Ep. 221 – The Role of a COO

Today, we are sharing a podcast Cameron Herold was featured in called Operations with Sean Lane. In this special featured episode, Sean Lane interviews Cameron about the 8 core areas that are vital to a COO and utilizing help to find the successful path to your company’s Vivid Vision®. 

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • The 8 core areas that a COO should be measured on 
  • How operations teams can help to execute a company’s Vivid Vision® 
  • Why Cameron’s team stand-up meetings were religiously scheduled from 10:55-11:02 AM
  • Defining the distinct role of a COO from company to company 
  • How to set expectations for your Vivid Vision® over time


Operations with Sean Lane – https://operationspodcast.drift.com/public/13/Operations-43678

Connect with Cameron: Website | LinkedIn

Get Cameron’s latest book: The Second in Command – Unleash the Power of Your COO

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When I first started this show, I asked around different folks in my network for other podcasts that they listened to about operations and the work of people in operations. To be honest, at the time, there wasn’t a lot out there, which is one of the reasons why we started this show in the first place. There was only one podcast that I kept hearing about from multiple people, and multiple people told me that I needed to check it out.

That podcast is called Second In Command. It focuses on exclusively interviewing chief operating officers who are typically the second-in-command to the CEO. The host of that podcast and our guest is Cameron Herold. In addition to his podcast duties, Cameron is the Founder of the COO Alliance and the former COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. He’s a keynote speaker, author, and one of the foremost thinkers and leaders on the work of COOs, and their relationship with CEOs. In short, he’s a pretty big deal. 

I’m excited that we were able to get him to spend some time with us on our show. In our conversation, Cameron and I talk about the eight core areas that a COO should be measured on. We cover how operations teams can help to execute a company’s vivid vision and why his team’s standup meetings were religiously scheduled from 10:55 AM to 11:02 AM. To start with all the different data points that Cameron has amassed over the course of his career, I wanted to ask him if he has been able to come up with a single way of defining the role of the COO, or is it that different between different companies?

It’s truly that different. In fact, Harvard did an article about fifteen years ago called the Misunderstood Role of the COO. They have identified seven distinct types of chief operating officers, from the MVP to the heir apparent, to the partner, and to the change agent. I forget exactly what all the seven others were, but they showed that the second-in-command to the CEO plays a very different role.

It’s probably that marketing has changed over the years where you used to be offline or product-based. You now have to have a blend of maybe online or offline. You’re certainly taking into account much more digital. The difference with the COO is they also have to be the yin and yang balance to the CEO. The second-in-command is usually in charge of all the stuff that the CEO sucks at.

It’s hard to say at times what the role is other than if the CEO is sick for six months, the COO typically would be the one running the company. You can get into title differences because you get the scope and the responsibility, but people tend to give away titles a little too quickly. The COO could be the general manager, the VP of operations, the director of operations, or the COO. Just like the head of finance might be a controller, a director of finance, a VP of Finance, or a CFO, the second-in-command is probably what we’re talking about more than the COO.

That was going to be my question. Based on those different titles that might have gotten mushed together there, is there a moment in a company’s evolution where you have found to be the right time for the introduction of that true second-in-command?

The first step is that if you don’t have an executive assistant, you are one. Often, what happens in these growth companies is people are working harder and faster. They’re like, “I need a second command. You need a bunch of the administrivia off your plate. If you could delegate all the stuff that you’re incompetent or competent at and get somebody to handle that for you, or if you can get stuff that’s way below your pay grade and have an executive assistant take stuff up, it usually frees you up from needing a true second-in-command for maybe 6 to 12 more months, which is powerful. It is often a great money saver when you can do that.

The true second-in-command comes along when the CEO finds that they’re working on big-impact stuff. It is stuff that is at their pay grade or above as well. They just don’t have the time to do it all. A lot of the stuff they’re doing drains them of energy. Whereas if they were able to bring on a true partner like a real yin and yang who could handle all the stuff that they hate and that they’re not that great at, to free up the time of the CEO to be able to work in their unique ability where they delegate everything except genius, that’s when the real leverage comes in.

