Posted: 25 May 2021 4 min.

COOs and the diversity agenda

Topic: Operational Excellence

A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a COO that I have known for quite some time. We spoke about transformation and about exploiting new technology and new operating models to achieve certain business results – topics that are quite typical for me to talk about.

But increasingly, our conversation turned to talent and diversity. His point was simple: When COOs devote their time to the operations, technology and innovation agendas of their companies, they should equally devote time to the people that will make these ambitions come true.

I agree with this view: Whereas in the past, many COOs have had a clear mandate to prioritise efficiency in operations above other considerations, the COO of the future will need to adopt a more considered approach coordinating, leading, hiring and managing diverse talent, and by doing so becoming the ambassador for a forward-thinking and innovative organisational culture.

A changing role
As we all know by now, the diversity agenda is on everyone’s lips, and many things are starting to progress. Just this month, along with many other companies, Deloitte signed the Gender Diversity Pledge created by DI, the Confederation of Danish Industry, that represents around 18,000 companies in Denmark.

The pledge is built around 16 core principles: We believe that diversity makes us smarter as a company. We perceive diversity as a key competitive factor. We see equal opportunities as a prerequisite for being able to attract and retain the best talent. We believe that the business community should take the lead. We will create a new story about the leadership role. And we will have an inclusive approach to minorities’ perspectives – just to name a few of those principles.

For many COOs, these principles are well-known, but new to their own leadership agenda. I’m not saying that there is a standard definition for the COO role nor a magic formula for success within it, but in my mind there is no doubt that we will see more and more COOs take on the talent, diversity and culture agendas to make their transformational aspirations come true.

Here are at least five ways in which the role of the COO could slowly be changing towards a more people- and diversity-focused role:

  1. Taking on broader responsibilities: What we see in many companies right now is that COOs must increasingly promote change and transformation across the wider business, also outside their own area of responsibility. In doing so, they have to rely on a talented, diverse and inclusive workforce to challenge the status quo – and leaders on all levels who are not afraid to tackle the enormous tasks of reconfiguring, reorganising and reinventing the business for the future.
  2. Diverse thinking: As today’s companies are constantly aligning technology with business needs in order to stay ahead of evolving market forces, COOs everywhere will have to nurture the digital talent of the entire organisation. And it’s not only about realising even more value through business operations; it’s also about engaging customers more meaningfully and empowering digital innovation – something that again requires new ways of thinking and executing strategy.
  3. Turning visions into a compelling story: Communicating the organisation’s vision and strategy across the business should take up at least some amount of the COO’s time. Only through compelling key messages across the business can the COO drive the engagement, support and change required to be successful. In addition to internal campaigning that resonates with employees, the COO must also consider the company’s public image: it’s often the COO who is held to account for a company’s ethical behaviours as well as talent and equality practices.
  4. Opening yourself to new perspectives: Since the diversity agenda is constantly evolving, in order to maintain a view across the organization and provide end-to-end value, successful COOs will have to engage with stakeholders across and external to the business to fill gaps in their knowledge and identify improvement opportunities. In general, opening oneself up to new perspectives and new ideas will become an essential quality for COOs wanting to be visionary and inspirational leaders, and in doing so, perhaps even preparing for the job as CEO.
  5. And finally, trusting that diversity makes the company smarter. This is the first principles of DI’s gender diversity pledge and certainly one of the most important. They write: “Diverse employees bring along different experiences and perspectives that a company can benefit from. A more diverse palette of perspectives increases company intelligence and enables [the organisation] to make better decisions.” In the coming years, almost every company will face complex challenges, and those challenges will have to be met by complex decision-making by intelligent, innovative leaders and an equally intelligent, innovative workforce. Needless to say, this kind of corporate culture cannot be built in a day, but it starts with the right visions, and it starts from the top with a clear mandate from the CEO and COO.

The role of the COO is undergoing far reaching change, creating a unique challenge to define what it should now be. It is no longer sufficient to manage business-as-usual operations. In today’s rapidly evolving and digitally-driven environment, COOs must drive business modernisation to deliver true end-to-end value.

The diversity agenda is just one of many transformational agendas for COOs today, but surely an important one, and one with a huge potential to pivot the organisation into a new era of meaningful value-creation. 

The diversity pledge is of course just the first step. Action has to come next.

More about the author

Tore Christian Jensen

Tore Christian Jensen

Partner

As a part of the Strategy & Operations practice Tore has worked with analysis, development and implementation of operational strategies. Tore has deep experience with aligning business models to changing market demands through optimisation of business processes and aligning systems, organisation and governance accordingly. He has industry experience from manufacturing, transportation, consumer products and energy. His main focus is on on the operational core processes but he also covers administrative support processes. As a program manager Tore has been leading transformation projects for international clients heading multiple parallel projects and reporting directly to executive committee members. His responsibilities cover everything from initiating assessments, identifying opportunities for improvement to building business cases and following up by designing solutions and driving teams through implementation.