Interim COO

When and How To Hire an Interim COO

In many organizations, the chief operating officer is one of the most important executives in the c suite. He or she serves as the head of the business’s operations and, in many cases, acts as a second-in-command and surrogate for the chief executive officer.

The significance of the COO means that some organizations can’t get by without one. Therefore, at certain times, such as during team transitions, deciding to hire an interim COO is essential. Other organizations are just reaching the point of needing a chief operating officer. In this case, an interim operations head may also be helpful.

What Does a Chief Operating Officer Do?

The chief operating officer is the c-level executive in charge of the daily operations of the organization. Depending on the size and diversity of the business, this can be a very strategically focused position or a more day-to-day-focused position.

This can include analyzing and refining operations. It can also include working to improve organizational communication and efficiency. In some cases, a COO may head up high-importance projects that require the involvement of a top executive. For other organizations, the head of operations may principally act as backup and a partner to the CEO.

It is perhaps the most variably defined member of the c-suite. In many cases, the role of the COO is to help the CEO achieve success for the organization. In other words, the exact purpose of the operations chief depends on what the top executive needs.

This relationship can make keeping the top operations job filled a high priority for the organization. Having the role vacant, especially unexpectedly, can become a critical concern for the CEO and board of directors.

What Is an Interim COO?

An interim COO is essentially just a short-term operations executive. He or she may hold the role for a preset period of time or may hold it until a permanent chief operating officer is named. There are two main types of interim COOs:

  • Internal: An existing member of the business team takes on the role of the COO during the search for a permanent candidate. This arrangement typically arises when the existing chief operating officer leaves without a transition plan. In many cases, though not all, the internal interim COO may be named as the permanent successor.
  • External: Sometimes there isn’t an internal candidate for the position. Other times, outside expertise is needed to achieve organizational success. In either case, a consultant or simply an external candidate takes over the role. Usually, this type of interim executive will not take over permanently; however, that may be the result in some cases.

Regardless of whether the individual is an existing member of the team or an external hire, the interim COO will typically function in the same way that a permanent one would. In some circumstances, this may be in primarily an oversight role, keeping the ship on course until a permanent candidate is found. In other cases, the interim COO may be specifically tasked with changing things up.

In short, much like a full-time operations chief, the role of the interim executive is very much dependent on the current needs of the organization and c-suite team. Thus, exactly what an interim COO does will depend on how and why the prior executive left, or in some cases why the position was created.

Reasons To Hire an Interim COO

Hiring an interim executive may seem like a distraction from finding a permanent candidate. However, there are many excellent reasons to hire someone in a temporary operations role:

  • Allowing Time To Find a Permanent Successor: Executive searches take time. Finding the right person that can lead your organization’s operations to success rarely happens overnight. However, finding an interim COO, especially an external consultant, can be done almost immediately.
  • Maintaining Confidence: Having a hole in your executive team can lead board members, investors and other stakeholders to get nervous. This is especially true if you don’t have a clear succession plan. Hiring a temporary executive can help to soothe any worries. Not only is the position filled, but this strategy also projects an image of thoughtfulness and confidence.
  • Ensuring Internal Stability: When someone leaves your leadership team, it can make things feel uncertain for your team members. This is only multiplied when that person is a c-level executive who affects everyone in the organization. Choosing to hire an interim COO can help provide a sense of continuance and stability.
  • Keeping Things Running: The top operation’s job in your organization is an important one. Keeping your day-to-day operations organized should always be a top priority. Hiring an interim COO may be necessary to simply keep things on track.
  • Avoiding Overworking Other Leaders: In some cases, other operations leaders will be able to take over the responsibilities of the COO. However, this can lead to overworking your management team. Depending on your circumstances, it may be essential to find some outside help.

Of course, interim executives aren’t just about bridging the gap. Sometimes you need to hire someone to help manage a transition. Other times, you may be creating the chief operating officer position for the first time and want a trial run. Here are some other reasons to hire an interim COO:

  • Getting the Necessary Skills: Sometimes a temporary, outside COO can bring new skills to the position that you need. For example, if you are opening up new global operations, having someone with international experience is essential. Therefore, you may want to bring on a temporary executive while you find an appropriate permanent candidate.
  • Offering Outside Perspective: Objectivity is important in the c-suite. However, it isn’t always easy to maintain. Getting someone in from the outside can be very beneficial in terms of objectivity. It is an excellent way to get a fresh perspective on how your organization is operating.
  • Managing Essential Projects: Critical projects sometimes need special attention. If you have not previously had a COO but need someone to ensure the success of a major undertaking, having an interim COO may be useful. You can either make it a permanent position or simply have a temporary operations head for the duration of the project.