As you’ve looked at how these relationships have evolved, one of the things that are super interesting is the sheer number of data points that you’ve been able to collect, whether it’s through your work with COO Alliance or that you’re up to over 130 episodes on the Second In Command Podcast. When you look across all of those data points, are there any universal truths or big glaring similarities that you’re able to extract from all those different COOs?

For sure. We created a scorecard that allows CEOs to rate themselves against other COOs, or it allows the CEO to rate their COO.

That’s interesting.

We came up with eight core areas that the COO rates themselves against. Those eight areas give a good glimpse at either their skillset set on specific areas or maybe areas that they should be working on, or areas they might be able to be getting better at.

Do you mind telling us about one of those core areas that you find to be helpful to score those COOs on?

I’ll walk you through all eight of them quickly. The first one is the vision being aligned with the CEO. Are they truly on the same page with the vision of the CEO? The second is, do they have a strategic plan in place to make that vision come true. Has the CEO signed off on their plan? The third would be that they have the people systems in place for recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, and training people. The fourth is, do they have the right meeting rhythms and systems in place for meetings across the organization.

The fifth is, do they have the financial systems in place to make sure that they can scale the company in the most efficient way. The sixth is, do they have the basic job skills to do the job of the COO? The seventh is, do they have a tribe of mentors that they can turn to and reach out to? Do they actively work with those mentors? The eighth is, do they have the systems in place for culture to turn their company into a magnet for great people? Those tend to be the good benchmarks for a great second-in-command.

You can see why I needed to have Cameron on the show. He not only has this unique perspective on being the second-in-command, but he also has a tactical list of things you should be measuring yourself on if you want to be one. In case you missed all of those, Cameron’s eight core areas of being second-in-command are 1) An aligned vision with the CEO, 2) A strategic plan, 3) People systems, 4) Meeting rhythms, 5) Financial systems, 6) The job skills to do the job, 7) A tribe of mentors, and 8) A culture that is a magnet for great people.

I wanted to go deep with Cameron on all eight of these different areas, but the one that jumped out to me immediately as something relevant to this show was number seven, having a tribe of mentors. I often find myself looking for mentors or role models at companies that are similar to Drift. Maybe it’s a similar business model. Maybe they’re a couple of years ahead of Drift in terms of their maturity. What I like about Cameron’s show is that he has COOs on the podcast from a wide range of industries and business models, so I asked him, “Which type of mentors should I be seeking out for my tribe?”

First and foremost, you’re looking for a second-in-command or a COO who is great at the stuff that you’re not great at and loves doing the stuff that you don’t love doing. That is the first area that you’re starting. Secondly, they must have a strong trust in you. You have to be able to almost turn your keys over to them, give them the passwords to the business on day one, and have done all the interviewing and reference checks so that you understand them before they start. That’s where you’ll get the most leverage.

SIC 221 | Role Of A COO

Role Of A COO: Look for a second-in-command or a COO who is great at the stuff you’re not great at and loves doing the stuff that you don’t love doing.


Whether or not they have industry experience depends. If you’re in a fairly technical business, then it can help that they have some technical expertise. If you’re in a business-to-consumer type space or a business-to-business space, often, they just need to learn the product or service. We sometimes think that that’s more important than it really is.

When I was the second-in-command for 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, I came into the business and after spending 2 hours or 3 hours out hauling junk, I turned to the CEO and said, “I know the business.” He started laughing and goes, “I’ve been doing this for ten years. There’s no way you know it.” I said, “We’re not about junk removal. It has nothing to do with picking stuff up, putting it in the truck, and getting rid of it. We’re in the customer service space and we’re in a culture space where we need to turn our company into a magnet for people.” When I started laying out the plans for him, he looked at me and went, “You know the business now better than I do.” It didn’t matter.

