Feeling like a bottleneck lately?
Despite your best intentions to take a step back to focus on the big picture— the pressures of daily operations has a way of creeping back into your list of to-dos. Your best seller is out of stock, the next shipment is held up in transit, and you lay awake at night stressing over next month’s payroll.
How will you ever grow if you’re bogged down in this everyday stress? Hire a Chief Operating Officer (COO).
A COO with a good track record oversees all business operations, helping free up your time to focus on the big picture and long-term strategy. But getting to this dream state—hiring a COO—is a significant investment. Finding the best candidate is also not a straightforward path. The decision may depend on the right skills, a proven track record, cultural fit, and the unique circumstances of your business.
This guide aims to equip you with the information to navigate the hiring process for a COO successfully. We’ll cover four main areas:
- Why hire a COO?
- When to hire a COO
- How to hire a COO
- Onboarding your COO
🙋♀️ Author note: I’ve learned from countless threads in the ECF forum that there is not one prescriptive path to hiring a COO. Some businesses have been looking for a COO that is the “right fit” for years. Others have decided to split the role across multiple senior-level positions.
And some have successfully hired a COO and couldn’t imagine their lives without them. As you read this guide, keep an open mind on what is right for you and your business as there are many possibilities and scenarios—at any given stage.
Why Hire a COO? Hint: To offload operational burden
The answer can be as simple as this: Eventually, you realize you have your hands in too many pies.
“I want to be left alone to grow sales and develop new products.”
For others, it can be self-awareness discovery—knowing you need someone to complement your own set of strengths and weaknesses to grow.
“There are fantastic people out there, and [a COO] will free you to work in your most effective playground.”
Workshopping your personal “WHY” at the beginning of your hiring process could make it easier to help you define what exactly you need a COO to help with.
On that note…
The Role of a COO (And how they can help you)
By “definition”, a COO is a high-level executive who oversees the day-to-day operations of a company—typically reporting directly to the CEO/Founder. The COO is responsible for implementing the company’s strategy and ensuring everything runs efficiently and effectively.
The job description of a Chief Operating Officer (COO)
While it can vary depending on the company, here are some common responsibilities of a COO:
- Managing the company’s operations, including production, logistics, and supply chain management
- Developing and implementing policies and procedures to improve efficiency and productivity (i.e Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) implementation)
- Working with other executives to develop and implement the company’s strategy
- Managing the company’s budget and financial performance
- Ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements
An ECF member makes a good distinction between the role of a COO and an Operations Manager.
“For me, I see COO as more of a true integrator. Any project, idea, concept, etc that I have—they will implement. Operations Manager can do some biz dev work, but their main job is to handle all things related to production and fulfillment.”
A specific callout: Don’t confuse the COO role with responsibilities that should fall with the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)—sales and marketing.
Another ECF Member shared his experience of working with excellent COOs who were true integrators and had a thorough understanding of supply chain and warehouse operations.
“These COOs were systems-oriented and genuinely curious about every process and person within their purview. They were involved in the details alongside junior employees but trusted them to do their best work. They could manage the CEO’s dreams, the CMO’s lack of accountability, and the CFO’s irrational bottom line ambitions with a humble servant leader quality.”
Benefits of hiring a COO
The role of a COO is to help your business achieve:
- 📈 Improved efficiency and productivity: A COO can help identify areas where the company can improve its operations and implement changes to make it more efficient and productive.
- 💸 Increased profitability: A COO can help increase the company’s profitability by improving efficiency and productivity.
- 🤓 Improved strategic planning: A COO can work with other executives to develop and implement the company’s strategy, ensuring that the company is moving in the right direction.
- ⚖️ Better risk management: A COO can help ensure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, reducing the company’s risk of legal or financial problems.
- 💬 Improved communication: A COO can help improve communication between different departments and levels of the company, ensuring that everyone works harmoniously.
Let’s not forget the emotional benefits of making the right hire too.
“Having a high-level sounding board who I can talk to about issues. She’s very calm personality-wise, and I’m a bit more emotional, so it balances out nicely.”
When to Hire a COO
As a business grows, the responsibilities of the CEO can become overwhelming. Hiring a COO can share the workload and bring in new ideas and perspectives.
Signs You Need a COO
The decision to hire a Chief Operating Officer (COO) is more likely to be based on the needs and goals of your business rather than a prescriptive revenue or team size.
