The New COO is a People Development Officer

The New COO is a People Development Officer

For those averse to the predictable, it’s a welcome challenge to take a deep breath, step into the void, and see what can be crafted as a result of what’s needed. In the world of entrepreneurship, we sometimes refer to it as building the plane as it speeds down the runway.

In the world of a Chief Operations Officer (COO), it looks like creating the structure that is required to support the project, which, in todays’ landscape, often looks like a world with no actual building. Often it comprises a virtual operation with teams that stretch across multiple cultures and international time zones.

Traditionally, it is the role of the Chief Operations Officer to manage the physical operations of the company, including its infrastructure, and Human Resources was somewhere underneath on the organizational chart to manage people and culture. And in a traditional brick-and-mortar environment, that makes sense.

Having played a COO-for-hire role for the last few years, I’ve found that it now requires some creative thinking to examine the core assets that comprise “operations,” and what maintenance they require. In a world of location-agnostic workplaces (i.e. your home office), those assets are mostly people; and particularly for a virtual operation, where face-to-face interaction typically happens on a flat screen, the team must function well in those conditions for the company to prosper.

Even more complicated can be the process of measuring success of the people part — the “soft” stuff. Developing the Key Performance Indicators that provide worthwhile insights and tangible measurements, and inform real next steps, can challenge the biggest of brains.

So what does that all mean? It means a huge piece of my work is to build a solid foundation that creates the space for clear communication, maintaining well-being, setting goals for personal growth, and somehow fostering a sense of teamwork even though everyone might be on different parts of the globe. It means translating a company’s core values into multicultural conversations that somehow create a symphony of growth and prosperity for the organization and its people.

It also means creating opportunities for face-to-face interaction whenever we can manage it. In fact, it’s safe to say that with virtual companies, operations could take on the function of HR completely, and in partnership with IT, create the best way to support all of that communication and teamwork. (You sometimes see this in the new realm of “Chief People Officers”.)

Given the particular challenges we face as we become digital nomads, where virtual work environments become the norm, where soft skills are fading and we are acting less human, this shift toward human development is more critical than ever. My proudest moments come when companies have a “human moment” — and when things seamlessly work together despite people not sharing a physical space. When the tech team talks about feeling disconnected from everyone, and really wants to be part of the greater vision. When the employee who starts in tears on her first day becomes a leader of others.

No amount of technology will teach us how to be great humans, so if we are to protect our greatest assets, the new COO will be more focused on becoming a People Development Officer. And I like that idea very much.

If you are a virtual operation, what teamwork challenges do you face? Is everyone in a silo, or does your company put forth efforts to create cohesiveness?