The role of the Chief Operating Officer is the most ambiguous of the C-Suite. Coupled with the fact that they’re often the unsung hero making sure things run smoothly behind the scenes, startups often delay hiring COOs simply because they're unsure what the role entails, exactly, in the first place.
Sara Clemens is a seasoned COO here to dispel the myths. In her 30+ year career, she’s led operations at Twitch and Pandora, where she did everything from leading the commercial, operations and go-to-market teams across 30 countries to overseeing corporate development and new ventures. She was at Twitch when Fortnite started exploding their servers, and transformed Pandora from the internet radio pioneer into a personalised music service. She’s even put a stop to former POTUS Donald Trump’s hateful conduct (more on that here!).
As part of our Stacking the Odds series, we sat down with Sara to get her advice on how founders and CEOs can successfully scope and hire for the COO role and set their COO up for success.
You can watch the full session here or read through the key points and highlights below (And if you've recently hired a COO, she has some great nuggets of advice for them, too!).
Shaping the role of the COO
“COOs are a solution to a problem,” says Sara. “The problem is that the CEO wants to run the company, but there are a range of functions where they don’t have an expert to run it, or they don’t want to be doing it themselves.”
To define the problem a COO can solve, Sara encourages CEOs to take a step back and think about what they do well, where they need help, and what tasks feel like a burden.
The tasks that fall into the “Rocking It” part of the grid above, will bring the most value to your startup. Tasks that you spend little time on or that fall outside of your expertise can be delegated to your COO. Put differently, a COO’s role is to unlock your superpowers.
Because COOs exist to complement and unlock the CEO’s skillset, what the role entails will vary widely from company to company. “If the CEO is an engineer or deep in tech,” Sara says, “they may want someone who can run the go-to-market functions. If they’re from a business background, they may want a COO who can think end to end about how products get built and then taken to market.”
How to hire a COO
While the COO role will differ from one startup to the next, the fundamentals for running an effective hiring process should look largely the same.
Once you’ve identified your strengths and weaknesses as a CEO, it’s important to be upfront about them in the hiring process. Sara points out that the “relationship between the CEO and COO has to be one of very deep trust.”
To build that trust, be open and vulnerable right from the start. “In conversations with candidates, you can say, ‘These are the things where I don’t have the necessary expertise, and I’m hiring someone I can trust to lead them’. That kind of humility and vulnerability appeals to candidates and helps form the early foundations of trust.”
Once a candidate is brought into the process, give them opportunities to figure out if the role is going to mutually be the right fit. “When Emmett [Shear] and I were talking about the role [at Twitch] we had a preliminary conversation to assess whether I had the right functional expertise matching his needs and my interests.”
“In addition, we did things like going out for a coffee on Saturday morning to chat about issues and the economy. We brainstormed one afternoon in the office for 3 hours on what the state of international was for the company and my thoughts on the options we could consider moving forward.”
Given the magnitude of impact a COO will have, you want to move past the “early days of dating” phase of the hiring process. Don’t hesitate to brainstorm ideas with potential candidates or spark real debate over your company’s direction.
“We’re all putting on a show in the interviewing process, which means that some of the big issues may not be discovered beforehand. You’ll never figure out all the issues you need to before you start, but this will get you a lot further if you move beyond engaging at arm’s length,” says Sara.
Does it matter where your COO is located?
It’s natural for CEOs to want their executive team close by for ease of communication and collaboration. But it isn’t a necessity. There are benefits to having an exec role, like the COO, located offshore in a major market such as the US.
Sara points to Linktree, a company headquartered in Melbourne, as an example.
“I worked with Alex [Zaccaria] in an advising capacity, and he was looking for a COO. I recommended Mike Olson, who has been in many of my teams over the years, and he’s based in Portland, Oregon.”
Mike was hired, and now splits his time each month between Portland, Los Angeles and Australia.
“They’ve spent a lot of time together and communicate regularly, so they operating in simpatico. It gives Alex the presence in the US he needs in terms of having an exec who can visit partners and agencies.”
Hiring a US-based COO means you must take a globally-minded approach to building your team. “You need a commitment to making the US your equivalent HQ. It’s not just the COO sitting there, but a range of functions are being built there, meaning there’s a meaningful number of people in your company on both sides of the Pacific.”
Of course, the importance of effective communications steps up a notch if the CEO and COO are based in different markets. “You need to be able to communicate with each other regularly and in real-time. Waiting 4 days to talk about a burning issue doesn’t work,” says Sara.
“I talk about the “Batphone”, which is answering the phone no matter what. You’ve got to have a Batphone relationship, where if you’re messaging the other person they’re highly responsive. That’s the kind of connective tissue it takes to make remote relationships work.”
Enabling first-time COOs
A startup may not need a COO from day one. By the time a COO position opens up, there’s often someone already in the business who has climbed the ranks and is ready to step up into the role. How can a founder/CEO support and enable a first-time COO?
“Don’t treat them like they’re on probation,” says Sara. “If you’re like, ‘Let’s see how they go. I’m going to stand back, be hands off, and see if they can cope’; the rest of the organisation will model your behaviour.”
One of the first things Sara advises CEOs in this position to do is encourage the COO to build relationships with people already doing the job.
“Reach out to other CEOs and ask if they’d be willing to introduce your new COO to their COO. Help them build mentoring relationships, so they have a safe space to ask questions.”
If your new COO is an internal promotion of an “all-rounder”, they may have been the person you could throw a whole lot of stuff at and they’d be there to catch those balls. But Sara says it’s time to stop randomising the tasks you give them once they step into the COO role.
“If somebody is learning to do something for the first time, throwing random things at them is a good way to distract them from attempting to deliver the core functions they’re looking after. Give them the capacity in the first year to focus on learning the discipline of that job.”