I used to coach the CEO and the second-in-command at Sprint. You don’t want a second-in-command at Sprint who doesn’t understand the telephone industry. It would take a lot longer for that person to come up to speed. You’d probably want someone out of telco. It depends on whether you’re in a very technical space as to whether the technical expertise trumps the business expertise.

I also found the first two core areas that Cameron mentioned to be an interesting pair. 1) An aligned vision with the CEO and 2) A strategic plan to implement that vision. Before chatting with Cameron, I read one of his books called Vivid Vision. The book itself is a playbook for CEOs to lay out a three-year vision for their companies in a very specific way. Cameron makes a big deal in the book that the CEO needs to be the one who develops and articulates this vivid vision. Based on what he was telling me about this yin and yang relationship between a CEO and a COO, does that mean that the CEO then hands off their vivid vision to the COO to turn that into a reality?

That is exactly right. It’s very similar to a homeowner who wants to build their dream home. In this case, the homeowner is the CEO of the project. They’re going to give all of their vision and ideas of what they want the home to look like, maybe photos and drawings. They’ll give all that to the contractor. They’ll sit and talk to the contractor about their family, how they entertain, and how they live. They’re showing them pictures and examples so the contractor understands the vision for this dream home.

The contractor then goes away and comes back with blueprints or plans to make their vision come true. The homeowner signs off on the plans and the contractor signs off on the vision. Those two things are now locked and loaded. You hand the vision and the plans to the employees, and the workers can build the house without ever talking to the homeowner.

In the business world, it’s exactly the same. The CEO’s role is to articulate in a 4 or 5-page description of what the company looks like, acts like, and feels like three years in the future. It is so that the leadership team led by the second-in-command, the COO, can put the plans in place to make that vision come true. What usually happens is you’re always trying to herd cats. You’re trying to organize people, hold them accountable, and manage them. That’s mostly because nobody has any idea what we’re trying to build nor do they even understand how their projects or tasks fit into a bigger picture. When they have that clear, vivid vision that the COO can sign off on, the CEO no longer needs to get involved in the day-to-day or in how it’s getting done because they know the team is clear on what they’re building.

That’s super interesting. One of the things that my mind goes to, and this is probably a default ops thing, is I immediately zoned in on the part of the book where you’re talking about reverse engineering from the vision, and then figuring out how to operationalize it from there. Can you help people understand? If we are the ones within our companies who are receiving this vision from our CEOs or our leaders, where do you even begin? How do you start that reverse engineering process and start to break that three-year vision down into more bite-sized chunks? 

It’s interesting. With the COO Alliance, we spend a lot of time with our members of the COO Alliance talking about reverse engineering, project planning, goal setting, strategic thinking, and figuring out how to put the plans in place. I’ve got a podcast called the Second In Command Podcast. It’s amazing listening to all these COOs because we never interview the CEO. We always want the rest of the story. It’s interesting to hear them talk about how they put the plans in place to make it come true.

I want you to think about building a home for a second. You have the foundation that you pour first. That concrete foundation is the base of the home. If the foundation is weak, it’s hard to put up the walls and put in the electrical and the plumbing, so you need to do a strong foundation. You then put up the walls, put in the electrical and the plumbing, and put in the drywall.

The homeowner is super excited about the Wolf stove and the beautiful cabinets, but that comes in at the very end or towards the end. In your vivid vision, there are parts of your vivid vision that are the core foundational parts of your vivid vision. I almost talk about it like a jigsaw puzzle where the four corners of the jigsaw puzzle are your vivid vision, your BHAG or the Big Hairy Audacious Goal, the core values, and your core purpose. It’s making sure that you have systems in place to understand those four things, live those four things, communicate those four things, and align people around those four areas. Those are the foundational building blocks.

