What exactly is a Chief Operating Officer, and why is it so difficult to define? 
Investopedia offers the following description:
The senior manager who is responsible for managing the company's day-to-day
operations and reporting them to the chief executive officer (CEO).”

That’s still a pretty broad statement.  Wikipedia further states that the COO role varies widely based on the needs of the CEO of the company. For instance, while in one business the COO might be responsible for all internal processes, HR and Finance, in another the COO might run client relations, sales operations and product management.  It is difficult to define because it is an ever-changing role to fill the needs of the company based on the strengths/weaknesses of the CEO and based on different phases of corporate growth.  In summary, the COO is someone who helps you run your business in whatever ways you need.
There are three questions for CEOs to consider when deciding to hire a
Do you have enough time to review the day-to-day operations on a regular
Depending on your business, you need to focus on your operations
minimum of once a week
.  Looking at a series of monthly reports is helpful, but it is not enough.  If you are finding you are going two or three weeks at a time without taking a look at your operations in some form, you may be losing opportunities to increase efficiencies, make your clients happier and/or grow your revenues.  
What are the skills you need to best complement your own? 
If you’re stronger in sales and customer relations, get someone who is stronger in administration and internal processes to complement your own strengths. 
If you aren’t good at the details, get someone really strong in logistics
and project management.  There is no one-size-fits-all job description for this role – it truly depends on what you and your business need.

 3. Full-time or part-time?
This hasn't always been an option for an executive role, but there are a growing number of part-time executives and that gives the CEO a lot more options.  Depending on your business and your stage of growth, you may need anything from someone reviewing your operations a few hours a week to a full-time position. This should be driven by looking at both what the business needs and what you can afford. For aggressively growing companies you need to bring in a strong person BEFORE you start to have issues.  If you are starting to miss deadlines periodically or your clients have started to register a complaint here or there, don’t wait any longer – those are signs that you need to tight up your operations. Startups that are more strapped for cash might want to test the
waters and bring someone on 4 hours a week to start– you can get some very
talented people with great experience on a part-time basis. This gives you a chance to see how the person fits into your culture, determine their strengths and think about what other responsibilities you might want to start rolling into the COO job description to free up your time. 

Debbie Millin is President/CEO of UpperLevel Solutions - a Boston-based firm offering part-time and interim COO services, operational assessments and executive project leadership.
You started your business because you saw a gap that needed to be filled, or looked at your competitors and thought “I can do better.”  You are really good at creating whatever it is you are delivering to your clients – software, professional services, etc.  When you start a company you generally become the Chief Everything Officer and do tasks from setting up your website to writing your blogs and balancing your books. It might feel like you need to know everything…but you don’t. 
If you can’t afford to have an internal staff just yet, surround yourself with allies and partners that can help you through. Your accountant, your lawyer, your best friend who has owned a business for 10 years – talk to anyone and everyone, get their experiences and advice. Build your list of allies and rely on them as needed through different phases of your company’s growth.  
There are also a growing number of incredibly experienced executives offering part-time services.  That means you could potentially have a knowledgeable C-level person on your team only when you need them and at a fraction of the cost. Traditionally this part-time world has been reserved for the Chief Financial Officers (CFOs), but increasingly there are executives from marketing, operations, and technology entering part-time/interim consulting and you can utilize these resources to help you.  
The best thing you can do for yourself and for your company is realize you DON’T need to know everything, understand your weaknesses, and surround yourself with people to fill those gaps.  

Debbie Millin is President/CEO of UpperLevel Solutions - a Boston-based firm offering part-time and interim COO services, operational assessments and executive project leadership.


Both of my children are athletes, and while they play a variety of positions on the field or ice, they are both pretty defensive minded at their core.  My nieces (also great athletes) are the same way.  Why are all these Maxwell kids defensemen, I wondered.  It occurred to me one day that my brother and I both have careers in the operations side of our respective businesses – and I started to see the link between the operations of a company and the defense of a team.
1. Defense and offense must work together.
Operations is defense; sales is offense.  They are both critical to success, and need to work together at all times, constantly refining the transition between the two to keep the team in sync. Teams where there is a mutual respect and genuine support between these two groups are the ones that are most successful.
2. You need a solid defensive coach.
If the CEO is the head coach, the COO is your defensive coach. Your Chief Operating Officer watches over all the day-to-day aspects of your business and keeps things running so you can focus on external items (sales, marketing, industry trends, fundraising, etc.)  Having someone in a leadership position who has a strong background in operations means you have someone who not only understands how things work but someone who will also have the respect of their employees because they have ‘been there’ and understand your employees’ needs.

