On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Author's photos with the "Finding the right COO" caption
In Conversation with On-Ramps: Finding the right COO

by Yahira Cruz (she/her), Alice Gibbs (she/her), and Harry Weiner (he/him) 

“In conversation with On-Ramps'' is a series that captures discussions we’ve had about the issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers. In this edition, three On-Rampers with focused experience filling chief operations officer (COO) positions discuss what to consider when hiring for this role.


The role of a Chief Operations Officer

Harry: The first thing to recognize is that there is no such thing as a typical COO. It is almost always the “number two position,” either explicitly or de facto, at an organization, but the specific responsibilities and areas of oversight really depend on what the rest of the executive team looks like and what the CEO or executive director's strengths are. I have led searches for very external-facing COO positions, where the role focuses on development and external affairs. More commonly, I've led searches for internal-facing COOs. It really varies too much to make a broad generalization about a COO’s typical purview. 

That being said, more than half of the COO positions I’ve filled oversee HR, facilities, IT, and finance. The COO may have expertise in one or two of those areas, but likely not all of those areas. The common thread is that they’re a strong cross-functional manager and strong coach. 

Yahira: I think the specific structure of each nonprofit organization also impacts what the COO position looks like. In some organizations, the COO won't have any of the verticals that Harry just mentioned reporting to them. Instead, they’ll manage the day-to-today operations. I'm thinking about two specific clients where the operational element was around coordinating educational and professional certifications internationally. 
At those organizations, the COO owns that entire operational process: Everything from customer experience, to implementation, to customer success. The responsibilities of the role are really different from that of a COO at a more traditional nonprofit, where they would own traditional verticals like finance, administration, and HR. 

Alice: I often call the COO the most bespoke type of role for which we lead searches.. A CFO search can certainly have unique nuances, but the job is more consistent from organization to organization. I think with a COO, it really is a “choose your own adventure” role, and it is often designed to complement the existing strengths and fill in the expertise gaps at the organization.

Yahira: I love that you called it “choose your own adventure!” It for sure resonates. For example, sometimes the COO will manage C-Suite peers, in which case they act as sort of a translator, who translates the CEO’s vision into digestible steps for the rest of the C-suite, and then helps execute those steps by supporting the C-Suite, removing roadblocks, and organizing resources. 

Harry: Yes and because COOs are often working directly with the C-suite and their teams, they’re in a position to help keep the CEO grounded in the team.The COO oftentimes will have a much better pulse on what's going on with the rest of the staff internally–the morale level, people's gripes, people’s excitements–than the CEO, who might not have the time or frequent enough contact with folks to have that pulse. 

What to look for in a COO

Yahira: A while ago, Alice and I were working on a COO search and we were sent an article from the Harvard Business Review about the seven different types of COOs. It highlights a lot of the nuance we’re talking about, and it does a good job of identifying the different skill sets that are needed for different types of COOs. It’s also an article I like to share with hiring teams to help them identify the “flavor of COO” they are prioritizing. 

For instance, if the CEO is a visionary and looking for a COO to be their number two, then you want someone who wants to act as a thought partner and sounding board. This is someone who is a true #2 and who likely has past experience working with a visionary-type leader.In this instance you’re looking for a deep strategic thinker who can effectively translate the vision into goals and then translate those goals into day-to-day priorities for the rest of the team. 

Alternatively, if you're looking for a COO to serve as a technical expert, then you want someone with expertise in a certain business and/or operational vertical in the organization’s industry. I'm thinking about a specific search that we did where the client wanted someone who was an e-commerce expert. But that was very specific to that organization. Every COO won’t have—and doesn’t need—e-commerce expertise. It's a really particular function. But, it was an essential qualification for this COO role.

Alice: I agree with all of this and as different as one COO is from the next, a commonality is they are often the connective tissue across an organization. In some ways, they are even more of a culture carrier than a CEO because they're often more involved internally and engaged in the day-to-day. 

Harry: Cross-functional management is definitely another common core competency. A strong COO  does not necessarily have to be a content expert in one particular function, such as finance or talent, but is used to managing the experts that lead different departments or functions. 

Yahira: I think there is a tendency from some founders and CEOs to minimize how much personal match contributes to the success of a COO, one of the things that allows a CEO-COO pair to be successful is having some complementary skill sets and even complementary personalities. 

Assessing whether a candidate has a complementary personality is difficult because you want to assess function and skills. And, of course, we do assess function and skills—but personality is still a critical part of a successful CEO-COO relationship. 

Integrating a COO into your team

Harry: One thing I have seen is that CEOs often underestimate how inserting this layer in between them and people who were formerly reporting directly to them will impact the organization’s dynamics. CEOs often need a COO because they have too many direct reports, so it makes sense that these positions would now report to a COO.

But, there's a lot of trepidation when the CEO announces they're going to bring this person on. People may worry that they’re going to lose access to the CEO or that they won’t like this new person. They may want to have a say in choosing this new COO. So, it’s crucial to have a thought-out internal communication plan in-place and get buy-in at the onset of a search.

