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Lessons from Trouva: How to define the type of COO you need

Dimple Patel 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

By Anisah Osman Britton

Dimple Patel, COO, Trouva

I met Dimple Patel, chief operating officer at independent boutiques platform Trouva, at the Sifted Summit. We both took part in a COO roundtable where one thing became clear: the job description of a COO varies wildly from company to company. I sat down with Dimple for a recent Startup Life newsletter to discuss this further and find out how startup leaders should begin to define the type of COO they’re looking for.

Start by trying to plug your CEO’s skills gap

What is your CEO really strong at? What role are they going to play in scaling the business? What are the business’s aspirations going forward and what parts of that can’t the CEO do? Where are some of their weak points and gaps?

Translate all of the relevant missing skills into the COO’s job description — you want the leadership team, alongside the CEO, to have input before passing it onto the people team. Bear in mind where the CEO wants to go in their career — maybe they’ve reached their limit when it comes to scaling an organisation but want to stay on in the company. Maybe they want to transition out at some point in the near future. In these cases, find a COO who could grow into the chief exec role.

Help your CEO understand the support they need

CEOs are often founders who’ve grown with their startup, so by the time they’re looking to bring in external COOs, their limitations may have started shining through. The leadership and people team need to help a CEO articulate their limitations by ensuring they get performance reviews and regular feedback from the leadership team, the board, coaches and the wider team. T

his is incredibly important because the success of a COO is dependent on the CEO’s sponsorship — they need to fundamentally understand the benefits of bringing in that person, not have them forced upon them by a board.

Do an organisational review

Look at what’s working for you now, what will work in the future, and highlight where you think some of the pain points are going to be. You want to look at how those requirements map back to the rest of your leadership team: are they being covered by the CMO’s marketing work, the CTO’s technical work, the CFO’s financial responsibilities? If not, that’s where the COO could be useful.

A COO is not a magician

If you’re looking for a particular business development function for a COO to come in and “fix”, be mindful as to why it hasn’t worked so far. Have you not found a way to make something scale, for example, because you need to put a load of money behind it? Or perhaps the team that is currently running it is in a period of transition, hasn’t quite cracked it yet or doesn’t have a strong enough manager. In this case, it could be that you need a COO who is more of a facilitator to make sure that there is a connective tissue across the organisation.

Should you actually be looking for a chief of staff instead?

The chief of staff role can have many crossovers with the COO — for example, functions like leadership facilitation and cross-organisation communication. However, unlike a COO, a chief of staff often wouldn’t own strategic functions or be responsible for their outcomes. A COO makes a lot of decisions across the whole business on a day-to-day basis and could be responsible for key things like the profit and loss statement, pricing strategy or commercial decisions.

On the subject of… Getting the COO role right

The seven types of COO. There are seven reasons why companies decide to hire a COO.

Your COO needs support. It’s all well and good finding and hiring a good COO, but they’ll leave if the relationship with the CEO limits their ability to operationalise.

Why you (don’t) need a COO. The hunt for COOs is on the rise, but do you actually need one?

COOs don’t need COO experience. They can harness know-how from a range of previous roles — broad exposure can help understand how each functional area works.

How much should you be paying your COO? We’ve got the salary data for you.

Anisah Osman Britton is coauthor of Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter, which comes out weekly on Wednesdays. Sign up here.

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