How to Hire Your First COO: A Founder’s Guide

As a founder, there often comes a point when you realize you can’t continue handling everything yourself. Your business is scaling quickly. New opportunities are emerging faster than you can manage alone. You spend each day buried in operations, without time for vision and strategy.

This is when hiring a Chief Operating Officer starts to make sense. Bringing on a skilled COO can allow you to focus on your superpower—visionary leadership—while delegating execution and operations.

But where do you start? And how do you ensure your first COO sets your company up for success? This comprehensive guide shares tips and best practices I’ve learned through the process.

Recognizing It’s Time for a COO

Hiring a COO is a major investment, so how do you know when the time is right? Here are some of the key signs:

  • You feel constantly overwhelmed trying to juggle operational tasks and strategic planning. A COO can lift some of that burden.
  • Your company is experiencing rapid growth and your business is struggling to scale effectively. A COO provides expertise to expand efficiently.
  • Operations are becoming complex across multiple locations, product lines, or profit centers. An effective COO could bring order to the chaos.
  • You need specialized capabilities, perhaps like supply chain optimization. Or specialized understanding, such as knowledge of medical offices or construction processes. Hiring a COO with strength in the appropriate area for your business could both improve your operations and free your time to focus on strategic opportunities.
  • You spend the majority of your time mired in daily operations rather than high-level leadership. A COO can take over day-to-day management.

Listen to your gut. If part of you knows you need operational support, it’s time to start the COO search.

Defining the COO Role and Responsibilities

The COO role should be all about execution and operations so you, as CEO, can focus on vision and strategy. Here are typical COO responsibilities:

  • Streamlining operations and improving processes
  • Building and scaling teams
  • Implementing technology/systems to support growth
  • Overseeing finance, sales, marketing, etc. operations
  • Strategic planning and budgeting based on growth goals
  • Fixing inefficiencies and obstacles to better performance
  • Reporting operational metrics and progress to the CEO

Bottom line? The COO handles the tactical details so you can operate at a strategic level.

Finding a COO Who Complements Your Strengths and Vision

More than just operations, your COO should be a true partner and second-in-command. This means finding someone who:

  • Embraces and enhances your company’s existing culture
  • Aligns with your growth mindset and leadership style
  • Brings strategic perspective beyond just day-to-day execution

Take time to find a values-aligned COO with relevant experience scaling a business like yours. Doing so sets up a winning partnership built on trust and transparency.

Setting Expectations and Metrics for Success

Be very clear about expectations, goals, and metrics for success based on where your company is at. If rapid growth is the current priority, set targets for:

  • Team expansion
  • Revenue growth
  • New market entry
  • Process efficiency
  • Cost savings
  • Improved customer retention

Define what success looks like in 90 days, 6 months, and beyond. This helps focus your COO’s efforts on moving the needle where you need it most.

Announcing Our New Chief Operating Officer (COO)

Announcing the addition of a COO to your organization is a significant step, and it’s important to communicate this news effectively to your team, stakeholders, and, in some cases, externally. Here’s a suggested framework for how a founder/CEO can make this announcement:

1. Plan Your Announcement:

Before making the announcement, ensure you have all the details and key points prepared. This includes the COO’s background, their role, and the reasons for this strategic hire.

2. Choose the Right Timing:

Consider the timing of your announcement. It’s often best to make this announcement when the new COO is already on board and has had some time to settle into their role, but before too much time has passed.

3. Internal Communication:

Start with internal communication to your team:

Subject: Exciting News – Welcome Our New COO!

Dear [Company Name] Team,

I am thrilled to announce a significant addition to our leadership team. Please join me in welcoming [COO’s Full Name], our new Chief Operating Officer. [Briefly mention their background and relevant experience.]

Explain the Why:

  • Share why you’ve made this decision. For example, you might say something like, “As we continue to grow and face new opportunities and challenges, we recognize the need to strengthen our leadership team. [COO’s Full Name] brings [specific strengths or expertise] that will be instrumental in taking our company to the next level.”

Outline Their Role:

  • Explain the COO’s role in the organization and how it complements your role as CEO. Highlight that this addition is meant to enhance the company’s ability to execute on its strategic vision.

Highlight the Benefits:

  • Share how this hire will benefit the team and the company as a whole. For example, mention improved operational efficiency, stronger execution, or the potential for new growth opportunities.

Acknowledge the Team:

  • Express your appreciation for the hard work and dedication of your existing team, emphasizing that this hire is about strengthening the team’s capabilities rather than a reflection of any shortcomings.

Offer a Q&A Session:

  • Invite your team to reach out with any questions or concerns they might have, and schedule a follow-up meeting or Q&A session to address them.

4. External Communication (if applicable):

If your company has external stakeholders, such as clients, partners, or investors, you may need to make a public announcement. This can be a more streamlined version of the internal communication, focusing on the benefits and impact on the company’s growth and stability.

5. Follow-Up Communication:

After the initial announcement, it’s important to continue communicating with your team about the COO’s integration and progress in their role. Regular updates and feedback sessions can help ensure a smooth transition and alignment with the company’s goals.

