Coaching for Chief Operating Officers in Financial Services
Before becoming an executive coach, I was a Chief Operating Officer, a COO, in financial services for over ten years. Each day brought different challenges. The people, opportunities to explore, and problems to be solved were what made the days fly by. Financial Services COOs operate in roles that combine people, processes, and technology to solve complex and adaptive problems - they are the linchpins in their organisations.
I now work exclusively with busy, successful people who want to make a bigger impact. While recently speaking with a prospective client who is a COO, they remarked that my 2019 article on coaching COOs "…felt as though it was written for me." Three years on, and there has been significant change, but the challenges faced by people in linchpin roles remain the same at its core.
What is a linchpin, and what makes them so different? A quick search online provides the following descriptions:
a person or thing vital to an enterprise or organisation
one that serves to hold together parts or elements that exist or function as a unit
Seth Godin (author and teacher) goes even further to emphasise the importance of linchpins within organisations:
"…the Linchpins are the people who make a difference, the ones that ship, the rare ones that truly have an impact."
So why do I believe Chief Operating Officers (COOs) live up to this description and deserve to be called linchpins?
In a nutshell, it is because COOs regularly must come up with innovative solutions to complex, often adaptive challenges, constantly learning but at the same time having to make decisions based on incomplete and, at times, seemingly conflicting information and demands.
The best COOs are comfortable "threading the needle", achieving business objectives by balancing conflicting goals and interests. They usually have small teams yet must influence and motivate large virtual teams or teams of teams to achieve the objectives of their businesses.
Technical acumen and business credibility are entry-level requirements to succeed. Increasingly, it is the ability to motivate, influence, build and lead high-performing teams and the broader interpersonal skills which are essential to thrive in the complex systems in which the COO role operates.
The Linchpins and different types of financial services COO
The financial services COO role has undergone considerable change in recent years. The change was inevitable considering the market, economic and geopolitical volatility and the wave of restructuring being driven by AI and automation. Adapting to resource constraints, the war for talent and increased regulatory scrutiny, to name just a few, have required an evolved and ultimately more sophisticated skill set.
This means that COOs are operating in an environment where things are changing faster, increasingly so, and different kinds of things are changing in a multitude of ways. The management acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) does an excellent job of summarising the reality in which they operate. This very environment has driven the increased demand and importance of the role as it has expanded from being the preserve of the front office/first line of defence to being common across most second line of defence functions, such as finance, technology, and legal and compliance.
The COO title is used inconsistently across the financial services sector. Typically roles such as Chief Administrative Officers (CAO) or Chief of Staff (COS) are part of the business management arena and hence are often used interchangeably, albeit the different names highlight differing priorities for the role within each organisation.
According to the seminal 2006 HBR article: Second In Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer (Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles), there are seven kinds of COO. However, in my experience, three of the seven are the most accurate descriptions of the post-financial crisis, financial services COO:
The Executor – to coordinate and execute the plans and objectives developed by the top leadership team. Often there is simply too much scope and complexity for one pair of hands. So the COO will take on responsibilities that usually belong to the CEO in a less complex organisation.
The Change Agent – to lead and be accountable for specific high-priority and high-profile initiatives such as financial resource optimisation or e-trading technology efforts. It is common for the COO to be responsible for multiple high-priority projects and free up the CEO to focus on strategy, clients and important decisions.
The Other Half – the COO's skillset complements the CEO's experience, style and expertise. Often the CEO will have risen through the ranks as the most successful trader, salesperson, or technical expert and is missing core knowledge and skills that are increasingly required to run a complex business or department. The combination of the CEO and COO will often be the complete package.
There is one core element to the COO role that I feel differentiates it from most others:
COOs, being in charge of day-to-day operations, regularly have to make decisions, often without consultation, risking the unhappy reactions of others as they perform the delicate and often impossible task of threading the needle.
Because of their day-to-day role and their relationship with the CEO in charge, the financial services COO rarely receives clear and direct feedback from their crucial stakeholders. So an effective feedback loop is missing. COOs and their employers need help understanding what skills and behaviours people in these linchpin roles need to develop.
I posit that nowhere is continuous, tailored learning and development more important than the COO role within financial services. Not only is elite financial services an incredibly fast-paced business environment, but the COO is the nexus of strategy and operations and needs to stay up to speed more than most.
Revan's Axiom from the action learning approach to problem-solving states that
"For organisations to survive and grow, their rate of learning has to be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in their environment."
Learning >= Change
It is easy to understand and agree with but challenging to carry out without a deep understanding of the reality and idiosyncrasies of the COO role. The end result is often a generic, off-the-shelf training program or coaching engagement rather than something uniquely tailored for the linchpins. The reality is that COOs, like most elite knowledge workers, are maxed out with their day jobs, so the time carved out of the scarce resource needs to be made the most of.
Coaching priorities for COOs
If you were to ask the more experienced COOs what the single most important improvement they needed to make during their careers, the list identified would be something like this:
Be a more effective, forceful and direct communicator in all settings.
Stop worrying about upsetting everyone and stop trying to appease the loudest vested interest groups.
To be a more effective challenger of the CEO and Exco and less focused on their approval and support.
To have confidence in themselves and their skills and hence to speak up more and voice their opinions.
Be an effective delegator, be comfortable saying no, and not automatically accept the need to involve themselves in everything urgent.
In these elite financial services organisations, all the senior players are smart and are technically skilled – they wouldn't be in their roles otherwise. We must embrace and understand what makes these roles so different and tailor the training program and coaching accordingly to bring out the best in the COOs - to take already successful people and help improve them.
Great coaching from someone with a broad and deep array of knowledge and competence in these four core competencies
Help to create awareness and insight - how do you come across to others versus how you view yourself?
Clarify what needs to change and the development and new skills required to achieve the desired outcomes.
Review the challenges, obstacles or the nature of the opportunities in detail - our current reality is a result of past decisions.
Enhance your ability to make better decisions by identifying and clarifying the different approaches and choices ahead and the trade-offs involved - not all decisions are equal.
Create new ideas, alternative solutions, and hypotheses to explore and experiment with - a coaching session is a learning laboratory.
Go deep to double-click on what to retain and what to change to create new habits and behaviours and establish new skills that endure.
What's the bottom line?
The most successful people understand a simple truth: we need an edge to succeed and differentiate or risk marginalisation, as our skills and knowledge steadily lose value.
Continuously learning can be expensive in terms of time and effort, but standing still and not furthering one's personal development costs a fortune.
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