The chief operating officer (COO) tends to be the second-in-command to the CEO — but at the early stages of a company, their responsibilities can overlap heavily.
Jens Joseph Mannanal, COO at Berlin-based creator economy startup Passionfroot, knows this first hand. “The COO has to align with not only the company’s values and mission to ensure it’s a seamless fit, but also has to be able to work side-by-side with the CEO for the role to work,” he says.
Here he shares his tips for hiring a COO as an early-stage startup.
Hire someone who can take on complexity
A COO should be hired when a startup’s operational complexity increases beyond the current team’s capacity and processes need to be formalised to help scale. This is also usually when the founding team’s time and attention are too divided and you need a dedicated leader to oversee operations and wider strategy execution. Typically, this is once you raise — or are in the process of raising — a Series A round or once you have 30 people in the team.
Distribute roles and responsibilities with the CEO by strengths
Figure out each person’s key skills and divide the roles that way. Has someone had more experience with hiring before? Is the CEO better with numbers? Is the COO more experienced with partnership building?
Find someone who wants autonomy
COOs need to make decisions and execute strategy. They can’t be waiting around to be told what to do — this is a senior C-suite role, not just a glorified assistant to the CEO. It’s important to note, though, that the COO shouldn’t be solely responsible for defining the overall company strategy — it must be a collaborative effort with the CEO and other key stakeholders in the C-suite.
Don’t hire a micromanager
A COO can’t be bogged down by daily tasks. They should focus on building structure and optimising processes so the entire company can run more efficiently. They need to focus on making it easier for the team to carry out their tasks — not try to do the tasks for them. However, as is the case with every role at an early-stage company, a COO can’t be averse to rolling up their sleeves and being hands-on alongside their teams when needed.
Look for solid operational experience
Your COO should have a strong background in strategy and operations. They need to be able to identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies and growth opportunities, and then build and execute a strategy to meet the company’s needs. Headhunt people in similar roles in your industry and verticals. You can also look at candidates with strategy-consulting backgrounds — although the ideal is a candidate who has held a leadership role in a scaleup, as they’ll come with the skills and growth mentality inbuilt.
Test candidates for the skills they’ll need:
- To assess adaptability, give candidates hypothetical scenarios and get them to explain how they would respond to the challenges thrown at them.
- To check problem-solving skills, give them real-life case studies and ask them how they would respond.
- To assess a candidate’s people skills, invite them in for a day. How do they interact with the team? Do they seem to be collaborating? How does the team respond to the candidate?
On the subject of… COOs
- What does a COO actually do? European startup COOs explain their jobs.
- How to define the type of COO you need. Dimple Patel, ex-CEO of Trouva, gives her top tips on how to judge what kind of role you need a COO to fill and what kind of person you want to fill that role.
- Can you work with the big boss? While other C-suite roles are defined based on the work that needs doing, the COO role is defined in relation to the CEO.