If you’re a COO, the challenges of leadership may sometimes leave you feeling isolated, unsteady, or uncertain about how to chart a path forward. You’re not alone.
I recently facilitated a multi-year learning cohort with 11 COOs from organizations of various sizes and developmental stages. Initially, the group planned to focus on issues related to organizational growth. Inevitably, those conversations expanded as they faced the realities of leading through a pandemic, a presidential election, and a racial reckoning. From October 2019 to May 2021, thanks to funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the group met monthly to learn together, talk through challenges, raise questions, and support one another.
Again and again, three things kept coming up: how much they valued peer connection, how critical it was to understand themselves in order to lead effectively, and the importance of strengthening their capacity to adapt. I lift up these recommendations for other COOs grappling with some of the same dynamics.
1. Seek out peers.
COOs are often uniquely alone in their roles, acting as a bridge between the CEO/board and staff. Finding peers from other organizations can make a tremendous difference. COOs in the cohort were willing to be vulnerable and candid about their own experiences and they received practical, relevant feedback in return. Over time, these interactions led them to feel more connected and better resourced. That’s what peer connection makes possible. Reach out to COOs from other organizations. Chances are, they are also craving connection.
2. Manage yourself.
COOs don’t often get time or space for self-reflection. Yet, for those in a role that is constantly leading others through change, it is also crucial to look inward at what’s driving you and how you show up. During cohort sessions, COOs tackled questions like: How do I deal with difficult thoughts or feelings? Where am I getting in my own way? What practices help me stay grounded and steady? The more you understand about yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to do the work.
3. Embrace adaptation.
If “the job description of a COO is to navigate change,” as cohort member Layla Zaidane of the Millennial Action Project said in our Q&A blog post, then the work is dynamic by nature. It calls for COOs to respond as challenges and opportunities arise, staff change, team dynamics shift, and the organization’s work evolves. Proactively create planning and learning cycles that allow you (and others) to look ahead, respond to changing conditions, and evolve your thinking and approach.
These three things have always been important. But right now, as COOs navigate the prolonged uncertainty of the past two years, investing in them is key to making sure that nonprofit organizations are prepared for the years to come.