If you ask 5 COOs about what their role entails, you’ll likely get 5 different answers. As the partner to the CEO–their right-hand person–the role is primarily shaped by the needs of the CEO. If there’s no one-size-fits-all for the role, how do you figure out if the role of COO is a fit for you?
We asked Sara Clemens, who has held the role of COO at Twitch and Pandora, to walk us through the makings of a great COO, how she assessed if a COO role was the right one for her, and her advice for how would-be COOs can maximise their chances of success.
You can watch the full interview with Sara from our Stacking the Odds series, including her advice to CEOs hiring COOs, or read through the key points and highlights below.
Who makes a great COO?
There’s no perfect training ground for becoming a COO, as the role varies from one company to the next. However, there are skills and attributes you can cultivate that are universal.
“In my experience, great COOs operate in a cross-functional manner and use their influence and networks to drive action,” says Sara. “They’re culture, business and talent change agents.”
Attributes of your current role that would set you up well for success as a COO include:
- A broad remit of responsibility
- A high degree of cross-functional collaboration
- Experience building new ventures
- Ability to achieve goals tied to influence
Transition from team/function leader to COO
If you’re thinking about making the move from being a leader of a team or function to a COO, the biggest transition is learning to think about the company first and then the function second.
“You need to have an open mind because what’s best for your function may not play well over the longer term in the context of the company’s objectives. You have to be willing to say, ‘I will relinquish some budget because we need to invest in another area of the business.’”
In Sara’s experience, this means going from an environment where 90% of your energy is spent acquiring resources for your group and tracking deliverables and the other 10% consists of cross-functional interaction towards the majority of your mindshare thinking about what will make the company successful.
Optimising for the company instead of your function is a muscle you build over time. “It was definitely a learning experience for me,” says Sara. “I always pause and think why am I fighting for this thing? What are the alternative outcomes here? What else could we do with the capital as a business if we don’t invest in the thing I’m inclined to invest in?”
Ask the right questions–before you start
Sara believes the relationship between the CEO and COO is one of deep trust. A trust you can test during the hiring process by being open and vulnerable and asking the right questions.
When Sara was interviewing for a role in 2013, she got a great piece of advice from Jeff Markowitz, the Talent Partner at Greylock at the time. He said:
“The most difficult part of an interviewing process is when you’ve done all the ‘early-dating’ phases and you’re excited. But there will come a point where you’re about 75% of the way through the process, and you have a list of questions that are niggling at the back of your mind.”
“Often when you see executive partnerships go bad quickly, it’s when the candidate didn’t ask those questions and didn’t consider the magnitude of what those answers would be.”
While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get answers to every single question you’d have before starting, think about the handful of big-ticket issues that, once you have clarity, will help you feel comfortable about stepping into the role.
“I will always ask questions like: What are their business practices in China? Why don’t they have more women on their board? These things matter to me, and the nature of both how they respond to those questions and their answers define for me if this is a place I want to work.”
While you can’t solve every unique scenario before you start, having these conversations upfront allows you to align on values and points of view. Case in point, when Sara was interviewing for her role at Twitch, she asked Emmett Shear (Twitch’s CEO) many questions about the company’s community guidelines for behaviour.
“I have a background in content moderation, and I feel quite strongly about it. At the time, many platforms were about free speech and not moderating content–it was 2017, in the pre-banning-of-Trump era. I felt that it wasn’t going to end well.”
“Emmett and I quickly aligned on the fact it was fine to have behaviour rules for Twitch, and we would establish what those were, and if you didn’t like them, you could go elsewhere.”
“If you told me when I joined Twitch that I would ban the President of the United States, I would have fallen over laughing. There are always things that arise once you’re in the role, but that’s why it’s important to ask those questions and have clarity around the important things to you.”
Values guide decision-making in all parts of a company, from high-stakes strategic decisions to smaller day-to-day choices, making it worthwhile to determine whether a company’s beliefs about the world and ways of doing things match your own.
Start off on the right foot
You’ve got the job, now it’s time to set up your early days for success. There are a few specific do’s and don’ts Sara shares to set a positive tone as a new COO.
Don’t tell them their baby is ugly
Attitude is everything when you’re starting a new role as a COO. “Where I see the CEO and COO relationship falter is where the COO comes in and says, ‘Things are broken and you’re screwing these things up’. Nobody likes to be told their baby is ugly,” says Sara.
Instead, Sara recommends approaching the role by thinking, “Wow, this team has built a phenomenal business from nothing. It’s going well, and that’s why I’ve been hired. I’m here to take what’s amazing and help the team make that larger.”
As you start making changes, you can’t be critical of how the organisation got to where it is. Your job is to take what they’ve done and scale it up. “You’re not suggesting that the way things were done was bad and the way they’ll be done in the future is good–it’s just different.”
Do what you said you’d do
As a COO, there are a lot of things you could be doing. You’ll need to triage what you should be doing.
“You and the CEO need to align on the critical priorities and expend adequate energy on those,” says Sara. “Within six weeks, I would have a good sense of what’s going on and sit down with the CEO and say: These things will take X% of my time, and these are the things that will wait. They’re important, but the reality is we’re not going to get them done in the next 9-12 months as there’s too much else that needs to be done.”
“This helps align everybody and manage their expectations around when things will happen and what the deliverables will be.”
The big thing from there is to deliver it! “The quickest way to build trust is to deliver something and learn the business quickly.”
“You’re a high judgement individual–that’s how you got the job. Be confident in making those judgments and work with the CEO to ensure they have confidence in them. Once you’ve built that trust and consistency over time, everything just starts humming from that point.”
Don’t leave things until later
CEOs and COOs need to operate in-sync, so recency matters when it comes to addressing issues.
“I think leaving things until later is the death of relationships,” says Sara. “It’s easy once you’ve left something for hours to get to the end of the day and be like, ‘I can’t be bothered having a conversation now’. It can be really valuable if you do those things fresh in the moment.”
“One of the mechanisms Emmett [Twitch’s CEO] and I found great was that we were both happy to grab an hour at the end of the day. If there were things we needed to work through, we’d get a whiteboard, thrash through it and then grab dinner.”
Recalibrating for growth
“COOs are corporate chameleons,” says Sara. In that respect, as the company grows and changes, so will the role of the COO.
As a COO, you need to be comfortable working on new things, working in different ways and evolving with the needs of the business. A great example of that is Sara’s time at Twitch:
“When I joined, I ran all of our corporate functions; basically everything that wasn’t product and engineering. Over time, we had the General Counsel, the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief People Officer report directly to the CEO. That was absolutely the right move, and I engineered it because it felt like it was the right time. The functions were mature and the leaders were excellent.”
This example leads to a fundamental truth about the role: “One of the tests of a great COO is someone who is willing to put themselves out of the job,” says Sara.