Aug 14, 2018

5 Traits You Should Seek in a Chief Operating Officer

Most CEOs will tell you how critical the COO role is to their business. A strong Chief Operations Officer is instrumental in integrating the founder’s vision into an actionable plan for success. Most COOs will oversee daily activities for operations, manage the financials, ensure employee engagement on a regular basis, and meet the firm’s expectations and goals.

COO Hiring Guide

As an executive search firm that specializes in partnering with CEOs to help them recruit a COO, we regularly work with business owners who are experiencing the pain of running their firms without this key leader. The CEOs we work with understand that they need to hire a COO on whom they can rely. However, not all Chief Operations Officers are alike. We have identified five key characteristics of high performing COOs to seek in hiring your next rockstar operations leader.

Five Traits You Should Seek in a COO:

  1. Counterbalance the CEO
  2. Passion for performance
  3. Versatility
  4. A problem-solver
  5. Someone who is humble

1.Counterbalance the CEO

Entrepreneur put it this way: “One of the most important qualities of an effective COO is the ability to be a ‘world-class follower.’ The COO should be comfortable to privately challenge the CEO’s thinking, but the two need to be solidly in step when communicating with stakeholders,” wrote Stephen A. Miles and Nathan Bennett.

If your CEO is a great salesman, and loves to meet customers and talk about your products, the COO who fits him best is the one who is comfortable standing in the wings, spreadsheet in hand, ready to back up any claims with data about sales and inventory.

You want to hire a COO who will be compatible with your CEO, and this work style not only involves hours at the office, but preparation styles, behavior with employees and customers, and maintaining composure in a crisis. You want a steady co-pilot who can support your CEO through any strong tailwinds.

As a CEO it is important that you have a good understanding of yourself and your leadership style. This self-knowledge is key when recruiting for the COO role.

2. Passion for Performance

A COO who takes the CEO’s vision and makes it a reality, who holds the team accountable to the goals of the organization, and who is results-oriented may also be seen as a COO who has a passion for performance.

Some people would characterize this type of executive as Kolbe “Follow Through,” someone who initiates follow-through, who creates systems and structures and will follow a plan that is in place. This type of COO can be predictable and reliable to a CEO, so the boss can relax and focus on the big picture.

This ideal COO may also live by the maxim FILO: “first in, last out.” She comes in early in the morning and she is last to leave and turn the lights out. She is such a hard worker that the CEO and fellow employees do not doubt her dedication to the job and her passion for performance.

3. Versatile

You want to hire a COO who has held various positions throughout her career, so that she has experience covering a wide range of responsibilities. Ideally, someone who has both customer-facing experience, such as serving as a general manager, salesperson, sales manager or marketer, along with the back-office overview that makes a company run, such as overseeing accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory.

“The one major skill you should look for in a COO is that he or she have experience with actually expanding and growing a small business or other venture,” said Andrew Schrage, founder Money Crashers Personal Finance.

4. Problem-Solver

“The perfect COO for a startup is someone who can take the ideas of plans of the CEO, break them down into actionable steps, and ensure that they're done efficiently. With the right balance of a grounded CEO and a practical-but-ambitious COO, startups can go far,” said Brennan White, founder of Cortex.

Being good at problem-solving is a key requirement for a highly qualified executive, yet it is so obvious that sometimes interviewers forget to ask about it. You want a COO who can handle problems swiftly and competently, without assigning blame. This COO is a doer, and doesn’t make excuses for oneself or others. Once this individual solves a problem, they analyzes it to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and shares the lessons learned.

5. Humble

Humility is often an overlooked and underrated trait in this era of business individuals constantly seeking the limelight. But you only have one CEO, and you want to find a COO who is comfortable not tooting his own horn, but who will let the CEO take the credit. By so doing, the CEO will provide your company with a brand, values, and a personality.

A humble COO will be a great asset, because (s)he will make sure that the company is humming along smoothly and all the employees are happy, when the CEO takes his or her various victory laps after a board meeting or an important sales presentation.

A COO who is intrinsically motivated and does not have an ego that requires endless stroking can help your company develop its teamwork, and support the CEO in all of the decisions he makes.

In the Columbia Business School journal, Alexander Tuff summarized the key qualities of a successful COO. “I have now served as COO for three different organizations,” Tuff wrote, “and have found that there are certain inherent traits that every COO possesses, and certain activities and processes that will maximize their impact. A COO’s effectiveness is 100 percent correlated with his or her ability to lead. Success as a COO also requires some natural inclination for solving complex problems, implementing solutions, and driving change... Flexibility while working with diverse teams doesn’t hurt. Good communication and collaboration are key.”

As a CEO, you may be asking yourself, “Do I need to hire a Chief Operating Officer?” Can you spot the five signs it is time to hire a COO in your business? Are you a CEO who is currently spending more than 25% of your time in the business, rather than on the business? These are just a few of the reasons we would strongly advise a CEO to hire a COO.

When you find an executive who possesses these characteristics, you will find the right leader to add to your team, and help grow your business to greater success.

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