What I Would Do Differently: Becoming a Chief Operating Officer
My company, Sapper Consulting, rose from the ground with little to no infrastructure. Five of us built the plane as we flew, focusing on maintaining stability and staying on course. It was a heady experience for someone like me in the right place at the right time with the skills needed. I was fortunate to be part of that momentum, which carried me from content writer to full-on leader.
Eventually, I was living in all departments — save sales — for short deployments, establishing operations and protocols before handing the reins over and moving on. By the time I became chief operating officer, I had a high-level understanding of all facets of the organization. Yet something was holding me back: I was stuck in the day-to-day, tethered to responsibilities I had yet to pass along to someone else.
Stumbling blocks from the C-suite
Growing with Sapper had been a blessing and curse: It gave me a great head start, but I relentlessly compared myself to more experienced executives at other organizations. It was tough to convince myself that I deserved a seat at the table until I found my voice and stride. Imposter syndrome is real, folks — but I had to overcome it in order to realize my full potential.
I struggled with delegation as well, even though it’s essential for healthy corporate and personal growth. I remember once telling my CEO I was booked all week with new-hire phone screenings. His response: “Why?” We had an HR director and people willing to help. I had no reason to focus on those tasks. In fact, I was taking them away from my teammates by trusting only myself. That was the wake-up call I needed.
As I’ve reflected on my journey from content writer to COO, I’ve considered how I could have approached the move more effectively. If you’re shifting into a C-suite role, consider these five strategies to make the transition as smooth as possible:
- Keep one foot on the gas and one on the brake.
As an executive, you must make immediate decisions. At the same time, you need to keep your sights on scaling. One reason it was hard to tear myself from the day-to-day is that, as we grew, we made too many short-term decisions and not enough long-term ones. Make the best decisions for your company in its existing stage, but assess what the ramifications might be six or 12 months down the line to ensure success. Need more convincing? Nearly two-thirds of firms that are growth-oriented rather than mired only in the here and now can successfully expand to different audiences.
- Develop a framework to keep a pulse on the everyday.
As I’ve removed myself from daily operations, the feeling of being out of the loop has frustrated me. At the same time, I know I don’t have the luxury to obsess about the nitty-gritty at the exception of higher-level considerations. Fortunately, we found “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman, a book that provides a framework to ensure everyone is rowing in tandem. By implementing Wickman’s principles, we established a system that alerts us to some day-to-day updates without sucking us into every detail.
- Ask for feedback early and often.
Feedback is rare at the C-suite level. It’s also really necessary. As C-suite members are in positions of leadership, they can create and implement change quickly, without the usual series of approvals and discussions. That responsibility also means they should know how they are objectively and perceptually performing. Every executive at our company conducts a “skip-level” meeting with direct reports of a different executive. After aggregating feedback, the results become the basis for leadership improvement opportunities. Consider implementing a similar program as you transition into your role.
- Have contingency plans.
You’re going to make painful, embarrassing mistakes that affect not just you, but your full team. This is part and parcel of being in charge. That said, always make decisions with two considerations in the back of your mind: First, how else could you pivot if your initial reaction is wrong? And second, how difficult would it be to reverse your position if it turns out poorly? Taking just a bit of time up front will save you a lot of heartache later.
- Solve really big problems with your team.
You might initially feel alone when you step into a C-suite role — but it’s important to realize you aren’t. Bringing in others and asking for feedback are important qualities in a successful leader. Go to your team as a confident delegator seeking to tap into others’ knowledge and creativity. Present possible solutions and lead structured brainstorming sessions. Chances are strong the final decision will be a hybrid of multiple solutions, or perhaps one you would never have considered.
Stepping into a role with new responsibilities always involves growing pains and hard lessons, but my position as COO has afforded me the chance to become a stronger leader and representative of my company. If you keep these strategies in mind as you shift roles, you’ll have the same opportunity to watch your skills and career trajectory soar.
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