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From COO to CEO: Lessons from making the pivot

Embrace succession planning as an essential enabler of smooth transitions, whether planned or precipitous.

From COO to CEO: Lessons from making the pivot
[Drazen/AdobeStock]

Let me set the scene for you.

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You are the recently installed COO at a nanocap company engaged in a major transformation of its business. The CEO, a mentor to you and a true mensch, has, with the board’s buy-in, brought you on to help lead this change.

The change will be disruptive to your company’s go-to-market strategy, revenue generation, and profitability. But it also promises long-term gain via the transformation of the business into a software-as-a-service organization with attractive recurring revenues.

All is well until the incumbent chief executive gets an offer he cannot refuse—the opportunity to lead a company engaged in work precisely in line with his longtime interests. Suddenly the oft-cited quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower—”Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”—is very, very resonant.

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This was the situation I found myself in. The original plan was that I would eventually transition to the chief executive role—”eventually” being the operative word there. Instead, the transition happened much sooner than the plan anticipated.

Thankfully, the planning proved, as Eisenhower noted, to be everything. Without it, our board would have had to launch an external search for a successor to our CEO. That search would have consumed months at a critical juncture in the transformation of our business, sapping our momentum toward becoming the company we aspire to be. Instead, thanks to the initiative of my predecessor and a very engaged board and board chair, our succession planning enabled a minimally disruptive transition.

How so? First, a culture of trust, transparency, and openness prevails at our company. My appointment as COO was not a surprise. My accountability and ownership of significant parts of our transformation effort were well communicated and well understood. Hence, while the timing of the transition proved abrupt, our people were prepared to accept the change.

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Second, that trust, transparency, and openness gave me the license to delve deep into the internal workings of the business from day one. As a result, I was quickly able to gain insight into what was working well, what needed to change, who the key players in our business transformation would be, and more.

Third, because the business transformation we are undertaking is truly a “whole company” effort, it made sense for me to step a bit outside the COO’s conventional internal role and engage with key external audiences, including customers, channel partners and resellers, major shareholders, and the securities analysts following our company. Those opportunities helped dampen concerns among key stakeholders regarding the leadership change.

Nevertheless, the transition from chief operating officer to chief executive officer required some quick pivots personally. Here are some lessons from my experience:

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FOCUS FIRST ON EMPLOYEES

Given the business transformation we were engaged in, we could ill afford a sudden plague of uncertainty about commitment to the path forward, nor a mass exit of talent precipitated by the change in leadership. Because of that, I made my top priority meeting with as many people as possible, in person or one-on-one, in the wake of the news.

Inevitably, the first question I heard was “What are you going to change?” It was critical in this context to underscore my commitment to the work we were collectively engaged in and to let the team see my enthusiasm for the path ahead and what my expectations for them would be as I took this new seat.

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PULL LEADERSHIP TOGETHER

Given our company’s early commitment to remote work as the pandemic took hold, coupled with the fact that the very services we provide are a remote-work enabler, it is admittedly ironic that another early priority for me was to pull our leadership team together, in person. But for the dialogue we needed to have, it was critical to have the benefits of in-person dynamics that can bridge communications gaps. I wanted our leaders to come together to articulate a vision for our company and doing that via screen time was not optimal.

OBSERVE THE “WAIT” RULE

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“WAIT” stands for “Why am I talking?” As I met with our people and convened our leadership team, I committed to listening first. It was important to let people express how they were feeling at this pivot point for our company. Multiple key leaders unexpectedly had their reporting relationships changed. Key roles would need to be backfilled. The time spent to hear people out—listening first—in a private conversation or a walk around the neighborhood proved to be time extremely well spent.

SHIFT YOUR PERSPECTIVE

The COO’s role is primarily internally focused. You are the person charged with keeping the trains running on time. The CEO’s role is different. You need to think about what kind of trains you want to run, to what destinations, on what schedules. Similarly, more so than the COO, the CEO is the human face of the company. As COO, it would not have occurred to me to post a Memorial Day message on behalf of the company. As CEO, it felt fitting, appropriate, and necessary to do so. These are not small shifts in perspective, which brings me to a final point.

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FIND TRUSTED ADVISORS

As a COO, I had the benefit of a terrific relationship with my CEO who served as an ally, coach, sponsor, and mentor. I’m now being very intentional about building a new network of trusted advisors. That includes engaging with my board, of course, but also making new connections, as I’ve done by joining a CEO coaching organization where I’ll have the opportunity to ask questions, test ideas, and be challenged.

The COO-to-CEO transition is fairly common across businesses of all sizes. But the pivot is not without peril. Embrace succession planning as an essential enabler of smooth transitions, whether planned or precipitous. And be prepared to make important changes in your ways of working as you pivot from an internal to an external focus.

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Rose Bentley was appointed president and chief executive officer at Qumu Corporation in April 2022.

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