The first wall or the first side of the jigsaw puzzle is all of the people systems. This is where the COO is putting in place all the systems related to recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, onboarding, the leadership development of people, and also getting rid of the wrong people. All of those systems related to people are very foundational. From there, it’s all the strategic thinking systems. It’s the strategy, annual planning, quarterly planning sessions, and goal setting, and then it is your meeting rhythm.

The third side of the jigsaw puzzle would be all your meeting rhythms. It’s putting plans in place for how to operate meetings. It’s why I wrote the book Meetings Suck. It was for every employee at every company to understand not only how to run meetings, but also how to participate in them, manage them, and contribute to them, or how to opt out of the meetings so that they can work on their higher priority work. The fourth side of the jigsaw puzzle is the financial system. The center of the puzzle is all the culture systems.

SIC 221 | Role Of A COO

Meetings Suck: Turning One of the Most Loathed Elements of Business into One of the Most Valuable

We want the second-in-commands to think of the businesses that way and build them very foundationally. That’s why strong and fast companies can scale. It is because their base is so strong. We built the number two company in all of Canada to work for, but our vision was strong, our core values, we obsessed over them, our BHAG was clear, our core purpose was clear, and all the people systems were clear. It is easy to scale it when you have all those pieces in place.

As you were starting to describe the house metaphor, I was immediately called back to the eight core scorecard areas of a COO. It was amazing that as you were describing the different parts of the house, they’re the same things. It’s the same core competencies. It’s the same skillsets. You’re being able to repurpose those in the execution of the vivid vision and bring it full circle back to the skillset that you said a second-in-command needs.

I had the second-in-command for Rippling on my Second In Command Podcast, Matt. Matt was talking about how he has a document that he gives to every new employee, and it is the operating manual for Matt. It’s how he ticks. It’s what drives him crazy, what pisses him off, what turns him on, how he manages projects, how to communicate with them, and how to show up at his door. He gives a two-page document that fast-forwards everybody’s relationship with him. This is a guy who’s thinking about core values, people, and the onboarding of people in a specific way.

I don’t care if you’re a COO or someone more junior building a team inside of hypergrowth. The four foundational corners of the puzzle that Cameron describes here can be a blueprint for all of us. It’s not easy. He talks about the foundations, the walls, and the pieces in the middle. It’s not meant to be easy, but it can become clearer. The path to building a successful team and being a successful second-in-command is all within those different puzzle pieces.

Let’s be honest with each other. For every grand vision or lofty goal you’ve ever heard, you’ve also seen plenty of ideas that never make it past an initial PowerPoint deck. Cameron’s book talks about not just creating a vivid vision, but executing and, more importantly, maintaining it. My question was, how to do that maintenance part? Things change so quickly around me every single day. Is a three-year plan realistic? 

The first one is to make sure that you only put in place a one-year plan because, by the time you get into a three-year plan, everything has changed. You have a three-year vision. The vivid vision is a 3-year document, but a one-year plan that you’ll execute. I also have four core goals that I organized the organization around. The first one is your employee net promoter score. The happier your employees are, everything goes better. The second one is your customer net promoter score. You’ll notice I’m not talking about revenue or profit yet. It’s how happy are my employees and how happy are my customers. When you obsess about those two things, your profit takes care of itself as does pretty much your revenue. Those are the four goals I go after. They are employee net promoter score, customer net promoter score, your profit as a pure dollar figure that we’re chasing down annually, and then a revenue goal.

I also like to stretch into my goals. I don’t forecast where I’m going to be for the next year. I decide what I want my revenue to be three years out. I decide what it needs to then be two years out, and then I decide what my revenue needs to be in twelve months. I then figure out a plan on how to make that happen within our core values and within our core purpose. We then figure out how to make those things happen.

If we were thinking about 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, we had 6 consecutive years of 100% revenue growth. Six years in a row, we grew at 100%. We went from $2 million to $106 million in 6 years with no debt. We gave up no equity and ranked as the number two company in Canada to work for. We figured out how to make those growth numbers happen. That’s what allowed us to say no to a lot of stuff but to say yes to the right stuff.

