The COO role, more than most positions at a startup, appears ambiguous to many people. That’s partly because the role changes depending on a company’s size, industry, stage, CEO, and many other factors.
My friend Emma says, and I agree, that the COO is like the CPO, but the product is the company. The COO should be working constantly to create an exceptional team that operates at a world-class level. How does the COO do that? I tried to put some clarity around it below.
The COO ensures the processes and systems ladder up to mission, vision and values. The COO is uniquely responsible for this. When she advocates for a decision or process that is inconsistent with the mission, vision or values that the company holds, it sends a clear message that those frameworks are not important. Similarly, when the COO does not actively use those frameworks to help make decisions, she is missing an opportunity to help others learn their importance.
Don Faul shared with me a concept he learned from General Stan McCrystal: “Shared consciousness”. This is the notion that if you articulate a clear strategy, hire exceptionally driven people and ensure they have the context they need to make great decisions, they can operate with relative autonomy and you can move incredibly quickly. This shared consciousness starts with the CEO, but the COO plays a critical role in its amplification by ensuring every person on the team has the information they need to make great choices, which ultimately traces back to the mission, vision and values.
The COO helps the CEO be more effective. I believe a CEO should have a narrow set of responsibilities. When I was CEO I believed my role was to 1) set/communicate the vision, 2) attract & retain talent, 3) make sure we didn’t run out of money. The CEO without a similar framework often gets pulled into tasks, or pushes themselves into tasks that should be run by others (most commonly product management). This is disempowering for teammates, makes it harder to scale, ensures burnout for the CEO and prevents them from focusing on the more narrow set of tasks the company requires of them. To help the CEO be more effective, the COO conceptualizes and builds the proper organizational design, behavior (i.e. processes & culture) and team. Sometimes the COO also helps the CEO get to clarity on a more narrow set of responsibilities, after which they can help identify what needs to change organizationally to ensure the CEO can remain focused on those activities.
A CEO’s greatest leverage point is perhaps the executive team, and the COO ensures it operates effectively. This could be something that’s led by the CEO, but COOs often need to step into this role.
A great COO understands the importance of inputs and the role that system design has in creating those inputs. System design includes influencing the culture, processes and structure of the company in order to achieve the company’s goals. That could be filling a gap and solving a challenge, or it could be pursuing an opportunity. For example, attracting and retaining talent is vital to the future of a typical startup. The COO should help to build a scalable and repeatable machine for attracting and cultivating talent. The COO knows this begins with organizational structure design and definition (which is likely to change every 6-18 months depending upon growth). The COO also works to create hiring funnels that are metrics-driven, an evaluation process that helps to limit bias and focus on shared hiring traits, and an onboarding process to ensure successful closure of the candidate and onboarding to the team. All of this should be executed without key person risk, meaning there is no reliance on a single person for success. If there is a single point of failure, you can be confident that the (hiring) machine won’t scale. A great COO works to build similar systems for all key aspects of the business including retaining talent, setting/evangelizing the vision, cross-team communication, goal setting, etc. etc.
The COO helps to create and leverage a dashboard. The COO works with the head of finance, and other teammates, to ensure the company has a clear understanding of its key business drivers and can monitor those drivers through a dashboard. Some companies have longer feedback loops (i.e. a b2b sale cycle), but there are still metrics along the way to understand the health of the business. This requires an understanding of the business, the ability to build a structure that collects key metrics (and displays them in impactful ways), and the ability to create a culture that respects those performance metrics.
Beyond a dashboard, the COO must build high trust across the organization so that they can keep a pulse on how things are going on behalf of the CEO. They can then use this knowledge to inform how systems and processes must be tweaked as the organization evolves.
The COO helps to create/maintain a culture of transparency and accountability. The COO embodies these traits by delivering clear performance goals (often through OKRs) and by holding themselves, and teammates, responsible in consistent and transparent ways. COOs must ensure that any cross-team dependencies have been signed off; that OKRs are focused in number and scope; that difficult prioritization decisions have been made (likely resulting in some projects being cut); and that there is transparency in the process. The COO holds themselves and their teammates accountable and encourages ownership during that process. Accountability and ownership become even more important as the company scales and its founders are no longer part of every conversation.
The COO is a force for rigorous execution. Great COOs inspire everyone in the organization to move faster, execute better, and maintain a sense of urgency. They set an impeccable example and push/inspire others to deliver an exceptionally high level of quality.
Qualities of a Great COO
Trust builder. While trust is neither absolute (yes v. no) or universal (if I trust you to run finance, I don’t need to trust you to do open heart surgery), the organization and especially the CEO should trust the COO. The COO should also trust her teammates. Critically, the COO helps to build trust throughout the organization and identifies where it is lacking (more on trust here). More specifically, the COO should be the standard for follow through and discipline. When the COO says something is going to get done, it gets done. She is the role model for organizational discipline, accountability and follow through. She doesn’t shy away from hard conversations or difficult decisions. In fact, she thrives on them.
Adaptive problem solver. I’ve talked about processes, frameworks and systems here. A lot of great COOs believe in those. I do. There are also great COOs who lean more towards a flexible approach.
For a startup to succeed, you will need to write the roadmap. New solutions must be created, not just for that industry or company but also for that particular team at that particular time. There is an obvious tension between those that lean towards flexibility in their approach and those that believe in process. I think a healthy balance is ideal, and that’s what I strive for.
Great COOs are often utility players who fill gaps for the CEO while helping to proactively think about what the company needs to thrive. I like Keith Rabois’ analogy of an emergency room doctor. The COO must stay clear minded in a chaotic environment while helping others to remain focused on what matters. The COO should recognize that different situations require different approaches: what worked for team cohesion at a b2c company in 2012 may not work for a distributed web3 company today.
Data-led decision-maker. The COO has a thirst for making data-driven decisions and facilitating the use of data throughout the organization. The data the COO cultivates is actionable. She loves identifying the two to three metrics that matter most for a given opportunity, as opposed to creating an exhaustive list of everything trackable. The metrics lead to impactful decisions and not analysis by paralysis.
World-class talent scout. The COO must have a great eye for talent and the ability to attract and retain that talent. She is able to build the processes necessary for the organization overall to attract and retain top tier talent.
Exceptional communicator. I think COOs (probably all execs) must be strong communicators (both written and verbal). They play a critical role in reinforcing the company’s vision while articulating a clear, compelling strategy for their team.
Inspiring leader. Crucially, COOs must be exceptional people/org leaders. They have to set an example for others, inspire the team and be able to identify and develop strong leaders. Frankly, a COO who is unable to run an all-hands and inspire the team isn’t an effective COO. There are lots of characteristics of a great leader—those who interact with the COO should never have cause to question whether she is one.
I like how Elad Gil talks about both the responsibilities of a COO and how to pick a COO. Keith Rabois is an incredible thinker on all things startups and technology, and I liked his take on the COO role.
Thank you to Don Faul, Emma Stubbs, Ravi Gupta, and Rory Eakin for editing this post and for making it much better. I’ve learned a lot about being a COO from each of you.