If a startup is a rocket preparing for takeoff, then the C-Suite is at the helm of that rocket’s control room. Together, it’s their responsibility to cruise up through the stratosphere and reach new heights — making the people you hire for that team essential to success.
Within that group, the COO in particular shouldn’t be unvalued or overlooked, though they often are.
The COO plays a crucial role in scaling a startup
How do you characterize a startup COO? A “pressure release valve” or the “right-hand person” for the CEO? Someone who organizes and aligns the company-wide team? Sure, but their potential could (and should) go way beyond that.
Rapport with the CEO is essential. But, in my experience, there’s a menu of other traits VCs and startup investors should demand in the executive search for their startup’s COO.
4 traits of a high-potential COO
Early-stage startups and venture-backed companies exist in rapidly changing environments, both within the organization and in the marketplace.
A great COO needs to be ready to adapt to those circumstances, seeking out the places where they’re needed most. In particular, an exceptional COO is able to look at both the micro and macro levels simultaneously. This allows them to see the complex interactions between day-to-day business practices and the growth of the business as a whole.
What’s needed of a COO may change as the startup becomes a scaleup, and goes on to even greater success. And it’s that kind of flexibility — and eye for opportunity — that helps an early-stage business grow fast.
2. Tenacity and determination
In simple terms, we can think of a CEO as bringing vision and inspiration, while the COO takes that vision and makes it happen. Achieving this requires the aforementioned flexibility, but a generous dashing of determination, too.
The best COOs I’ve encountered quickly recognize the strategies that are unlikely to work. They know how to change course, and what that requires, while keeping both eyes on the CEO’s end goal. They also appreciate that sometimes it takes trying, trying, and trying again before the right solution is identified.
Scaling a startup brings both obstacles and causes for celebration. A great COO has the determination to weather each storm as it arises, and achieve optimal, reliable growth throughout.
3. Great with people
A core COO responsibility comes down to helping different parts of the organization work together, so it stands to reason that they need to be skilled at getting others onside.
A high-potential COO will be known as a great listener and leader, as well as a tactician. They’re in a position to hugely influence the culture and ethos of the organization, so it’s essential that they understand and embody those values each day.
The COO will also need to apply those communication skills to their interactions with the CEO and other C-suite executives. They should understand each person’s vision and highlight areas where these might conflict. They will need to be honest and straight-talking, while opening up the floor for everyone’s point of view.
By bringing people together and facilitating conversations between different levels of the organization, COOs are able to reinforce a much-needed sense of teamwork and coordination. This is particularly valuable in stages of rapid growth — where the team is only getting bigger.
4. Believes in the future of the company
A great COO understands the importance of having a shared mindset and vision. But they’ll also step up to challenge and question the status quo if it pushes the organization forward. Doing things “the way I did it in my last company” won’t get a scaling startup very far, so be aware of any COO who appears stuck in their ways.
Given their essential role in bringing different parts of the business together, it’s perhaps even more important that a COO is heavily invested in the unique vision and mindset of the company, versus their C-Suite colleagues. The ideal COO candidate will be able to communicate — and deliver on — the CEO’s vision and values as if they were their own… because they are.
This clarity of message from the top leadership talent down is essential for a smooth transition from startup to scaleup; providing reassurance and motivation for staff and investors alike.
Harnessing the true value of a COO
In my experience as an executive search consultant, CEOs and their investors can get clouded by great COO chemistry, and overlook the finer details. But think of it this way: when you’re sat next to someone in a rocket, and you’re shooting for the stars, wouldn’t you want someone with a proven track record?
Use your networks to find out a little more about your COO candidates before you sit down together, and definitely tease out their relevant experiences in the interview too.
Finding a candidate who has the perfect balance between these traits and great chemistry with the CEO might seem like a big ask, but it’ll all seem worth it when you get to where you want to be — fast.
Mara focuses on the digital economy, mainly in the EMEA region, and has been working closely with the CEO’s and Founders of fast-growth companies like Inkitt, Zenjob, Zageno, Aktiia, Confrere and CoMatch as well as large tech companies like Dataiku and CommScope. Key Search is a boutique Executive Search firm that helps startups, investors and established brands hire the leaders they need to scale their tech business.