Over the course of those six years and certainly in the work you do today too, I’m curious how you either thought about it yourself when you were in the role or how you coach operators to flex that longer-term thinking muscle. For me, personally, you end up so in the weeds. You have to make an effort to abstract yourself and think longer-term. I know that the vivid vision is meant to be a CEO’s exercise, but I’m curious how you coach COOs, second-in-command, and ops folks to build that longer-term thinking muscle. Do you think that they need it?

They absolutely need it, especially in a growing company. We’ll talk about hypergrowth first. This is 100% or greater. You need to have a monthly meeting for at least 2 to 3 hours where your leadership team talks about stuff 6 to 12 months out on the calendar. They are brainstorming blue sky, throwing shit against the wall, Post-It notes, and what if-ing. You what-if the good stuff that could be happening. You what-if the bad stuff that could be happening. You’re thinking about opportunities and what could be coming down that road.

Every month, we would have a three-hour meeting. We have an ongoing list of topics that we would want to brainstorm on. I’d be like, “What would it be like if we opened up in Australia?” or, “What would it be like if we did acquisitions?” or, “What could it be like if we went public?” We brainstorm around stuff typically for 30 minutes to 1 hour, but we are doing that every single month. It was on our calendar for three hours a month.

If you’re growing at 25% to 100% growth, you probably only need to be doing that on a quarterly basis. If you’re growing anywhere between 7% and 15% growth, maybe you need to have strategic time as part of your normal quarterly or annual planning meetings. That was our strategy meeting. That was in addition to the two-day annual planning meeting, which was about strategy, vision, goal setting, and the plan. We also had a quarterly half-day to a full-day meeting to press reset the plan and talk strategically. We had a lot of time baked into our calendar for strategy.

I can see how that ties back into the meeting rhythms. Do you view it as an ops role to drive those cadences or drive those meetings and bring people together for that what-if exercise?

It’s the operation’s role to think about strategy and figure out how to get there. IT, finance, marketing, and everyone else can figure out how to make that come true. I find it’s dangerous at times to have an IT driving strategy because they often go in a direction where the tail can start to wag the dog.

The question they would ask then is, “How would we do this thing we want to do?” instead of, “What are the things we want to do?”

It could they want to build stuff and integrate stuff but it doesn’t necessarily drive strategically. Operations tend to have a more holistic view of the customer, the employees, the market, the economy, our cashflow, and resources, whereas IT can tend to be fairly singular around its approach.

Let’s say you’re in that hypergrowth category you mentioned and you’re doing this on a monthly basis. Certainly, the circumstances can change that quickly. Is it hard then to maintain some level of consistency in the course? How do you know if the thing you’ve thrown out there as the what-if, you’ve given it enough time for it to work or that thing is still not fully baked and it needs another month before you abandon it?

You got your weekly leadership team meetings. It is where you’re typically meeting for 90 minutes to talk about the core projects that you’re working on to make the quarterly goals happen. You’re debriefing with each other, committing to what your goals are for the next week, talking about obstacles, and helping to remove obstacles together.

We also used a daily huddle where we had an all-company stand-up meeting for seven minutes a day. It was held from 10:55 AM until 11:02 AM where we shared the good news. We went through the key numbers, did our project updates, and then talked about missing systems and frustrations. We have that daily pulse. Those rhythms in your calendar are what help scale a company.

That’s amazing. We talk a lot about systems, routines, and cadences with folks on this show. I love how you still remember exactly the start and stop times of those meetings and how critical those were to your operating rhythms.

I’ve got companies all over the world using those systems. We started our daily huddle based on a concept we learned from Verne Harnish with Rockefeller Habit. We put it in place in 2001 when we had about twenty employees. Fast forward nineteen years later, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? is still doing the daily huddle and they’ve never missed a day in nineteen years.