Here are some common scenarios when you might start considering hiring a COO:
- 😰 Overwhelmed with day-to-day operations and don’t have time to focus on long-term strategy.
- 🤯 Experiencing rapid growth, and your company needs someone to manage the expansion.
- 😬 Lack experience in a certain area, such as finance or operations, and need someone with expertise in that area.
- 😮💨 Facing challenges, such as declining profits or increased competition, and you need someone to help turn things around.
💡 Put it this way: If every minute not spent doing what you’re best at feels like an opportunity cost, it’s time to consider hiring a COO.
Timing for Hiring a COO
So, when is the right time to hire a COO? It can vary. Some businesses may bring on a COO early in their growth phase, while others may wait until they are more established.
Here are some factors to consider 🤔:
If you are smaller and growing quickly, getting an organizational structure in place is important to define the roles and responsibilities of each person in the company. Without a clear structure, there can be confusion, duplication of efforts, and a lack of accountability.
Ask yourself: Can you promote someone internally to a manager position to oversee more things and hire someone to replace them?
❇️ One ECF member suggests a strategy for managing growth in a company without immediately jumping to hire a COO.
“Growing fast presents tons of challenges! I would say to find an area where you can promote one person to manage a few others. Maybe someone to manage the VAs, for example. As you grow, find a second area needing management, promote or hire there, and repeat…
Jumping to hire a COO would be a mistake—one I’ve made. You won’t be able to solve all your stress and challenges with one big hire, but you can do it and manage a much larger team by hiring good people in management roles specific to one part of the company.”
The workload of a CEO can be a crucial factor in determining when to hire a COO. As a company grows and becomes more complex, the CEO’s responsibilities can become overwhelming, leading to stress, burnout, and decreased productivity.
This was, unfortunately, the case for this ECF member.
“Recently, I experienced a massive burnout from my business, leading to many panic attacks. I was overwhelmed by the tedious operational responsibility of my company.”
If your operational workload consistently prevents you from focusing on your core strengths, it may be time to consider bringing on a COO.
As this ECF member puts it, it also stops you from being the bottleneck.
“I find myself managing the daily operations and full-time managing the team all the time…and I have no time to focus on strategy/marketing strategies and even raising funds. Therefore, I think it is time I stop being a bottleneck… and hire a COO.”
Are You Actually Ready?
Bringing on a COO when you’re not ready is like trying to build a house on a weak foundation. It may look fine at first, but eventually, the lack of preparation and structure will cause the whole thing to collapse.
Ask yourself: Do you have the necessary resources and structure in place to support a COO, such as a clear organizational chart, established processes, and a solid financial footing?
❇️ This ECF member says hiring a COO shouldn’t be a way to avoid making difficult decisions or to delegate responsibilities you “just don’t want to deal with” either.
“Most founders have not made the hard choices they need to make, and they think this bag of crap they want to give to their new integrator. They said in their head, “I want to do all the fun stuff and let me hire someone to deal with all of this crap”. They are looking for a way to shortcut personal growth, and that doesn’t work.”
❇️ Another ECF member shares how his personal experience helped him learn that hiring a COO is not necessary for every stage of growth.
In his case, he initially thought he was the problem and needed someone to take on the responsibility of running the business.
He later realized that people weren’t working in the company because they believed in the company; they believed in him and his own beliefs (something he didn’t discover until much later).
“I spent the next four years working on my faults—holding myself accountable for not being a bottleneck or the distraction. Either fixing or accepting my weaknesses. We grew from 16 people to around 38 when we promoted someone from within the business to President/Integrator. It was the right person at the right time. And was needed at that point. It definitely wasn’t needed at 16 people. I wasn’t truly ready for it either.”
Do You Have the Budget to Pay a COO’s Salary?
Data from Comparably says the median salary range for a COO is between $180,000 to $480,000.
Advice from other ECF members mirrors the same 6-figure sentiment.
“If I was a $25M business, and paid $500k a year, I could get that talent, but I was paying around $100k USD (after tax), which wasn’t enough.”
But there are other ways you can think about it, too—from a COO’s perspective.
“My current role is executing the business’s day-to-day, and my compensation is a revenue share + profit payout.”
💡 You could also consider a fractional or consultative COO role to lessen the immediate financial impact.
“One thing I’ve done recently because I needed the guidance is to hire a fractional COO/CFO who is helping lead the restructure and provides that guidance but only works a few days a week, so her cost impact is reasonable. I think fractional, freelance and ‘agency’ is the way to get out of the 7 figure rut I call it…”
👉 One thing to remember if you hire a fractional COO is not to overestimate capacity.
