May 9, 2019

What Can Be Learned From Hiring a COO

Are you the CEO of a small to medium-sized company that has decided it’s time to hire a Chief Operating Officer (COO)?

Do you know what kind of person you are seeking? Of course, a great leader, an excellent communicator, and a team player are qualities you want.

However, there are other things to look for and don’t be surprised if you learn a lot from hiring a COO – both about yourself and about your priorities for your business.

Perhaps you have built your firm from scratch. It’s your baby. You have used your vision, hard work, and your creativity to get it to the point where it is now.

What makes good CEO – COO partnerships

In their book Rocket Fuel, Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters call the CEO, the Visionary, and the COO, the Integrator. They wrote, “Integrators are typically very good at leading, managing, and holding people accountable. They love running the day-to-day aspects of the business. They enjoy being accountable for profit and loss, and the execution of the business plan. They remove obstacles so that people can execute.”

Wickman and Winters cited the example of when Keith Walters joined Ron Johnsey at Axiometrics, a 28-person analytics firm. While Johnsey had built his firm to develop market-leading solutions concerning multi-family commercial real estate, running the business left him less and less time to plan for the future. He hired Walters, and “a huge burden was lifted from Ron’s shoulders.” Walters was good at operational matters, and Johnsey could return to seeking the future in their market, coming up with new and exciting ideas for expansion.

If you are a CEO like Johnsey, who had ideas for expansion, you will learn that hiring a COO like Walters to take care of the operational matters will lift that burden from your shoulders.

One of the things that Jason Tan, Chief Scientist of Sift Science, learned in hiring a COO was that even high-performing CEOs need assistance sometimes: “It’s not about you…..Instead of believing that you can/must tackle every scaling challenge, check your ego and embrace that it’s OK to look for help.”

No substitute for experience

Many business experts believe that there is no substitute for decades of experience. You may be running your startup company well, and have the passion and industry background to make your data science business thrive. However, that doesn’t mean that you know how to scale the operational side of your company when sales grow from $10 million to $20 million. Having someone who has worked with an organization that has grown like that can be invaluable for you. (S)he will know how to put the right structures in place, how to staff, and how to communicate with employees.

Counterbalance the CEO

As you embark on your search for a COO, you may find that you want someone who will provide a healthy balance to your skills.

If you are a great salesman and love to meet customers and talk about your products, you may find that the COO who fits you 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.

As a CEO it is essential that you have a good understanding of yourself and your leadership style. This self-knowledge is vital when recruiting for the COO role. This is one of the things that you will learn when hiring a COO. It will emphasize how well you know yourself, recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and recognize where you need your second-in-command to support you.

What are the most important qualities you seek?

One of the most essential things you will learn in hiring a COO is what type of human qualities are critical to you.

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 the decisions you make.

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.”

Do a deep dive with references

When you are getting ready to hire a COO, you may consider speaking with candidate references. Go from one reference to another and ask them pointed questions. If you are seeking a seasoned professional with years of experience, he will have worked with many different people over the years. Listen to their perspectives and evaluate whether this candidate can adapt well to the leaders and team members at your company.


Many people consider hiring a COO a daunting responsibility. How can you select someone to share the burdens for your “baby,” the company you have built so carefully? How can you trust this person with financial and personnel decisions? How can you recognize the right person? 

Understand that even the COO hiring process can be a great education for you, the CEO. Not only will you end up hiring a great person, but also you can look forward to hiring a COO because the journey will help you learn about yourself, aid you in identifying the priorities for your company, and assist you in recognizing what leadership qualities you most value. 

Next Step:

Check out our Abridged Guide to Hiring a Chief Operating Officer, containing top considerations for CEOs and Business Owners when hiring a COO.

The Abridged Guide to Hiring a COO


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