A manager writes:

I am a CEO of a medium sized and growing organization. The directors on the leadership team are passionate, they care about the clients, and see the value in our vision and mission. Lately, a number of them have started to struggle. With my need to spend more than 60% of my time working with partners outside the organization I have left them to do more of the day-to-day management of operations. With the limited time I have available to coach them to take on additional responsibilities, they are falling short on leading staff, helping them work together as a team, and holding them accountable for meeting our productivity targets. I am wondering if I can support the directors to grow to meet the organization’s needs, or if I should hire a Chief Operating Officer to lead the day-to-day operations.


The situation you have described may be symptomatic of typical life cycle pressures that organizations experience as they grow bigger and more complex: the leader’s responsibilities change and additional levels of management are added. If the changing responsibilities and performance requirements are not explicitly acknowledged and addressed you can expect role confusion, gaps in skills and performance, and inadequate organizational processes that worked when small, but do not meet current operational needs.

The hiring of a COO may appear as a quick-win solution to parachute-in someone to take things in hand; an especially appealing solution when your time is stretched so thin. Introducing a new position, however, also requires your time and effort to describe the new role and its relationship to your current leaders. Also, it takes a substantial investment of time to hire into a senior role, often estimated to be at least 5 days over 6 to 9 months. You would also need to calculate the financial impact of hiring a senior leader, and the source of funding, whether from additional revenue sources or from a restructuring of your current team.

Given this context, I suggest your first task is to evaluate whether the members of your leadership team understand the new expectations, and whether they have the potential to develop the skill or interest to function in the roles now required.

Either approach to shoring up your management and leadership infrastructure will make demands on your time. Hence, your first goal is to evaluate your own priorities to plan and commit to the development of your leadership team members, which over time may reduce the frequency with which you are having to step in to deal with their problems. Your managers will appreciate your support, you’ll get more informed about the current operational and process needs, and be in a better position to know the responsibilities of a COO if you decide that is the better option.

There are 4 key questions which you can ask as you evaluate your managers

1. Are the expectations for their current level of function clearly described?

If not, describe them, being specific about the skills, competencies, and behaviours you expect to see them carry out in their leadership roles. If the currently required level of function is different and/or above what they were initially hired for, you might need to talk with them about whether they are interested in the new role.

2. Do they have the skills to perform at the level at which you wish to see them function?

If not, arrange training for them and monitor for continuous improvement within a set period of time.

3. Do the organization’s policies and processes support their work as individuals and as a leadership team?

Beyond their own skill level, the function of members of your leadership team may be hindered by inadequate organizational support:

  • Reinforce a common vision, mission, values, and culture that supports performance across the organization.
  • Update financial, information technology, and human resources to help your leadership team fulfill their responsibilities.

4. If your leadership team were functioning at the required level would you still need a Chief Operating Officer?

If yes, it may be a sign your organization has leapt forward in its growth beyond the means of your current organization structure, and adding a COO is appropriate. Since this change likely requires increasing your H.R. budget you would need to make the case to your board; that is, to analyze how your organization structure compares to others of a similar size who are performing well to meet their obligations.

If you feel there is capacity within the managers to grow, fully commit to the development of your leadership team. You’ll experience some relief in knowing you have a plan that will ultimately lead you to the leadership support you and your organization needs.