Almost every company, even early stage startups, has someone with the designation of Chief Operating Officer (COO). While everyone assumes that the CEO is the articulate visionary and the CTO is the technical guru, the position of COO is less clear. So the COO, like the offensive lineman in football and the jazz bassist, is the person who is not suited for one of the so called “skill” positions, the glamour jobs, like running back, wide receiver, lead guitarist or vocalist. Let’s take a few paragraphs to explore the actual skills to fill these positions in their respective industries and why these positions, despite their relative anonymity, matter to the success of the group.
First, how may I speak with any degree of authority on these positions? Well, I’ve been in a COO role many times in my so called career. I played the offensive lineman position in high school for about 15 minutes in college before I realized I was out of my league and a walk-on scholarship was not in my future. I’m also a drummer, which means I’m in the back with bass player while the spotlight shines on everyone else.
What do these positions have in common? The the primary similarities are that:
- When performed well, they establish the foundation for team success
- Few people understand what it takes to do these jobs
- When performed to perfection, few people notice.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN – Relative to the “skills players” on the team, they typically aren’t the best passers, they are slower, less agile, not as quick, and don’t catch the ball as well. However, they usually are the biggest, have the greatest overall body and hand strength, operate as a unit, are intensely loyal to each other and the team, and are the best communicators. If they do their job to perfection on every play, the skills players get an opportunity to advance the ball down the field, everything works, and no one notices them. If they don’t do their job on any one play, the play usually falls apart, players on their team are at greater risk of injury and everyone knows they failed. They are the silent partner you can’t do without.
JAZZ BASSIST – While the piano player is running up and down the keyboard, lead guitarist is jammin’, and the lead singer is belting out the vocals, the bass player is in the background laying down the bass line. Most bass players usually aren’t flashy, stand virtually motionless in the back of the stage, and make what they do look easy. The truth is, despite all the impressive instrumental and vocal runs, and solos, it all comes back to the bass line. If it isn’t steady and consistent throughout the song, everyone else in the band is off and the song just doesn’t reach its potential.
COO – COOs must have a broad set of skills. While they may not be the visionary, the most charismatic, or have deep technical knowledge, they must have a working knowledge of functional areas like finance, marketing, HR, legal, and external relations, to name just a few. Essentially, all the not so sexy stuff required to operate the business day-to-day. In addition, COOs must have viable skills in strategy and pro forma development, communication, process development and assessment, and motivating and leading people. It takes years of training and real world experience to acquire this vast set of skills and knowledge. Despite the relative anonymity of the COO, the company will never reach its full potential if the functions of this position are not performed well.
For the odd man out in an early stage company who may have found himself or herself with the title of Chief Operating Officer, it is critical to be brutally honest in assessing what it takes to fill this position. For the new COO with the right aptitude and attitude, it is important to be very intentional regarding knowledge and skills acquisition. Initially, you must identify the things you can do, the things you can’t, and the resources to help you get things done in terms of advisors, mentors and vendors. In addition, and this should be no surprise, YOU NEED A STRATEGY for acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge. The most pressing needs get the most immediate attention. Lay out a strategy and schedule for when and how you will you will get the education you need. It may be in a formal classroom, an online course, attending regular sessions with a mentor or advisor, or self-directed research couples with practical application. The success of the company depends on it.
THE TAKEAWAY: In a team, especially a small one, every positions counts and lofty titles are irrelevant if you can’t fulfill the requirements of your position. COOs, like offensive linesmen in football and jazz bassists, are typically in the background doing the hard work that facilitates success in other, more noticeable areas. Leading and being good at your craft in these positions means that when you do your job well, few people will notice you. A vast skill set, strength of character and humility rule the day.