Recruiting Strategies, Stanton Williams

What to Look For When Hiring a COO

Part 2 of an interview with Stanton Williams, a growth-driving president/CEO with two decades in the financial services industry and co-founder of a mobile app/social media technology venture. In this article, he discusses the role of a company’s chief operating officer and the importance of identifying the right person for this critical leadership position.

Q: You previously explained that the two most important leaders in organizations are a Visionary/Trailblazer and an Architect/Integrator. The Visionary is typically the CEO and/or founder, while the Architect/Integrator is the COO. How would you describe the qualities and leadership style of this key leader?

SW: Clearly, visionaries and integrators have different strengths. Architects/integrators are assertive, take-charge people. They’re analytical thinkers who require factual information. They want and need to solve problems quickly and want to get projects completed. Although they often don’t communicate to others what they are doing, when they do communicate, their style is no-nonsense: blunt, authoritative, factual.

How does the COO need to balance the CEO?

SW: You have to have someone detail-oriented who can keep up with the visionary who’s out there making things happening, or who will even take the foot off the gas sometimes. There tends to be a healthy tension between the two. They have to essentially leave each other alone, but they have to be on the same page. I’m a visionary. The success I’ve had in my career has been when I’ve had a really strong operator off whom I could bounce ideas. I almost always get a different perspective that I value. I don’t want a “yes” person. I want someone strong enough and smart enough to be my balance. I take this person’s perspective into account before making decisions.

Q: How do you identify the right individual for that role?

SW: I’m actually in the process of buying a company. I’m buying it because I know I can help grow it and because the current president is an excellent operator. I’ll be the CEO and she will be my COO. Her skills and strengths represent those needed for a leader in this role to excel:

  • Business acumen – While she is good at what she does, she is also very aware of the business environment, which enables her to avoid the trap of complacency.
  • Honesty – Honesty is the first ingredient for effective relationship building. She is absolutely authentic and honest, which has enabled her to win the trust of team members.
  • Creating an inspired corporate culture – Team members believe they are working for a cause greater than themselves.
  • Continual innovation and adaptability – This has positioned the company to compete head-to-head with industry leaders.

Just as important, she and I have a shared vision for the company and our daily focuses are complementary.

Q. On the flip side, what mistakes have you seen in companies when hiring a COO?

SW: I’ve seen companies go astray in multiple ways – not properly vetting candidates, being too narrow in who or what they consider, or not fully grasping how well a candidate fits with the culture. Some key mistakes include:

  • Failing to do adequate reference checks, including verifying academic credentials. You would be surprised how many times candidates falsify their academic achievements.
  • Limiting candidates to only those with direct industry experience. Excellent COOs bring deep experience, much of which is transferable across industries. The best COOs are able to work with existing experienced staff to form a strategy with the benefit of an outsider’s perspective.
  • Failure to consider a fractional COO. In some situations a top-tier COO, whose talents can be harnessed for a fraction of a full-time salary, can be an excellent alternative to a full-time hire.

Q: When seeking a COO, how much do the requirements depend on the organization?

SW: Finding the right COO depends on the company, the culture and the team. You can find an individual with extraordinary skills, but if they mix like oil and water with the other leaders, it’s not going to work. It’s imperative to clearly understand the candidates’ vision for the company culture – and make sure that vision is an excellent match for where the company wants to be. The COO will have a great deal of influence on the company culture. That means a great candidate will put the company on the path to foster the desired culture, but the wrong candidate can have a devastating impact. Also, if the talent coming in doesn’t do a good job quickly gaining the respect of the team, it’s not going to be a good hire. Recruiters need to ask questions about the culture and the people to find the right candidate.