By approaching the announcement with transparency, a clear message, and an emphasis on the positive impact this addition will have on the organization, you can effectively introduce your new COO and set the stage for a successful transition.

Collaborating on a 90-Day Plan

Once your COO is on board, work together to develop a 90-day roadmap focused on initiatives that will have the biggest impact.

This helps align priorities and creates a shared action plan. Be ready to course correct quickly based on regular check-ins on progress and challenges.

Treat your COO as a strategic partner in setting the path forward, not just a hired gun for execution.

Of course, you’ll need to create your own customized 90-day plan, but I wanted to include this sample plan to give you a sense of what I’m talking about.

Sample 90-Day Plan for a New COO (SMB)

Month 1: Onboarding and Assessment

Week 1-2:

Meet the Team:

    • Schedule introductory meetings with department heads and key employees.
    • COO to conduct one-on-one interviews to understand their roles, challenges, and insights.

Operational Assessment:

    • Collaborate with department heads to conduct a comprehensive review of existing operations.
    • Identify immediate pain points, workflow bottlenecks, and areas for potential improvement.

Week 3-4:

Stakeholder Conversations:

    • Meet with department heads and managers individually to gather insights into operational challenges and opportunities.
    • Identify team-specific goals and aspirations.

Expectation Setting:

    • Arrange a meeting with the CEO to establish clear roles, responsibilities, and expectations for the COO role.

Month 2: Operational Focus

Week 5-6:

Process Review:

    • Collaborate with department heads to perform a detailed examination of specific operational processes.
    • Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) for each department.

Resource Evaluation:

    • Assess the current staffing levels, roles, and skills within each department.
    • Identify gaps and discuss potential staffing adjustments.

Week 7-8:

Short-Term Goals:

    • Define and document clear, short-term goals for the next 90 days. These goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
    • Share these goals with department heads and get their buy-in.

Performance Metrics:

    • Finalize and document the KPIs for each department.
    • Develop a dashboard or reporting system to monitor and track progress.

Month 3: Implementation and Optimization

Week 9-10:

Team Alignment:

    • Schedule department meetings to align teams with the short-term goals and key initiatives.
    • Encourage department heads to communicate these goals to their teams.

Initiative Kickoff:

    • Begin the implementation of selected initiatives, starting with those that offer the potential for quick wins.
    • Assign clear ownership and responsibilities for each initiative.

Week 11-12:

Performance Monitoring:

    • Conduct regular check-ins with department heads to review KPIs and assess progress.
    • Address challenges and roadblocks promptly to keep initiatives on track.

Efficiency Improvements:

    • Collaborate with department heads and teams to identify opportunities for process streamlining and resource optimization.
    • Develop and document action plans for efficiency improvements.

Continuous Communication:

    • Maintain an open line of communication with the CEO, department heads, and teams.
    • Provide regular updates on progress, challenges, and successes.

This detailed 90-Day Plan specifies who conducts each task and emphasizes collaboration with department heads and teams to achieve specific, measurable goals within the first three months of the COO’s tenure.

Maintaining Open Communication and Trust

Fostering a strong partnership with your COO is critical. Have regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings to check in on:

  • Overall progress and obstacles
  • Upcoming objectives and planning
  • Department updates
  • Individual development needs

Remain transparent about company challenges and priorities. And be receptive to your COO’s ideas and perspectives.

Above all, maintain trust and respect. You are now a leadership team.

How Your Peer Advisory Group Can Help

Relinquishing control is never easy for founders and/or CEOs. But you’re not the only one who has faced this crossroads. Other founders and CEOs have as well. That’s why being a member of a trusted CEO peer advisory group can be so valuable. You can learn how other successful leaders navigated this choice. If they’ve had missteps and failures, you can learn from those as well.

Leveraging the collective wisdom of your peer advisory group can be a game-changer in your quest to hire the right COO. These trusted peers have likely faced similar crossroads in their entrepreneurial journeys and can provide invaluable guidance.

If you belong to a group of trusted peers, share your considerations with your advisory group to tap into their experiences and insights. They can offer fresh perspectives on the timing, roles, and qualities of an ideal COO, helping you refine your hiring criteria. Moreover, many members of your peer group may have been through similar hiring processes and can recommend talented professionals they trust.

The connections and recommendations from your peer advisory group can significantly expedite your search, ensuring that you find a COO who not only complements your strengths but also aligns with your long-term vision for your company.

As CEOs, we confront critical choices – growth strategies, succession planning, employee engagement, leadership development…the list seems endless. The weight of these decisions can feel exhilarating, yet also stressful. And lonely.

Even though I started an INC. 500 company, I spent too many years trying to navigate it all solo. I’ve learned every CEO needs a community of peers who understand the unique challenges we face.

Peernacle is a private peer advisory group where leaders in southern Virginia come together and help one another to make better decisions and grow as leaders. If you’re looking for a community where you can gain insight from others who have sat in your seat, explore Peernacle group membership.