Business development · 5 June 2019

Operations management explained: 3 rules of thumb for every COO

Melissa Powell, the COO of The Allure Group, outlines best practices for chief operations officers, specifically how to build a positive culture and not let small problems become big ones. When dealing with issues, no matter the size, it is best to zero in on them and quickly identify viable solutions, she writes. Here are her top tips.

It might be a cliche to describe a well-run business as a machine, but let’s run with the comparison for a moment. When maintained and operated effectively, a venture can run smoothly and achieve its goals with barely a hiccup. If even one gear falls out of alignment, everything changes — the machine still runs, but now its engine clatters and clanks. You keep pushing it, hoping that the problem will resolve itself in time. Of course, it doesn’t; as the days pass, that misaligned gear continues to gripe and rattle, throwing other mechanical parts into disarray. One day, you turn on the machine only to see it cough and sputter, finally giving in to its multitude of small problems.

I’ve worked in corporate leadership for a long time, and let me tell you — ignoring the details and overlooking small problems can sink a business. As COO for The Allure Group, a New York City-based network of skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers, I’ve spent years ensuring that every facility we own operates to our high standards. I’ll be honest; some of those care centers were below the mark when we first acquired them, and they didn’t change overnight. In my experience, it can take a COO up to and beyond three full years to bring an underperforming facility up to par. Like fixing a machine with misaligned parts, optimising a business requires COOs — regardless of their industry or interest — to methodically identify and resolve issues before they become serious.

Network Under 40 founder Darrah Brustein might have put it best in a recent piece for Forbes: “[COOs] love details, they’re meticulous, they do what they say they’ll do, and they are lovers of creating systems to make the company operate better as a whole, whether it’s with or without them.”

It takes a great deal of patience, focus, and hard work to be a COO, even if you already have a passion for detail and a love for improving systems. Below, I share a few rules of thumb that can help new COOs apply their skills and find success.

Establish a receptive atmosphere

COOs are strategically positioned to see the bigger picture; however, that high-altitude vantage point can make spotting day-to-day problems difficult. To compensate for this blind spot, COOs should maintain an open line of communication with the staff members who have to work around issues and inefficiencies every day. Leadership is often portrayed as a one-way street, but in my experience, conversations need to flow both ways. If you have an open, receptive culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns and ideas with management, you’ll be able to learn and resolve problems much faster than you would in a closed-off environment.

I make a point to visit every Allure care center at least once every week. I know every member of our staff, and they know me. The point of doing these walkthroughs is twofold: first, I want to make sure that everyone feels supported in their work. Second, I want to have a thorough understanding of each facility so that I can spot problems when they do arise. Ideally, each care center would have a trusting culture and engaging feel of a mom- and pop-run facility. My goal is to have every employee feel excited enough about their work to look forward to coming in every morning. It’s a matter of trust; if you communicate well and are receptive to conversation, your staff will have more faith in your leadership.

Trust, too, has the not-insignificant benefit of increasing productivity and culture. According to a 2017 study shared in the Harvard Business Review, people working at high-trust companies report 106% more energy at work, 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 40% less burnout, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 13% fewer sick days.

Receptivity matters, whether you’re searching for problems or optimizing operations. Communication must flow both ways!

Identify the problem

As I mentioned earlier, COOs are naturally oriented in a way that makes it easy to see how the pieces of a business fit together. They are well-positioned to realize why a concern in one department might affect employees in another, or understand how one problem might be causing others. The trick lies in identifying those root causes; sometimes, they may seem so small that others might not think to report or address them. It falls to the COO to find these initial problems by conducting due diligence.

I’ll illustrate with a hypothetical. Let’s say that one day, I notice that one of Allure’s facilities has an atypically high rate of turnover, and the staff members who stay aren’t performing up to their usual par. Concerned, I might plan a surprise visit during off-hours — a Sunday afternoon, maybe, or late on a weeknight. When I come in, I see that caregivers don’t seem enthusiastic or engaged in their work. After speaking with a few of them and investigating the matter further, I realize that the person in charge of that facility is an unsupportive leader who tends to micromanage and yell at employees for small mistakes.

If I hadn’t done my due diligence on the problem and located its cause, I might have simply sought to hire more qualified employees as a short-term fix and inadvertently allowed the root cause — the toxic leader — to continue affecting the facility. However, by replacing the leader and taking steps to create a more positive, supportive culture, I could lessen turnover, improve workplace happiness, and improve productivity. Doing due diligence is always a must!

Communicate a solution

No matter how brilliant your solution is, it will be useless unless you can communicate it clearly and consistently. If a COO lacks one or the other, their operations will inevitably fall back into unproductive patterns. To quote former GE CEO Jack Welch in an interview for the Wall Street Journal: “As a leader, you must repeat yourself until you want to gag, until you almost come to where you can’t quite get it out one more time.”

A COO’s work isn’t done after they finish sharing their plans, however. They need to keep an ear open for feedback; if they don’t, they may only implement a partial solution and continue to face related issues down the road. As management researcher John Baldoni writes in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “It is well and good to disseminate information, but if you fail to listen to its echo, that is, how people feel about it as well as understand it, alignment may be doomed.”

Be clear and consistent; if you aren’t, you may find yourself battling the same problem for months on end.

For a COO, maintaining a smooth operation is like maintaining an engine. As designated optimizers, COOs need to have a thorough understanding of every aspect of their organization and know how its disparate pieces fit together into a unified whole; only then can they perform updates and implement fixes. It’s a task that demands constant work and attention to detail — but when an organization runs smoothly and achieves its goals without a hiccup, all of the time and effort a COO puts in feels well-spent.

Melissa Powell is the COO of The Allure Group, a network of six skilled nursing facilities in New York City.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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