“My fractional COO hire walked in with a project on fire, and I had hoped that she’d be able to manage multiple things. Given she’s only part-time, it restricts this a lot, so she’s only starting to get to things. Correcting with a 30-60-90 day plan that’s more realistic.”
❇️ One ECF member recommends SCORE as a starting point for those seeking business advice. He personally had a SCORE advisor for a couple of years who had a background in operations and had run multiple companies, and this advisor had been extremely helpful to his business. Currently, he is exploring the option of seeking consultation help.
“Just as an FYI, some great people do consultative COO roles and could add tremendous value without breaking the bank.“
“I have a friend who is a CPA and does this for many businesses in Portland. I’m having coffee with him next week to see if he could give me a few hours a month in this role. He often has ideas and insights which are not obvious to me.”
❇️ Or you could start with an executive assistant, like this CEO.
“I’m trying to alleviate some of this “operation bulllshit” by hiring an Executive Assistant. Going through final interviews now, they’ll handle all sorts of tasks that I’m either trying to do myself or forcing people in other roles to do when they shouldn’t be.”
“Hopefully, this helps to free up my schedule to focus on revenue-generating activity—then I’ll be at the time to re-evaluate the “big” hire…”
✅ Key takeaway: Without the budget to hire a COO, you still have options to partner with someone of similar nature without breaking the bank. You may need to lay down some stepping stones before you invest in the “big” hire.
How to Hire a COO
Defining the Role
A COO is typically second in command to the CEO and may act as the CEO’s proxy in their absence. Both roles have different areas of focus and expertise, but if there is ambiguity in their responsibilities, this can lead to some issues if not properly defined.
An ECF member shares his personal experience of struggling to let go of control as a founder when bringing in an Integrator/COO.
- He suggests the CEO read the book Rocketfuel (the book linked earlier) and take tests to help define their roles.
- He also emphasizes the importance of having metrics and reports that the CEO cares about to ensure the company is heading in the right direction, which can help the CEO trust the Integrator/COO more.
- He also recommends a weekly leadership meeting between the CEO and Integrator to review the metrics and address any problems.
- And lastly, he advises the CEO to focus on “WHO not WHAT” at this stage of the company, meaning they should be delegating responsibilities to the Integrator/COO and trusting their expertise, rather than getting into the weeds themselves.
A common question that came up in the forum is whether a COO should have eCommerce experience.
This CEO hired one for his business and weighed in.
“In my experience, having [a COO] already familiar with EOS was unimportant. EOS is essentially a collection of tried and true Operations practices that any good Ops person should know (not necessarily under the EOS brand name) and/or be able to pick it up quickly.”
He also suggests searching for a “Part-Time Operations Manager/Director” or a “Fractional COO” instead of an “Integrator with EOS experience” to find more potential candidates.
Qualities to Look for in COO Candidates
Based on real hiring experiences in many industries, there are three key qualities that you should look for in your COO candidates to ensure they have what it takes to excel in this role.
A Bias Towards Action
One ECF member hired a COO after an 18-month search process, but she was let go a year later because she was missing two things: the inability to evaluate and challenge overly-optimistic visionary ideas objectively. Second, she lacked the initiative and drive to tackle inefficiencies across the business (but was great at gathering data).
“If our business was the Titanic, instead of grabbing a bucket and furiously bailing out water, she was on the deck calculating the rate at which it sank.”
Despite being a great person who improved morale and was good at recruiting and hiring, she was not suited for a small startup that needed bias towards action.
Experience Leading Teams & People
Another ECF member suggests you’ll see a great payoff if you can find someone at this level who both respects you and complements your capabilities (or the leadership team).
Here’s what’s worked well so far in hiring a fractional COO:
- The COO’s industry experience in specifically eCommerce—ops, finance, manufacturing and supply chain
- Complementary personality traits— a work-to-get-it-done type
- Experience with organizational systems like EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System)
- Experience leading teams and people (this one is essential, according to her)
“It is absolutely essential that a COO has experience leading people since they have all of the performance conversations, hiring, firing etc.”
A Natural at Empowering Others
This ECF member says to be cautious of control freaks as they can destroy morale within a team. A COO should be able to delegate effectively and trust their team to get the job done.
“Choose a COO wisely with excellent leadership skills as they will bear the brunt of dysfunctional teams casting about for blame when things go badly.”
