Following these eight practices can help you achieve success as COO, VP Operations, or other operations leader, regardless of industry.
Being the chief operating officer or head of operations is hard work. In many organizations, from tech startups to social enterprises, the COO is the director of “getting everything done.” While COOs need to have strong organizational, analytical and project-management skills to solve problems strategically and create procedures, there’s much more to the job.
Whether you’re a new COO or an experienced VP of operations looking to level up your game, you’ve come to the right place. The following are eight things successful operations leaders do:
1. Build COO-CEO partnership and alignment.
The COO role is unique at every company and depends on company specifics and the CEO’s needs. Align with the CEO early and often on what you can take off their plate. This might be a mix of company-wide alignment and planning, owning departments or teams and taking on special projects or initiatives. Never forget that the CEO and COO are partners in growing the business together.
In some ways, the COO role is a lot like the chief of staff role — you are a sounding board and thinking partner. Like any meaningful relationship, trust, empathy, and communication are foundational. Building and maintaining trust requires maintaining confidentiality when needed, being transparent with the CEO, and thinking through situations and problems using the lens of what is best for the organization and the CEO. Always own up to any mistakes made and lead with grace and compassion.
2. Develop relationships.
Yes, you need to be intelligent, perceptive, and organized, but operations is also about knowing the right people and getting them together to get stuff done quickly and efficiently. One COO I know told me that the biggest value-add this past year has been running workshops to help people decide what their priorities are — not the analytical bits she was hired for.
Make time to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Adapting your style to what others need allows you to develop more robust relationships with your team and colleagues. Be willing to shift how you talk and act, depending on what is appropriate for that specific person in that particular conversation.
Put the work into understanding the power dynamics and politics in your company. In every organization, there are people who are not necessarily senior in role or title but who are very well respected. These are people you don’t want to overlook — you want them on your side.
3. Develop adaptability, flexibility, and resiliency.
Just as soft skills like resilience and adaptability are essential for the future of work, these same skills are needed to be a high-performing COO. Adaptability fosters creative thinking, which is critical for planning and executing strategic initiatives. Flexibility enables you to quickly pivot to any opportunity or challenge, while resiliency helps you overcome those challenges.
4. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
As a COO or director of operations, your time is limited. Preparation is invaluable. Have a clear plan of what you need to get out of each discussion before going in. Prep your presentations and workshops with as much detail as is practical. The more work you put into clearly understanding what you need out of each meeting or event, the more likely you will get it. And the more efficient you are with each meeting, the more people will know you appreciate their time and, in turn, will appreciate you.
5. Develop a data-driven mindset.
For COOs, a data-driven mindset is essential for tackling day-to-day and strategic decision-making. Successful COOs rely on data and metrics as critical inputs when determining recommendations and decisions. But being data-driven doesn’t mean using any and all data. You need to know which data matters, why, and for what purposes, while being mindful of any data limitations. A data-driven mindset requires open thinking, not rigid thinking — data can yield unexpected possibilities and opportunities but can also leave questions unanswered.
6. Keep it simple.
Don’t overcomplicate things. You may be tempted to demonstrate your intelligence by using fancy words or phrasing things in a complex manner. Instead, make it a point to create simplicity and clarity with straightforward questions, clear reports, simple explanations, easy-to-follow presentations, and uncomplicated plans. The more you can distill complex concepts into something easy to understand, the better. While your work is complex, present it so that anyone can follow along — which will make work more efficient. Simplicity breeds speed, scalability, and success.
7. Build your team.
Like any leadership role, as COO, you’re only as good as your team. But as the future of work evolves, how you build, grow and adapt that team is changing. A 2020 HBS and BCG study surveying business executives found that 90% expect that talent platforms will be critical for their competitive advantage. As COO, you need to draw on the right skills and expertise at the right time — on-demand freelancers and consultants can add and supplement the skills and expertise of your team to accelerate strategic initiatives and ensure success.
8. Don’t forget the strategy.
There is never a lack of high-priority things to get done. It can be too easy to get down into the weeds and neglect the high-level strategy. Spend some time each week thinking about the largest obstacles to the company delivering on its goals — like needing more output from a particular team. While you might not be able to address everything immediately, make sure you’re making significant progress each quarter and over the course of a year.
Take operations leadership to the next level.
Following these eight practices can help you achieve success as COO, regardless of industry. Evaluate to what extent you’ve already adopted these practices and what you can do to continue to improve in each area. You’re no longer just the COO — you are the critical partner in helping to grow and evolve your business.