To answer this, we first need to understand what a COO is. This is not so easy as we have found that the role of a COO can vary hugely according to sector, size of business, maturity of business and where the CEO's focus is. A further complexity is that the role can be responsible for a wide range of business functions including legal, marketing, HR, IT, GDPR, ISO, customer service and pretty much any other function as required by the needs of the business.
However, where there is commonality in the role of a COO is in their overall approach. The COO will tend to be focused internally, on the day-to-day running of the business, whereas the CEO's focus will mainly be external. We further like to think of the role of a COO as that of a ‘specialist generalist’.
With that latter definition in mind, let’s try and tackle the question of whether you need a COO and how do you reach the decision to bring one in. In our experience, there are four main triggers which would indicate that you might need a COO, and these are: -
1. Your CEO has too much to do.
2. You need someone to implement ideas.
3. You need to strengthen your Board’s leadership.
4. Not enough time is being spent on improving the business.
These triggers could occur at any time with the first two points being most likely to come up in early stage start-ups and SMEs, which are undergoing rapid growth and points 3 and 4 more likely to be issues in mature businesses, which are looking to ensure that their strategic direction will enable profitable and sustained growth.
Having understood what a COO could do and when to bring one in, the final question to consider is how do you bring in a COO? What if the issues which prompted you to consider hiring a COO are short-term or episodic? Getting the right COO might take a long time to recruit and may be expensive and what if you find out that they are not fully utilised?
This is when bringing in a COO on a more flexible basis should be considered; that is on a fractional, interim or consultancy basis. The key difference between these three options is primarily the length and frequency of the engagement. Typically, a fractional engagement would be for a set number of days per month for a period of 3 months or more; an interim assignment would be most appropriate if you are lacking time and have a specific transformation programme to deliver or, indeed, if you want to ‘try before you buy’. Finally, bringing in a COO on a consulting basis would normally be considered when your business is looking at strategic options for its business infrastructure.
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