Why this matters:

In a general sense, a chief operating officer (COO) creates, enables, and oversees infrastructure to keep a business running smoothly — but there are multiple ways to set priorities and create results. It’s important to learn your candidate’s personal view. This question gives candidates an opportunity to define what they see as their role — and demonstrate their ability to evaluate needs specific to your business and industry.

What to listen for:

  • A quick and clear definition of the role overall, along with key objectives
  • Familiarity with your industry and business — proof that the candidate has thought about this question prior to your interview

Why this matters:

As a new executive from outside the company, your new hire will need to quickly get up to speed. The candidate’s answer will reveal what steps they would take to get to know the company and get oriented, which may provide insight into their overall approach to understanding and solving problems.

What to listen for:

  • A systematic approach that reveals confidence, experience, and a self-starter mentality
  • An organized answer that reveals a sense of structure — ideal for any COO
  • A sense of urgency to ramp up quickly so they can start making an impact

Why this matters:

A balance of happy people and healthy profits is ideal for any business, and the two are intertwined: a happy workforce will be inclined to stay (which accelerates performance and reduces costs), and strong margins increase overall morale and longevity.

What to listen for:

  • Answers that demonstrate the candidate values both dynamics — and clearly grasps their relationship
  • Past examples of how the candidate pulled operational levers to improve people or profits or both — these are a plus

Why this matters:

This question can reveal how a candidate stays strategically focused. The COO plays an essential role in driving operational functions to keep the business on target, so it’s important to know that your candidate has a process for defining the results they want and measuring progress toward these goals, without getting too in the weeds.

What to listen for:

  • An emphasis on measurable results, through a process-driven approach
  • An emphasis on the big picture view of company operations — revealing C-level vision and leadership

Why this matters:

Among independent-thinking business leaders, there are bound to be disagreements. When these relate to strategy or direction, conflicts can halt forward momentum — and leave companies stuck.

What to listen for:

  • Anecdotes that shed light on the candidate’s ability to listen to opposing views, support opinions with evidence, work through differences, and craft win-win solutions
  •  Quick resolutions that reveal a sense of urgency and the ability to be decisive despite uncertainty

Why this matters:

KPIs matter, but it’s people that drive business. Most COOs have oversight over every person in their business, and a healthy level of empathy for people — ranging from line workers to direct reports, and from lateral peers to the CEO — will help your new hire to thrive.

What to listen for:

  • A demonstration of real empathy and how it supported a positive result, such as recognizing that a direct report was going through a difficult time and providing the additional support they needed
  • An avoidance of black-and-white thinking and activity

Why this matters:

In large companies, COOs can be brought into HR matters that escalate. In smaller companies, the COO may perform HR functions as well. You want a COO who can act fairly, while staying aligned with company interests.

What to listen for:

  • Flexibility — a strategy that works well with one employee may not work as well with another
  • An answer that demonstrates superior interpersonal skills — this a bonus because it’s not easy to balance the needs of others with company goals without souring one side of the equation

Why this matters:

Business realities often require acting quickly and decisively, without time to weigh or discuss options. It’ll be helpful to know how your candidate will respond. This question can also tell you whether they are more conservative in their approach or willing to take calculated risks.

What to listen for:

  • The ability to quickly apply data to come to a snap decision
  • Systematic decision-making, including where gut feelings come into play

Why this matters:

First, if your company values are published somewhere, your candidate should know what they are. Second, as a future leader of your company, they’ll need not only to align with these values, but embody them in an exemplary way.

What to listen for:

  • Awareness of or knowledge of your company values
  • Examples or stories that illustrate their embodiment of these values
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