Hospitality’s ‘Hot Seat’ Leadership Series: COOs – A Tale Of Two Fortunes


Part II

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In our roles as organisational advisers to the hospitality industry on all HR-, talent- and recruitment-related aspects, we are frequently being asked: “What can we [or I] do differently to stay ahead of the curve?”, often followed by, “What profiles, backgrounds and leadership skills are currently most sought after by the market?”. This natural curiosity about the ‘hot functions’ is keeping both organisational leadership teams as well as individual executives preoccupied. How can one best reshuffle or complement one’s existing leadership team? Are there specific experiences or skills which could further enhance one’s own executive profile – and thus one’s ‘marketability’? In a series of articles, we want to shine a bit of light on some key functions sitting with ownership or management companies of small and large hospitality organisations. Have we observed a lot of turnover in a particular role? Have executives with a certain background been more ‘courted’ than others? Last month, we looked at Chief Financial Officers. Next up is the function of the Chief Operating Officer.

Chief Operating Officers: A Tale Of Two Fortunes

Senior operational leaders, those working for large organisations, often have the benefit of holding a role which more frequently than not has cross-border responsibilities. They oversee and manage platforms which encompass numerous jurisdictions and geographies, each with their own idiosyncrasies. Consequently, they – almost by default – bring on board strong cultural awareness and adaptability. Character traits which help their appeal for a diverse group of employers. One might say they are therefore ‘evergreens’ – executives who, due to their broad exposure, may find it easier than others to find their next career move. However, have we observed shifts caused by the pandemic? Do we anticipate certain individuals being more wooed than others once the uptick in business activity has commenced?
  • The recent past has been relatively steady for COOs. Changes did take place, but many of those were driven by one executive leaving for a competitor and thus leaving behind a crucial vacancy . Perhaps more than other C-suite leadership functions, we have witnessed internal hiring – showing a (much needed) strengthening of the internal talent bench-strength and the succession planning for operational leadership roles. We have, however, also witnessed external hires – for example, in those instances where divisional brand leadership roles were created, or geographies restructured. During the pandemic, the COO role was key to holding the organisation together from the top down. They were at the forefront of leading the charge against COVID, developing safety protocols and new standards to ensure guests safety as well as compliance with new laws and regulations. Operations leaders have also been, more than ever, ‘trouble-shooters’ doing their bit to not only keep crucial frontline workers safe but also 'on target' during what has been a dark time for our industry. Needless to say operations executives are not going anywhere but there has been a ‘re-calibration’ of the role during the pandemic.
  • Due to the pandemic, we have observed organisations re-assessing their success profiles for the function of the COO. Whereas in the past, a lot of emphasis was placed on growth and expansion, on building teams, developing new brands or entering new markets, the focus has now shifted to hone-in much more strongly on pure performance. Uncertain as to how long the economic pressure will prevail, organisations have started to evaluate whether a different person might be better suited to spearhead operations. Someone perhaps less known for their servant leadership but instead a doer and executer, someone pragmatic and extremely results-driven, bringing more of an ‘asset manager’ type mindset to the functions. With many organisations having shed significant management layers, there certainly is an expectation of doing more with less.
  • Looking at the next 18 to 24 months, assuming continued pressure on cost and performance, we expect organisations providing ‘up-and-coming’ profiles with a bit more opportunity to prove themselves and perhaps grow into a COO function. At the same time, with the relationship between operating and owning entities becoming ever more crucial, we believe that executives with experience with owner-operators, or PE-backed businesses, will have an edge over those whose background includes working purely for brands or management platforms. Comparable to the split which we have observed with CFOs, we also anticipate those senior leaders operating at the extreme ends of the market to be more sought after on the employment market – that is to say, those focusing on either the budget or luxury segments. Differentiation is key. On that basis, we also predict more players honing-in on the alternative segments such as serviced apartments, senior living, student accommodation or hybrid lodging models. In summary, we assume the function of the COO to evolve from that of the COVID-strategist to that of a nimbler and more adaptable, asset management minded operator who has adapted to do more with less as our industry continues its recovery over the next few year.