The reason it was at 10:55 AM was the first part of the day when the energy level drops is at 11:00 AM. The second part of the day when the energy level drops is at 2:00 PM. The good times to run huddle are usually first at 11:00 AM or 2:00 PM. We chose 11:00 AM as a good spot to get a burst of energy before lunch. The reason we do it for seven minutes is if it’s much longer than that, it drags. We picked a defined time and then we had everyone’s computers set up with an alert. At 10:53 AM, their computers would ring. They’d stop whatever they were doing. They’d finish phone calls and finish meetings. They’d walk to the huddle area, and we’d start exactly on time and finish exactly on time.

Before we go, at the end of each show, we’re going to ask each guest the same lightning round of questions. Are you ready? Here we go. What is the best book you’ve read in the last six months?

It is The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It’s very tactical, strong, and bite-sized stuff that you can implement right away, and it is tested.

SIC 221 | Role Of A COO

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

What is your favorite part about working in ops?

It is the people. I like growing people. I love helping to grow their confidence and their skillset, removing obstacles, and aligning them. I love the people side of it.

On the flip side, what is your least favorite part about working in ops?

It is the people. They can be stressful. It can get in the way of me getting my work done. It can be hard and challenging, so I try to teach them. The people can be tough.

I know you run the show, but who is someone who impacted you getting to the job you have now? 

It is Joe Polish who started the Genius Network. I’ve been a member of the Genius Network for about six years. He and I were daily accountability partners for two years. At one of his Genius Network events, I had this blinding flash of the obvious that there were dozens of organizations for CEOs. You’ve got YPO, Vistage, EO, Genius Network, Baby Bathwater, Maverick, Mastermind talks, etc. There were groups for engineers, lawyers, and marketers, but there was no group for the second-in-command. I decided to model the COO alliance around a lot of what the Genius Network was doing, and it took off.

Can you tell me more? What’s a daily accountability partner?

We used an app called CommitTo3 that a friend of mine developed based on a speaking event that I was hired to do. He saw me at a speaking event talking about setting your daily priorities. If you did three highly impactful things a day times the 250 business days that we have in a year, you’d get 750 impactful things done instead of getting stuck in your email or working on busy work.

There’s an app called CommitTo3. It costs $3 a year. You commit your daily top three goals to your accountability partner, and they commit theirs to you. When the first person sets their goals, it pings the other person. It’s like, “Joe has already set his daily goals for the day. I should do mine.” At the end of the day, you click them off as getting them done. It’s about the accountability of working on highly impactful things.

I love that. I’m going to have to download that. My last question is usually one piece of advice for people who want to have your job someday, but I’m going to switch it up in honor of having you as a guest. I’m going to ask you the question that you ask all of your guests. If you were to go back to your 22-year-old self, what advice would you give yourself back then that you know to be true today?

I wrote it in chapter seventeen of my very first book, Double Double. I wrote letters to my younger self. I documented 65 lessons that I knew to now be true that I wish I’d known when I was younger. The core one would be to not take myself so seriously. None of this matters. Nothing matters. We’re all going to die. Why don’t we have more fun, laugh a little, and enjoy our work along the way because none of us are getting out of this alive? We’re all walking each other home.

I noticed that came up a bunch in your Vivid Vision as well. You were always saying that the future version of yourself was very at ease. People were saying how comfortable you were in the work you were doing and how well-suited you were for what you were doing. You can see how that worked its way back into the visions you were giving to yourself as well.

It is more fun to do that right. It is little tiny things that you can do to have more fun along the way. That bleeds into your engagement with your customers and your employees. It bleeds into people having more fun, which means they’re going to get more productivity. The other reality is you don’t stress out as much because we’re not going to get all this stuff done. We’re never going to complete our to-do list. If we do, we’re going to add more goals, so you may as well enjoy the path.

Thank you so much to Cameron for coming in and joining us on this episode of Operations. If you want to learn more about Cameron, you can check out all of his work, his podcast, and his books at CameronHerold.com.


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