Sometimes bringing on a temporary executive is the right choice for your business. It can help you ensure continuing success and/or manage a period of transition more effectively. Better yet, it prevents you from having to rush to find a successor or go without someone heading up your operations.

When Should You Hire an Interim COO?

Clearly, there are strong reasons to hire an interim COO. However, you may still be wondering when the right time is. Typically, companies hire interim executives after a c-suite member leaves and before his or her successor is hired; however, there are some other circumstances as well.

For a COO Transition: The simplest circumstance for hiring an interim COO is in between two permanent executives’ tenures. Sometimes people retire or quit without a clear succession plan or with one that can’t be implemented immediately. It takes time to find a worthy successor and having an interim chief operating officer can help keep things steady.

When a Turnaround Is Needed: If your company’s operations are in poor shape, it may be necessary to make a leadership change. In these cases, an interim COO may be helpful. Sometimes, an outside consultant with experience in operations improvement can be preferable to an internal or permanent executive.

During a Growth Period: Sometimes organizations, especially relatively new ones, find themselves on the precipice of a period of major growth. Perhaps you have landed a new deal for international distribution or earned a major contract. In these instances, it can be prudent to bring on board new leadership that is skilled in handling larger operations.

  • Before an Essential Project: Developing new systems or undertaking large projects can necessitate specialized skills from your chief operating officer. In these cases, it can be helpful to hire an interim COO.
  • Following a Firing: Although it is in some ways similar to any other transition, an executive being fired brings special challenges. Uncertainty tends to be much higher after a COO is fired than if he or she leaves voluntarily. Furthermore, there may be specific damage from mishandled operations that needs to be rectified.
  • When Your COO Is Sick: Sometimes people get sick. If your chief operating officer needs some long-term leave to manage a health situation, it can be beneficial to bring an interim COO on board. In these cases, an external consultant is an excellent choice. Hiring such a person helps your team keep running without the appearance of replacing your unwell operations lead.
  • As a Test Run: Most companies aren’t founded with a full suite of executives. In fact, many chief operating officer positions are created to offload some responsibilities from the CEO. However, knowing when the right time is to hire can be difficult. You can bring on a temporary executive as a test run to see how things go first.

In all these circumstances, deciding to hire an interim COO instead of waiting for a permanent successor or offloading responsibilities to other managers can be an impactful decision. Doing so can bring stability and competence to your organization’s operations team during a period of uncertainty.

The Advantages of Short-Term and Partial Executives

An interim executive can be a useful addition to your team in many cases. Clearly, there are plenty of situations when hiring one is the right decision, and there are many good reasons to do so. However, it may seem like a permanent COO would offer all the same advantages. This isn’t quite true:

  • Less Pressure: Hiring executives is not an easy process. They will have a major impact on your organization, so finding the right person is important. When you hire an interim COO, there is less pressure to find the ideal candidate. Instead, you can simply bring on someone who can do the job. Then you have time to worry about who will achieve long-term success.
  • Malleability: Executives, especially those working with large teams, tend to have a lot of expectations about how they will run their operations. An interim executive, however, knows that he or she is only taking the job short term. Your temporary executive can more easily play whatever role is needed. This is especially true for external candidates.
  • Try Before You Buy: Again, hiring a c-level executive is no simple matter. It can be nice to try out the role before making a commitment. This can take the form of a trial run for a specific person or a trial for the position itself if it is newly created.
  • Fresh Eyes: There is no replacing an outside set of eyes. Sometimes you need this perspective right away, so hiring an interim COO can bring in that objective opinion without the need for a lengthy search process.
  • Fast Turnaround: When you need someone quickly, there is really no replacing an outside consultant for taking on a vacant role. Often the turnaround time can be a matter of days or weeks rather than months.

Some temporary COOs also offer partial executive services. When you need some help with your operations but aren’t ready for a full-time leader, this can be very helpful. It has many of the advantages of an interim COO but functions as a part-time team member.

Considerations When You Hire an Interim COO

When you hire a temporary executive, it is important to set clear goals for the position. Specifically, know what that timeframe of the job is and what you hope to achieve. Having clear objectives will help you to ensure the process is successful.

The candidate’s qualifications are also a consideration. He or she must possess many of the same skills as a permanent COO. However, there may be less pressure to find an exact fit as the role is temporary.



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