Becoming a COO – how to set the operational direction

by | Mar 2

11 min read

Depending on the specific territory in which you reside, the head operational role of a firm is either labelled the chief operating officer (COO), or the vice president of operations (VPO). Here’s why taking on this position means you’ll play a critical part in your organisation’s future performance.

Path to the role
The best COOs appear to hone their skills in business, finance or law. Some start off by managing a small team within a bigger firm; and then secure a promotion as a result of their attention, time and commitment to this smaller team’s success.

An important note to those venturing down this route, is that successful COOs tend to be strong on analytical and problem-solving skills. They have no issue with routing out strategic problems in a straightforward manner, and going on to solve these by means of a barrage of unique and innovative solutions.

After completing the bachelor’s degree of your choice, embarking on a Masters in Business Administration (or MBA) is a wise decision – many employers will seek out this specialised business qualification on your CV, as well as what you focused on in your final MBA paper.

While the path through studies and work experience may differ extensively from one COO to the next, it takes an average of eight to 10 years to work your way up the career ladder – through middle management and possibly a senior executive position – until you’re generally deemed fit to settle yourself in the role’s corner suite and take on a COO’s many and varied responsibilities.

Day in the life
In you can grasp what your company CEO and CFO would like to achieve, can convert this into a simple yet effective strategy, and then configure the gist of it so that your team members are able to carry out the tasks that will help the firm achieve its goals – this is the job for you.

The experts at Western Governors University (WGU), an online organisation that helps you gain a career-focused degree at a rapid pace, lists these 10 typical activities that a COO will carry out during the course of a typical working day:

• Draw up a number of strategic goals that need to be reached;
• Evaluate the value of any new and incoming business opportunities;
• Look over and analyse financial reports, together with the company CFO;
• Deal with and attempt to solve any customer service-related bugbears;
• Guide more junior staff members through their production- and logistics-related tasks;
• Meet with staff members at all levels to iron out obstacles and discuss operational progress;
• Attend board meetings, with a view to sharing high-level operational matters level with other senior executives and the company’s shareholders;
• Develop sensible management policies and go on to implement these within the business;
• Maintain cordial relationships with colleagues at all levels, as well as the company stakeholders;
• Report to the CEO on a daily basis, regarding the most critical of the matters mentioned above.

While the bullets above reveal a role that is extremely demanding, it is also a highly rewarding role that is able to impact strongly on an organisation’s overall prosperity.

Critical personality traits
According to the Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC), an invitation-only organisation that brings together that world’s most successful young entrepreneurs, hiring a COO takes a huge amount of consideration, discussion and insight.

The reason it is so daunting, they write in the piece “The Must-Have Traits Of A Great COO”, is that this individual must act as a bridge between a firm’s executive team and its other employees, while building and executing company strategy at the CEO’s right hand. He or she also needs to be good at evaluating costs and limiting expenditure, in partnership with the CFO.

During the hiring process, it can help to compile a list of important characteristics of the individual, which are expanded on in the article mentioned above. So ask yourself:

• Does the individual have a history of carrying out their work with a high degree of honesty and integrity?
• Can they balance out a visionary tendency with practical, actionable steps?
• Will they be able to create workable systems that improve a firm’s overall operational ability?
• Do his or her best qualities complement those of the CEO and the CFO, filling in around any of their business deficiencies?
• Will he or she put aside any personal agendas with a view to acting in the organisation’s best interests and with its key priorities in mind?
• Over and above their academic qualifications, does this person have experience in growing a successful business?
• Do they communicate well, and offer energetic business solutions at the interview stage that you and the other executives simply can’t wait to implement?
• And, lastly, are they able to cut through any small niggles to focus accurately on the bigger picture?

If you answered yes to at least six of the above questions, you have a COO winner in front of you – who is sure to boost staff morale and enhance the company’s bottom line with increasingly productive operational systems.

Reading up about the role
There’s nothing better you can do to expand your knowledge of the COO job than browsing the business aisles of your nearest bookshop. A helpful list of the top five books to add to the pile next to your bed and to dip into from time to time, include:


• Jennifer Geary’s How To Be A Chief Operating Officer: 16 Disciplines For Success (Self-Published);
• Stephen Covey’s The Speed Of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (Simon & Schuster);
• Verne’s Harnish’s Scaling Up: How A Few Companies Make It And The Rest Don’t (Gazelles, Inc);
• Nathan Bennett & Stephen Miles’ Riding Shotgun: The Role Of COO (Stanford University Press);
• Gino Wickman’s Decide! The One Common Denominator Of All Great Leaders (EOS).

A shifting landscape
If you were in dispute over a COO needing to be able to communicate well with staff at all levels (as mentioned in “Critical personality traits”, above), the way in which the role is likely to change over the next 10 years should make the importance of this characteristic abundantly clear.

