What To Look For In a Chief Right Hand Person (COO, VP of Operations)

Last week a founder of a software development company asked what to look for in a COO on answers.onstartups.com. Since this is a fairly common question to me, I decided to expand upon the answer I posted and further describe what attributes a great business operations leader/professional should possess.

Bit of background: I have been in operations for almost my entire career and have had some incredible mentors along the way. I spent 2+ fun years heading operations for an awesome software development company that we grew to 120+ employees by the time I had to move. It was an honor serving some of the smartest software development professionals in the market. Before that I had pleasure growing the team to 50+ employees in less than half a year. I love scaling companies!

So here are the points one should consider when looking to add a Chief Right Hand Person to your team:

  • Operations is operations, no matter the industry. I have worked in the entertainment, professional services, legal, software development, and technology consulting industries. Operations problems are almost the same everywhere (in ultra-specialized and regulated industries we just surround ourselves with specialists and attorneys). Industry experience is helpful, but not as much as you think.
  • A good operations leader will be a specialist in being the connector and arbiter between functional areas. Hands-on experience in the areas of IT, HR, accounting, recruiting, infrastructure, marketing, sales, etc. is very important. Lack of it handicaps.
  • Those fearing dirt and scars have no place in operations. Operations people should be the Secret Service of the company. Not only are we most instrumental in sustainable growth of the company, but we also take a lot of “bullets” and “cuts”. We are like an adult or a parent in the company – constantly removing impediments, cleaning up the messes, leading discipline, and taking the fall for others. If the operations team works well, everything runs smoothly and very few have full comprehension of the massive load we have on our shoulders.
  • Instead of “faking it”, a good operations person will pick up the phone and ask for advice from experts. A large contact list of suppliers, vendors, and specialists is essential for our everyday success.
  • Earning credibility with everyone in the organization is extremely important to the success of the person in this position. It is hard! No, it is actually extremely hard. We should be able to speak the “language” of every professional on the team. It is the hardest thing in this list and perfection here is almost impossible. Job is much easier if the board and CEO how respect due to the operations team.
  • The COO must understand the delicate balance that is required to keep employees and customers happy while also protecting the company. It is a tough skill to develop and requires a passionate drive for sniffing out the facts and mediating outcomes.
  • An operations leader should have no qualms about getting his/her hands dirty. No white gloves here! But at the same time they should have very good judgment when to give someone opportunity to struggle a bit, so they learn.
  • Real operations people will have backup plans for backup plans.  This is how our heads work ALL the time (at work and home). You will not find us bungee jumping or skydiving because there is only one backup in case of failure.

I hope these criteria help you pick your Chief Right Hand Person. Operations is a very sensitive area of the company, so be very picky. A great ops person can dramatically improve the way your company works and make your life a lot easier.

Photo credit: Nina Hiironniemi

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