What Does The Modern COO Need?

By: Mike Piispanen, COO of Validity

They say modern problems require modern solutions. If the past two years have proven anything, it’s that business has had to evolve and adapt to our current reality – and along with that a fresh crop of challenges have arisen. As Chief Operating Officer of Validity, the leading email success and data management company, it’s my role to navigate these challenges and ensure that operations function as smoothly as they possibly can, no matter what.  

There are countless definitions of the traditional COO role, but what it really boils down to is taking care of what’s happening within the organization on a day-to-day basis. At Validity, I work across a variety of teams from engineering to legal to HR. Over the course of a 30-year career, you have the opportunity to learn a lot of lessons, which certainly helped as our company continues to navigate the pandemic. 

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These are my biggest takeaways as a modern COO.

Shift to a long-term mindset. 

COOs have always been responsible for taking care of their business’s daily operations, but now the fundamental structure of how we do business has changed – likely forever. When we consider the future of work, there are lingering questions being addressed across the globe that will impact entire generations of future employees. 

Top of mind are topics like vaccination rates, masking policies, and social distancing, which were foreign to us a couple years ago. Additionally, according to USA Today, 40% of Americans prefer to work from home full time, compared with 35% who seek a home-office hybrid and 25% who want to go back to the office full time — a challenge (and opportunity) I would have never considered in a pre-pandemic world.   

The biggest question that remains is how far back into the pre-COVID days will we evolve to: How many employees will actually want to be in the office every day? How will we plan for desk space? Is the face-to-face sales call almost entirely gone? Is business travel necessary moving forward? How do you build a strong organizational culture in a more virtual environment? These are just some of the problems we’re  figuring out and carefully planning for. 

Throw out the old plan. 

The past two years have forever changed the dynamic of operating a business. When COVID first appeared in the United States in 2020, no company had a playbook they could pull down off the shelf for operating in a pandemic. We all had business continuity plans, but those largely applied to shorter-term, limited impact situations. Instead, COOs and executive leadership teams had to navigate and define the “new normal.” 

Fortunately, most companies found an equilibrium, and a lot of our short-term solutions naturally morphed into longer term operating rhythms. Take Senior Leadership meetings, for example. Validity expanded our weekly call to better disseminate news, progress, and challenges from our operating silos across all management levels. While it may seem like a simple action, it has ensured consistent cross-departmental communication and continued top-notch operations organization-wide. 

In the future, good COOs will need to expand their planning process to prepare for whatever may be thrown their way – and with that comes the need for agility. Typically, I operate daily on a path that is a mile wide and an inch deep, but I have to be prepared to deep dive into any of the silos I oversee on a moment’s notice. Knowing the right questions to ask in these moments – whether they concern risk, impact, or cost – are critical to successfully leading a team. 

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Embrace human connection. 

Throughout my career, there have been multiple crises I’ve overseen – including financial, regulatory, and so on. While none of these had near the impact of a global pandemic, I’ve drawn on key themes: basic human skills like empathy and the ability to listen. 

The fact is, there are now over two years worth of employees who have joined the workforce, many of whom have never met any of their co-workers in person. And with that, they’ve experienced the launch of a career unlike any other generation. So much of our professional development occurs by osmosis – sitting in a meeting with the best and brightest employees while watching the debate, the body language, the simple nuances that occur. To truly capture this, employees need human connection. 

Does that mean full-time, part-time, or semi-annual staff retreats? Truly, I don’t know yet. Looking ahead, the future is still foggy and the debate of remote work, in-person work, or a hybrid model is still up in the air. But it’s crucial that work environments empower your employees, both new and seasoned. If you’re a COO, lead with empathy, and work with your employees to reach your organizational goals. With a strong foundation of trust in place, your business will be poised to weather any storm.

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