It’s up to the COO to set clear expectations, provide support where needed, and sit back and let their team work autonomously without micromanaging. By empowering their team, a COO can foster a culture of trust, collaboration, and accountability, which are essential for long-term success.
Hire a COO Tactics: Tips and Strategies to Find Your Ideal Second-in-Command
Once you have defined the role and identified the qualities you seek in a COO, the next step is to start the interviewing and hiring process. But where do you even begin hiring such a heavy hitter?
There are two main approaches: seeking external help or looking internally within the company.
Some members recommend using consultants, recruitment agencies, or hiring an executive search firm to help in the search process. Something like VisionSpark, which offers executive search and leadership consulting services.
“I used VisionSpark out of Ohio. They speak EOS and specialize in helping Visionaries find integrators. Would definitely use them again if my integrator got hit by a bus tomorrow.”
Others have hired consultants to help them determine their needs and recruit/interview people.One ECF member talks about this exact experience. He was matched with a retired C-level person through SCORE—who has been a good resource and sounding board for defining COO experience requirements.
“A COO having an eCommerce background is nice to have, but not essential.”
He said the consultant was confident that someone with a degree in industrial engineering would be able to implement most of the changes we need to make around equipment placement, workflow configuration, KPI tracking and coaching/management of operations staff, ERP/MRP selection & implementation, and other high-level stuff that we need but would struggle to do ourselves.
Another ECF member found his COO from an employee who he trained and promoted.
But how do you identify the people up for the challenge? Conducting tests or assessments, such as personality tests or skills assessments, can help.
“For us, I had several of our top people who I thought ‘could’ fit that role take the test (including my wife). Another staff member better fit those roles, so we moved her into that position.”
Another ECF member broke out larger roles into multiple positions and paid less overall but got more. This allowed her to upskill employees to take on more responsibilities over time.
And this ECF member shared an amazing success story on how an Amazon contractor became his COO. The new COO played a significant role in boosting the company’s revenue, driving growth to the tune of 2-3x, all thanks to a well-structured compensation plan that tied his personal success to the company’s overall profits.
There’s also an element of ‘sometimes, you just get lucky’ with a good COO—like this ECF member.
“She started part-time doing sample assembly, moved to marketing, and is now my integrator. Somehow she gets me, understands what I want, and can interpret my half-speak into actual actions. It feels so good to know there’s someone I can trust to instruct employees and gets things done without over-explanation. I got lucky. I’m not sure I ever would have been able to know that she’d have this secret talent for understanding me through an interview process to be honest.”
Another ECF member acknowledges that promoting from within has been more successful for them than importing senior-level talent directly. However, he recognizes that he may need to hire externally as the company scales.
As you scale, it’s impossible to find all the talent you need internally, and also, sometimes, you need a senior person now, not in several years.
He believes that the problem lies in the integration, training, and leadership of new senior leaders, and plans to be more deliberate about creating a plan for the first 30/90/180 days of a new leader coming on board.
Onboarding Your COO
When you’re in the process of bringing a new COO on board, it’s important to think about how you can help them seamlessly integrate into your company culture.
Some ideas to consider:
- Provide the COO with a detailed overview of the company’s history, mission, and values.
- Introduce them to key stakeholders and team members, including department heads and direct reports.
- Encourage them to attend company events and participate in team-building activities.
- Assign a mentor or buddy to help them navigate the company culture and build relationships.
Defining Goals and Expectations
In addition to integrating the COO into the company culture, it’s important to ensure that everyone is on the same page:
- Work with the COO to establish KPIs that align with the company’s strategic objectives.
- Create a detailed job description that outlines the COO’s responsibilities and expectations.
- Set up regular check-ins to review progress and provide feedback.
- Establish a process for addressing any issues or concerns that arise.
Final Thoughts: Hire a Chief Operating Officer (COO) – The Buck Stops With You
Most CEOs/Founders have a hard time giving up control. But when you can find an accomplice to growth (Enter: COO) who can challenge your visions, have healthy disagreements, and bring a fresh perspective to the table, you’re in a much better position to scale your business.
Despite the first-hand experiences of the search process and opinions provided, stay true to your goals and budget, while also trusting your gut instincts. The reality is that finding the right person, often referred to as a “unicorn,” can be a time-consuming process, taking weeks, months, or even years. Ultimately, the decision of who to bring on as your COO is a significant one, and should not be rushed or taken lightly.
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