Interim COO Spotlight: Winning in the First Days

Interim executives are all about hitting the ground running. Day one isn’t about getting training or organizing a comfy corporate office, it’s about using every minute of a limited time frame to dig in to existing corporate issues and propel the company forward.

While the line between being an interim COO and CEO can blur, the former requires more micro management, and the latter more macro. While CEOs tend to mention communication of a clear mission as a first objective, the interim COO tends to focus straightaway on aligning assets to get that mission accomplished.

The priority list of an interim chief operating officer of course depends upon company stage and circumstances. And no matter the stage, an asset that demands priority is the workforce, particularly in a turnaround situation.

In the end, it’s always about the talent you either have in place or don’t have in place, according to Frances Scovil, an interim COO with extensive interim history, particularly with technology manufacturing companies. “It’s often about the previous mismanagement of that talent,” Scovil said. She prioritizes identifying the strengths within the talent base and leveraging that talent in view of specific operational demands.

Sometimes, that ultimately involves process redesign, and the employee base is the best source of that information, Scovil said. She sets a culture to let that information float to the top. “If I come in, I’m never going to even begin to know the job and industry as well as the folks that have been living and breathing it for 10 to 15 years,” she said. “You’ve got to set a participatory culture.”

Erik Van Rompay, based in France, has taken on various executive roles, including several as an interim COO.

One of his engagements was particularly conflict-prone from the start. His priority was to find out from employees what wasn’t working properly, and learning what each department thought other departments should be doing. Absent any need for kissing-up to company executives, it was easier for Van Rompay to identify the truths of the situation and create an action plan during his early days on the assignment. “What made it work was being external and having a clean sheet,” Van Rompay said.

Putting some sweat into an engagement is not just figurative speech for Van Rompay. Once he found himself unloading product at the end of the day in a t-shirt. He wanted employees to think, “He’s there to help us, not just in his office,” Van Rompay said. “The first thing for an interim COO is high engagement.”