Where Are the Celebrity Chief Operating Officers?

Ian Gotts

What does it take to transform a dysfunctional, globally dispersed, highly regulated and reactive organisation into a model of operational excellence? Forget the CEO - it's time businesses recognized that BPM and the Chief Operating Officer hold the keys to competitive advantage, says columnist Ian Gotts, VP TIBCO Software and founder of Nimbus.

Much is talked and written about leadership and leadership traits. We can all name visionary leaders in business and other areas of life. In the technology world, leaders have a disproportionately high profile: Larry Ellison at Oracle, the late Steve Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates and then Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, John Chambers at Cisco.

But surprisingly few can name those who are critical to the smooth running of the company; the Chief Operating Officer. All but the most ego-centric of CEOs will admit that they would be lost without their COO. At Nimbus I was the front face of the company, but I would be the first to admit that it was Adrian King, the Nimbus COO who really ran the operation. He worried day in day out about the balance of growth, compliance and operational excellence.

That’s pretty typical in many companies. While visionary CEOs are wooing investors, the market and customers, the COO is making sure that the operation works. And that is becoming a critical competitive advantage in companies.

How often do you hear the phrase trotted out "People are our greatest asset" while a company spends more time and money on maintaining the photocopier than growing, nurturing and directing staff?

The problems start right at the most fundamental level – how we organize work, information, and processes. It is estimated, for instance, that the average office worker spends up to 20% of their time looking for the right system or document just to get their job done. That is a day a week!! And that fruitless search leads to frustration, embarrassment and inefficiency.

Which is why the role of the operational leader is so important and why operational excellence is what delivers real competitive advantage. Afterall, what could your business achieve if you could free up 20% of the time of all your employees? Not only that, but what if you could focus that 20% of their time on value added activities for the organization? Visionary statements from a charismatic CEO are clearly important but when backed up by practical efficiency gains and improvements that come from improved operations, you have a powerful combination.

The role of the COO and operational excellence is becoming all the more critical as the challenges confronted by businesses become more complex: companies are now competing in world markets and have staff dotted in every time zone, often gained through acquisition along with disparate systems and working practices. Regulatory compliance is on the increase and there is the real risk of an uncoordinated response to the different compliance standards, leading to duplication and overhead. It has been shown that a single operational process model, correctly structured can satisfy the auditors whilst supporting the business – as I argued on my blog in "Compliance comes for free in a well run business."

Get it right and you can see how a culture of sustainable operational excellence (with visible leadership from the top) has the potential to drive huge profitability and position the company to take advantage of growth opportunities.

That’s where I think that Business Process Management (BPM) has a formal role to play. By BPM I mean a management discipline as advocated by the analysts and management consultancies and not the technical automation or integration platforms as defined by many of the major software vendors.

Operational excellence needs to be underpinned by a foundation of process management maturity. It requires operational management to step up, put the culture in place, paint the vision and then invest and support to be able deliver that vision. These are all included in the BPM approach.

Once leadership understand what it takes to transform dysfunctional, globally dispersed, highly regulated and reactive organisations into models of operational excellence, I have no doubt that BPM will increasingly be seen as a route to the top table and even a career path to the C-suite.

Maybe then we’ll enter the era of the celebrity COO?