The COO agenda: Organization and talent

Some of the most common reasons cited for transformation efforts that fail to achieve their full potential are related to organizational culture, mindsets, capabilities, and talent. Likewise, in our work with operations executives, a frequent comment is that they wish they had acted sooner to assemble the right team. As the leader of operations, the COO has a critical role in ensuring that the right organizational infrastructure is in place and driving the mindsets, behaviors, and capabilities changes required to successfully execute the business strategy.

In previous articles, we outlined the importance of crafting a COO agenda, its core elements (see below), and what to take into consideration when crafting the agenda. In this article, we take a closer look at one of those elements, the organizational infrastructure and talent strategy.

  • Visionclear articulation of the overall aspiration of the operation, consistent and supporting the overall business strategy, and the COO’s role in delivering it
  • Plan and executionspecific plan with clear actions and milestones to achieve the vision, anchored by a robust operating model to drive excellence in delivery
  • Stakeholder engagementdeliberate approach to effectively align and engage with a broader set of internal and external stakeholders
  • Organization and talentproactively unlocking the capacity of the organization by engaging and activating the skills and talents of the entire workforce, and addressing future-oriented succession planning
  • Personal operating model—managing personal effectiveness, including time, energy, and leadership style

Operations organization and talent

This series has emphasized that the COO position is different from other operations roles. In most organizations, the COO is not expected to run the day-to-day operations but to focus on the more strategic aspects of operations in order to enable the overall business strategy. For rising COOs, this can be a difficult transition; indeed, too often it leads to failure. Successful COOs do not act as “super site managers,” but rather rely on their team to handle the day-to-day. In our COO interviews, this was a recurring theme: “The team is in control,” “Find the best team and lean on them,” “Set it [the operations] up to run without you.”

Our research found three key ways that successful COOs navigate strategy around organizational infrastructure and talent

Ensure the right frontline leadership. Strong teams are led by strong managers. In the book Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work, frontline (middle) managers are referred to as the “true center of the organization and its most valuable asset,” as they possess the granular knowledge, direct influence, and perspective necessary to effectively lead any operational realignments (for example, change initiatives or digital disruption).

COOs should place special focus on assessing their organization and talent. This begins by distinguishing what skills and capabilities are needed to execute the operational plan and then partnering closely with HR and senior leaders to find and/or develop the people accordingly. While it is important for the COO to work in close partnership with HR and other senior leaders, it is imperative that they own the outcome: the successful placement of top talent in critical roles.

Once the right team is in place, the COO should ensure they remain high performing through capability building, performance management, mentoring, and coaching. Additionally, the COO should ensure that detailed succession planning is in place—for the COO role as well as other leadership roles in operations. Those who do not aspire to senior leadership should not be overlooked, however: “good managers should often be given higher-value compensation instead of being promoted out of their jobs.”

Be clear about your intentions. As an operations leader, a COO should give deliberate thought to how they will lead. One effective concept is that of a leader's intent. Adapted from the military concept of commander’s intent,1 leader’s intent can be incredibly effective in a distributed operation. It provides the ultimate objective, not prescriptive decisions, so that in a situation filled with ambiguity and requiring an urgent and/or autonomous decision, the distributed operator will make decisions that are consistent with the COO’s intent. They will not get it right 100 percent of the time, but in most situations the operator makes the right decision (and often a decision that no one previously imagined but one that has significant positive impact).

The COO must also recognize the impact of their behaviors and actions. At one organization, for instance, leaders wanted to see a shift in focus in asset maintenance toward productivity, to ensure that maintenance tasks of all sizes and scope were performed in an efficient manner. On the daily operations call, the leaders asked questions about jobs completed. In response, the team began tackling small jobs to maintain a high number of completed jobs, while larger jobs were sidelined. The questions asked by leaders inadvertently drove frontline behaviors that created a maintenance “debt” across the organization’s assets, diminishing overall asset health. This example reinforces how important it is for COOs to model what is important (in other words, framing questions in a way that drives specific, intended outcomes) and provide reinforcement mechanisms, both positive and negative, for operators.

Lastly, the COO must consider how they amplify. The clear articulation of strategy is a key pillar of success, but stakeholders may find their own source of meaning through personal, company, or team success, or impact on the customer or society. Therefore, COOs should amplify on all of these elements to ensure that success feels shared across the organization. In fact, previous studies have shown that each of these is a common source of meaning, and roughly equally distributed among the population—meaning that few people in operations are likely to share the same source of meaning. Therefore, if the COO only communicates in terms of their own source of meaning, they are likely missing a majority of the population. 80 percent of the population.

Be deliberate in how you influence. As a change leader, the COO can deploy many influence techniques. For example, they can be an inspirational leader who convinces the organization of the value of change. They can be the expert, teaching and enabling others. They can influence through incentives, both carrots and sticks. Or they can be a role model, setting the example as an operational leader.

While each of these approaches increases the probability of success in leading change, a McKinsey study found that successful transformations were almost eight times as likely to employ all four approaches. Most organizations default to one technique, however, most frequently communications. By failing to address other influence factors, particularly incentives and role modeling, an organization risks experiencing competing influences, which can lead to failure. For example, if a COO communicates a new way of working but does not change incentives from rewarding the previous operating model, change is unlikely.

Given their unique role relative to other operations leaders, a COO benefits greatly from stepping back and thinking through how best to organize their team to drive outcomes, develop the talent required, and be clear about the role they will play in leading operations.

1 Chad Storlie, “Manage uncertainty with commander’s intent,” Harvard Business Review, November 3, 2010.

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