COO as a key activity in its own right. It’s not just hiring CEO Junior, it requires a solid understanding of what the role entails and how to find the right person for the job.

Understand the role

Do you know why your business needs a COO?

Many people don’t. This is one of the reasons why there are fewer COOs these days, as companies of all sizes slim down their management teams and increasingly hire specialists over generalists. According to a study done by accounting giant EY, half of C-suite executives say that their business would be just as well off if the role went away altogether.

Which isn’t to say that your business doesn’t need a COO! But before hiring one, you need to have comprehensive knowledge of what the role looks like in your particular business. The COO role in the financial sector will look different from the same role in auto manufacturing, or advertising for the health and beauty industry, or onsite childcare services. Additionally, the COO tends to spend more of their time and energy on whatever areas the CEO doesn’t, so each COO’s job will vary depending on the personality and habits of the individual in the role above them.

There are, however, some trends that apply across industries. COOs are increasingly focused on the increased need for greater operational efficiency, on the integration and use of emerging technologies, on managing the ever-expanding amount of internal data businesses produce, and on adapting to the shifting political and economic climate.

If you’ve had a COO before, this will be helpful in understanding the scope and nature of the role as it will exist for your new hire, especially if the CEO will be the same in both cases. In situations in which the CEO will be new as well (as, for example, when the former COO is promoted), this should be taken into account when developing your understanding of the role.

Understanding the needs

Once you have a solid understanding of the role itself, you’re better positioned to ascertain the needs of the role. This will include experience, skills (both hard and soft), personality, and culture fit. Obviously, this will vary quite a bit depending on your industry, company culture, and your CEO/C-suite, but here are some needs you should expect to see:

    • The ability to look at both details and strategy, and explain each clearly to people who are focused primarily on the other.
    • Flexibility and a willingness to adapt to new circumstances.
    • Humility. The fact is that the CEO and individual department heads will get a lot of credit when things go well, and the COO tends to be the center of attention only when something has gone awry.
    • Comfort with complexity. It’s never going to be a straightforward job.
    • Communication skills. This doesn’t just mean the ability to state things clearly. It’s also a sharp understanding of when and how things should be communicated, and to whom.

Assessing candidates based on those needs

This is where hiring practices in general tend to align with hiring practices for COOs in particular. Traits such as flexibility and comfort with complexity and ambiguity can be uncovered in high-quality personality assessments, interviews, and reference checks. Skills like the ability to grasp both strategy and operational details and communicate them can be tested with simulations and test assignments. Compatibility with the rest of the C-suite is explored through a comprehensive interview process.

While you may need to search more broadly and vet candidates more thoroughly when looking for your next COO than you would for a lower-level manager, the principles behind these best practices themselves don’t change.

Work with the best

You may be the very best person to recruit and identify your next COO. But if you need help, you should choose someone with a track record of finding people who are thoroughly suited to their roles, both C-level and otherwise. If you’re looking for the folks with this kind of background, you’ve come to the right place. Schedule your consultation to learn more.

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