According to Liz Parnell, COO at Rackspace Technology, we are sure to witness the role morphing into that of an “empathy officer”, who is tasked with taking the lead to advocate for various matters (say, working in-office, at home, or a combo thereof) on behalf of their employees. The COO will also need to break down various silos in a business, so as to streamline its ultimate performance.

On the other hand, Abigail Vaughan, COO of HR and payroll specialist Zellis, believes that the position grows – at times – out of a need to correct something. Once an organisation has reached a particular point of smooth sailing, the necessity of the job function could in fact be “kept under review”.

A third opinion is offered by Simon Nolan, COO of executive search firm Page Executive. His take is that the chief executive officer will remain critical to “delivering on behalf of the customer and driving success” – and should not pivot around company size, which industry it forms a part of, or its particular commercial strivings.

What’s key, he says, in these times of unrelenting change, is that the individual remains adaptable and implements the technology and infrastructure necessary to support the firm’s demands – as and when these may shift.

What’s clear is that the COO of the future will be required to harness his or her “intuition and emotional intelligence” in this wide-ranging and multi-dimensional role. Getting the balance right between taking a highly collaborative approach towards getting things done, while communicating the need for systems to change suddenly – and incrementally – takes a rare type of individual.

Executive coaching for the win
If you’re already stationed in a COO role, but are experiencing an area of the position that needs some work, booking a series of sessions with an executive coach could stand you in good stead.

A glance at the Forbes article “6 Ways An Executive Coach Can Make You More Successful” reveals these key benefits to executive coaching:

• You’ll gain a clearer picture of yourself, which studies have shown correlates well with better effectiveness in the workplace – translating into increased profitability for the company at which you work;
• You’ll assess the abilities of others more accurately, once you’ve been taught how to tap into your greater intuition;
• You’ll move on up by developing various leadership tools, because in a senior role like CFO you can’t just put your head down and work; you actually have to schedule meetings with your team members, hear their feedback and guide them in their goals;
• You’ll elevate the use of your top strengths, because your coach will point these out to you (especially if you are underestimating their value);
• You’ll begin collaborating with different personality types, if various limiting beliefs about people different to yourself were previously holding you back;
• You’ll sharpen your goals, dreams and aspirations, by spending your time with this neutral third party who is intent on sharing innovative methods of approaching problems, fresh ways of operating, and clever nuances that will support you in bettering your performance.

In this space, you’ll be able to take off your senior executive hat and morph into a novice within the area you wish to develop – this will facilitate personal growth as you forge ahead with bravery, commitment and curiosity.

Last thoughts
How do you know that the COO role is for you? A McKinsey Paper “Stepping Up: What COOs will need to succeed in 2023 and beyond”, reveals that you’ll be a whizz at anticipating change; you’ll collaborate well and bring forth innovative ideas that will help shape the organisation’s direction; you’ll engage with the board by presenting a holistic operational picture; you’ll mentor in-house talent; and you’ll never fall into a comfort zone when it comes to digital transformation.

According to the same paper, 40 percent of leading companies had an individual in the COO role – as of 2022. Further, the financial and energy sectors, globally, are leading the charge in relation to expressing their confidence in the need for such a person – with 48 percent of companies having a COO. If you can handle the heat and move with the punches, this role is potentially the most transformative of any within a sizeable organisation.

Fast fact 1: An earnings comparison
• Average COO salary in South Africa = R2 710 023 per annum
• Average global COO salary = US$179 520 (R3 278 089,06 per annum)

Fast fact 2: Most famous global COOs
C-Suite Spotlight has recently published their list of the Top 100 Chief Operating Officers of 2022. While those nominated work in fields as diverse as education, information technology, food and beverage production, healthcare, civil engineering, tourism, and financial services, their goal is synonymous – “to make the company’s vision become a reality”. Click here for the full list, which includes the likes of Tim Cook, formerly of Apple and Sheryl Sandberg, formerly of Facebook.

Fast fact 3: Educational requirements in brief
The experts at GetSmarter, an organisation that offers career-enhancing online certificate courses designed to fit into a busy schedule, suggests you follow a course of studies similar to the below when pursuing a COO position:

• a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), which is a four-year degree with a strong foundation in business and management principles and their application in the real-world workplace;
• a Master of Business Administration (MBA), where the coursework generally focuses on teamwork and managing coworkers, economics and statistical methods — key areas in the COO role;
• then upgrade your skills to enhance the working experience you’ve already gained, with a series of short courses on subjects such as Strategic Leadership, Data Analysis, Digital Marketing, Negotiation Skills, Foundations of Risk Management, Project Management, Power Skills of Team Building, and Digital Transformation: A Practical Strategy.


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