One way to get buy-in is to include them not just in the search for a COO, but also in the decision to create a COO position in the first place—letting folks really participate in scoping the role, deciding what the COO is and isn’t going to do, and making sure that people understand that reporting to this new hire doesn't mean they won’t have access to the CEO.

Alice: That's a really good point. I think people often define their own level of seniority by their proximity to the CEO. So, if they go from reporting to the CEO to not reporting to the CEO, they may feel like they’ve been knocked down a level. 

Adding to what Harry said, leaders need to be very intentional, even before the search begins, to provide their team with the "why" because if that doesn't happen people are likely going to push back on the idea that this new role is necessary.

Leaders sometimes take for granted that their team has total visibility into the things that they're struggling with, and where they're short on capacity and need help. So it’s crucial that they take time upfront to give their team the "why" and space to weigh-in on what they're looking for and what they care about. That can really alleviate some of that anxiety from the team.

On the part of the COO, they need to approach their new role with a learning orientation and a lot of humility. They can’t come in assuming they know what’s best and launch right into making sweeping changes without taking the time to listen and learn from the existing team. A successful COO will take a much more collaborative approach and ensure the perspectives of the team are reflected in the decisions they make. 

Yahira: I completely agree. Getting team buy-in is absolutely crucial. In addition, I also think that a successful integration of a COO is also rooted in how well a CEO and a COO complement each other. The CEO-COO match is, frankly, a deeply personal one. And one key element that allows a CEO-COO pair to be successful is having complementary skill sets and even complementary personalities. 

Assessing whether a candidate has a complementary personality is difficult because you want to assess function and skills. And, of course, we do assess function and skills—but personality is still a critical part of a successful CEO-COO relationship. 

Recruiting from the private sector

Alice: With COO positions, hiring managers can be adamant about wanting someone from the private sector. They feel like they need to inject “business acumen” or “a private sector mentality” into their model and bring in skills that don’t currently exist on the team. But it can prove difficult to find someone from the private sector to fill the role when it comes to the mission, values, and culture alignment components. We often find technically strong candidates, but their ability to be the culture carrier internally and drive the mission of the organization is lacking.

Yahira: The emphasis on equity and cultural competency is the biggest differentiating factor between social sector and the private sector COOs. I think that a lot of folks who have spent the majority of their career in the private sector don’t have the same visibility or nuance into, for example, some of the equity conversations that are happening within the social sector. 

Harry: I agree. To build on that, COOs often oversee HR, not as the expert but as the manager of the head of HR. So, a social sector COO needs to be not just supportive of diversity, equity and inclusion, but they need to have a level of cultural competency and fluency in DEI issues, with a big bold underline on equity.  I think the private sector is starting to think about issues like equity, but I’ve seen much more of an emphasis on these issues, for far longer, in the social sector. 

Yahira: Being a credible people leader is super important. I find that that's what makes COO roles the hardest roles to fill. As a COO in the social sector, your orientation can't be sales or the bottom line. Your orientation has to be the mission of the organization and its impact on the communities it serves. 

Getting started

Yahira: Part of the discovery process of figuring out if you need a COO in the first place is having the initial conversation with a search team. It’s okay for clients to come to us with just a skeleton structure of what they need, and then they can work with us to further define that. Clients shouldn't feel like they need to go to a search firm with a fully vetted COO scope and parameters. Clients should come with a thought of what they want and what they need, but we’re here to help and be a partner in thinking it through.

Harry: That’s right. You don’t need a fully baked idea of what you want before you launch the search, and you need to be flexible enough to shape the role once you hire someone based on their strengths.

Yahira: That’s a good point. I do think organizations that are looking to fill a COO role are at a pivotal/unique point in their organizational history. For example, many of the COO searches that I've supported have been for organizations that are scaling. Where they need someone who is not just a strategic executor, but who can also own verticals of work, take work off of the CEO’s plate, and be trusted to act as the second senior most leader of an organization.

Alice: Or there might even be situations where organization’s think they need a COO, but what they actually need is a Chief of Staff or a President role. You have to assess what you really need and ensure you’re scoping the role in a way that’s aligned with the actual needs and expectations. If you’re calling it a COO, but the scope of the job is actually much smaller or larger, that disconnect will come to bear once you start talking to discerning COO-type candidates.  

Harry: Yes, and playing that forward even further, once you're in to the talent market, every role, including a COO, is partly shaped by the person you end up hiring. You can say you want this person to do these ten things, but the person you hire is very strong at eight of those things and not as strong at the other two. 

Closing thoughts

Alice: One of the reasons why I really enjoy leading COO searches, and I often raise my hand to work on them, is that there is something magical in finding a CEO their perfect match. The right COO frees up the CEO to truly focus on the things they (and only they) are uniquely positioned to do and that is such a critical aspect of helping an organization reach its fullest potential.