3. A strong defense lets you focus on offense.
The sign of a good defense is when you barely notice they’re on the ice.  They do their job, block the shots and get the puck back to the offense with little fanfare. Similarly, the sign of a great operations team is that your processes, equipment, and delivery systems and teams run like a well-oiled machine and don’t require a lot of your attention.  A wise boss of mine once said if the only thing a client is complaining about is the format of your reports, then you’re in good shape – everything else is working. Operations teams are usually incredibly strong and knowledgeable people focused on their  goal of holding down the fort. The sales team is often made up of equally strong professionals who are focused on their one goal – getting the deal.   In the overall health of a company there is more of a focus on sales (goals/assists) than there is on avoided problems (blocked shots, protection in the neutral zone) and that’s OK as long as you have a defensive coach keeping an eye on those aspects for you.  When more issues in operations are rising to your level, you – like any good coach – need to address it head on and correct those issues so you can get back to scoring more goals.

Debbie Millin is President/CEO of UpperLevel Solutions - a Boston-based firm offering part-time and interim COO services, operational assessments and executive project leadership.

After months of endless campaign ads and debates, it’s finally here – election day. No matter your political ideology, it is important to get out and exercise your right to vote today. Looking back on this long and oftentimes painful election, let’s take a few lessons that apply to the business world.

Stay positive. 
Nobody likes those negative campaign ads.  Nobody. When the candidates start
taking shots at each other it makes us all – well, disappointed. The public
responds much better to the ads where the candidates state their views, their
plans for the future, talk about their experience and why they deserve your
vote. Similarly, it’s not good business to take shots at your competitors – you
will make your customers (and employees) disappointed.  Talk about what your company has done to be successful, why you are a great place to work, and why you deserve your customer’s business. Be inspiring. Be bold. Just don’t be negative.
Spend your money wisely – and base decisions on data
I am glad I don’t live in a swing state – I can’t imagine how many ads they are
seeing on a daily basis.  But, that’s where the candidates need to spend their money – their teams have reviewed the data and determined where they need to be in order to win more votes and win the electoral college. It’s a focused strategic attack. What data is your company looking at to determine your strategy?  Where do you need to focus? Do you need to overcome a rising competitor in a certain sector or geography?  Do you want to grow a new product line to be first to market? Regardless of your product or service, you should know your audience, know what key metrics you need to be looking at to ‘win’, and spend your budget dollars in a strategic way.
Stay true to your message.
I may not agree with a candidate’s views, but I need to know what they are.  When candidates start changing their message to try to make themselves appealing to everyone they are actually making themselves appealing to nobody. How can we support you if we don’t know what you stand for? 
State your platform, and stick to it.  Same with your company –what is your
mission?  What are your core principles and what are your strengths? It is far better to develop a loyal following of customers who support your message/service/product than to try to be everything to everyone.  Stay true to your customers and true to yourself.

Surround yourself with great people.
Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses, and they strive to build a team that is full of smart, dedicated people that help them overcome their weaknesses and complement their strengths.  They put their campaigns in the hands of these people – they need to have the best. Just as importantly, they need people they trust to represent them and not have an ill-prepared statement that is going to end up on the 6:00 news. When building your management team, particularly for smaller, growing companies, you are putting your company and your personal reputation in their hands.  Have a good understanding of your weaknesses and seek out talented people who have those skills to round out your overall team. Choose experienced and driven people who will represent your company well and help you to create a strong vision, strong employees, and strong customer base.

Create a well-oiled machine with a customer focus.
A presidential candidate cannot know every single thing happening in every state and every town.  They develop an overall strategy with their team, put strong people in key positions to oversee each area, and also have strong people ‘on the ground’ to get the job done.  Good campaigns take a local approach to their overall strategy and put detailed plans and processes in place to make their campaign hum.  As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local” and it becomes even more important to create a personal connection with voters in an increasingly electronic world. A company needs to have an overall strategy, with tactical plans and processes behind them.  Putting strong people in your key
positions and aligning all your departments to a common goal help you create a
well-oiled machine in your operations. It also empowers your employees ‘on the ground’ to know their role in the overall organization and allows them to focus on your customers creating a personal connection that will win their loyalty. Focus on your operations, create a well-oiled machine, and your employees and your customers will be happier for it.

Debbie Millin is President/CEO of UpperLevel Solutions - a Boston-based firm offering part-time and interim COO services, operational assessments and executive project leadership.