For COO, you optimally want someone strong enough to be CEO of a company, or at least someone with solid general management or key functional experience. Sheryl Sandberg interviewed for other CEO roles before accepting COO of Facebook. Similarly, Box’s COO, Dan Levin, was a CEO or president of two companies and a GM at Intuit before joining Box. You want someone so excited by your company’s vision and opportunity that she is willing to give up some of the perceived upside of being a general manager or CEO elsewhere to join your company.
Additional criteria to look for are:
1. Maturity and lack of ego. Look for a seasoned executive who is willing to suppress her own ego to partner with, and execute, a founder’s vision.
2. Chemistry with founders & CEO. If the COO cannot mind-meld with the company founders, conflicts and a bad ending to the relationship are on their way.
3. Past experience scaling a company or organization. Managing a 1,000-person team is very different from growing something from 20 to 1,000 people. Look for someone who has dealt with hypergrowth or rapid growth in the past if you need help scaling quickly (versus just building out functions). Claire Hughes Johnson scaled operations and business teams at Google before doing so at Stripe.
4. Entrepreneurial mindset. Optimally, you want someone who has both operated at scale and worked in a startup environment (or scaled something from scratch at a larger company).
5. Functional expertise. A COO hire should have previously run a reasonable subset of the functions you want her to own initially at your company.
6. Ability to hire. This person will be building out a chunk of your company’s organizational skeleton. You need someone who can hire well and manage executives herself.
7. Someone you can learn from. As a first-time founder or manager, you want a COO who can teach you about management or other areas. Bill Gates famously said that he often hired senior executives so that he could learn from them.
8. Process focus. The optimal COO candidate can bring lightweight processes or best practices from other companies, and be smart about how to craft new ones for your company.
Finally, when hiring a COO, you should have a clear sense of what responsibilities you want to keep as founder (e.g., design, product, marketing, engineering) and what you are willing to truly delegate (e.g., business development, sales, corporate development, finance, HR, operations, etc.). Without that clarity, you may be setting yourself up for failure from the start. You should also remember that a COO does not necessarily need to run everything you don’t. For example, at Microsoft, Gates ran product, Steve Ballmer ran sales, and Bob Herbold as COO ran finance, HR, marketing, PR, and other areas. 1
I don’t think every company needs a COO; a well-rounded executive or leadership team may allow you to do without one. However, if you do decide that you need the management chops and experience of a COO-caliber candidate, proceed with the hiring process carefully and deliberately. 2
- See “The Secrets of Working With Bill Gates.” Link on eladgil.com. [https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/the-secrets-of-working-with-bill-gates/]
- Thanks to Aaron Levie, Jess Lee, and Keith Rabois for reviewing and providing feedback on the original version of this post on eladgil.com. [http://blog.eladgil.com/2013/02/should-you-hire-coo.html]