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What is a Chief Operating Officer? The role of a modern COO

The Chief Operating Officer (COO) keeps an organisation running. Their domain is business operations – the nuts and bolts of people and processes that enable a business to provide its products or services.

The modern Chief Operating Officer

A successful Chief Operating Officer helps an organisation fulfil its aims. These vary according to context, but almost certainly include providing excellent customer service, delivering value to clients, making a profit and ensuring employees are given the tools they need to do their job - contributing to an engaged and happy workforce.

The modern organisation can also add agility, scale and working at pace to this list. This requires the COO (together with other C-suite members) to set up a business in such a way that it can grow, quickly pivot according to need, and deal with the unexpected. It is a measure of resilience – one of the most important qualities an organisation can have today.

In this article Foundry4's Chief Operating Officer, Sean Tubbs, shares his tips and priorities for being a successful COO.

How does a Chief Operating Officer support daily business goals?

The COO role has a wide remit, as they are responsible for all business operations.

One way of dealing with this is to focus on the core function of an organisation day-to-day. At Foundry4, this is technology, product and service delivery for our clients, with other business areas (such as sales, marketing and finance) playing an important but supporting role.

“The first part of my job as COO is to put in place the right structure to support delivery,” says Sean. “It's about providing the right infrastructure, getting the teams in place, making sure they get their project set up properly, then stepping back and allowing them to do what they do best.”

“Trust is very important here, because as a COO you can't do everything. Managing the day-to-day of a business ultimately comes down to getting good standards and processes in place. This enables employees to do what they need to do; it turns the day-to-day into business as usual. And then – if there are any issues – you can step in as required.”

A good example of this at Foundry4 is our forecasting and financial reporting, which required additional steps when the company became a PLC.

“Previously, this was quite an onerous task that was mostly done manually on spreadsheets,” Sean says. “But we have implemented a number of automations to ensure we get the right figures from different areas of the business."

"We make sure our teams use the best-of-breed systems for their different business capability needs; we then tap into the relevant data in the back-end for what we need to report. This helps create a seamless flow of data around the organisation.”

The Chief Operating Officer also takes a long term view

If the COO has one eye on the day-to-day, they then have their second on the longer term strategy of the organisation.

“The second part of my job is about speed and scale,” Sean says. “We need to work in an agile way, to be able to keep up with the fast pace of the delivery world. This includes the way we work with our clients but also things like our talent acquisition model – as we recruit technical experts to work on projects.”

“Then there's scale. As our delivery ramps up and we continue to grow year on year, what do we need to do to make sure the business functions effectively? We need to keep reviewing our processes and whether or not they are appropriate for the scale we are operating at.”

Informing the strategic direction of the company will also involve responding to outside forces and pivoting operations where required. The COO can work with sales and marketing teams to analyse market trends, set this against the company's growth ambitions, and help to plot its future direction.

What skills does a Chief Operating Officer need?

Since they sit across all areas of a business, the Chief Operating Officer needs a wide range of skills, from a firm handle on financial figures, to softer people skills.

As Sean notes, the ideal COO probably also has experience in the organisation itself.

“For me ideally, the COO should have come from the business, ie. have experience delivering or selling what the organisation provides,” he says. “That's because you need a thorough understanding of the core function of the business in order to support – but also to challenge, and push back at times – what we do.”

If there's one further quality a COO should possess, it's resilience.

“As a COO, you've got to keep going,” Sean says. “You're the person who will often be brought problems, so you need to be proactive and have a positive outlook. You can't get dragged down by things going wrong. You also need to juggle your priorities, know when to pick your battles, and focus efforts on the areas of greatest risk and greatest gain.”

The company's mechanic

If the organisation is a vehicle and the CEO is driving it, then the COO is the one who keeps it running for them. In order to do this, they need to have an interest in all areas of the business - and its people. This recognises that internal improvements will also impact the service a company is able to deliver to its customers.

“I like to think of the role as the company's mechanic,” Sean adds. “You're keeping everything well oiled and ticking over, but also thinking about upgrades and the next thing you can build or bolt on. A Chief Operating Officer should constantly strive for improvements. If we can make things better for our teams, this ultimately makes things better for our clients.”

Author

Sarah final 3
Sarah Finch
Research and Insights Manager
Foundry4

Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.

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