COO: Help Wanted

Humility, integrity and international experience among attributes of top 'No. 2' candidates.

How does someone who's conducted thousands of interviews for upper-level executive positions identify potential corporate leaders? In Jeff Christian's book, The Headhunter's Edge (2002, Random House), the corporate recruiter and leader of the Cleveland-based executive search firm Christian & Timbers, admits that his first inclination is to say, "I know it when I see it." When he's trying to fill a COO opening, or any top-level executive position, Christian looks for these qualities that he associates with exceptional leaders: honesty and integrity, intellectual firepower, energy and passion, leadership (which he defines as the ability to inspire people to pursue an organization's mission) and humility. In the COO's case, as No. 2, an extra dose of humility may be required. Christian believes a newly appointed COO will more often be successful when the position is filled internally. In such situations the CEO and COO will already know one another, and they will know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Someone promoted internally is also familiar with the company culture and, presumably, knows how to get things done. But in order to find such people internally, companies need to cultivate managers with the right experience. Because manufacturing is so global today, aspiring COOs need some international experience, says Tom Kolder, who leads the manufacturing and transportation practices of executive recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates, New York. When he's screening potential candidates, Kolder looks for "significant P&L experience for large, complex global business operations. "The COO needs to be a financially astute individual who has the ability to understand, not only the cost accounting aspects of finance, but increasingly the financing arena, treasury arena, foreign exchange and currency hedging," he adds. Such expertise is also critical for the merger and acquisition growth strategy of many companies. On the subject of acquisitions, Kolder gives high marks to COO candidates who have lead business rationalization efforts and demonstrated an ability to quickly realize a return on such investments. Add up all of the qualifications, and the COO job becomes some pretty big shoes to fill. "Demand is always higher than supply," Kolder concludes. As long as companies strive to reinvent themselves, they will prize people with "the ability to bring fresh perspectives and unique insights, new approaches and ideas."

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