Why COO is the most fluid role in the C-Suite — Sara Clemens, former COO of Twitch & Pandora
Episode 61

Why COO is the most fluid role in the C-Suite — Sara Clemens, former COO of Twitch & Pandora

Our guest is Sara Clemens, most recently COO of Twitch and former COO of Pandora.In this interview, we explore the nuances of the COO role, which can vary drastically across different companies.

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Our guest is Sara Clemens, most recently COO of Twitch and former COO of Pandora.

In this interview, we explore the nuances of the COO role, which can vary drastically across different companies. We cover:

You can follow Sara on Twitter at @ClemensSara

You can email us questions directly at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @ twitter.com/firstround and twitter.com/brettberson

Learn more about our sponsor, Cocoon, at meetcocooon.com

[00:00:00] Brett Berson Thanks so much for joining us, Sara.

[00:00:02] Sara Clemens Thanks for having me, Brett. It's great to be here.

[00:00:04] Brett Berson Yeah. So I wanted to start by talking, you know, sort of at that 10,000 foot view about sort of the role of the COO. And I think, I think it's often misunderstood because it can mean so many different types of things in so many different types of companies. And so I'm curious, you know, what do you think are some of the biggest myths as it relates to cos, um, and maybe we could use that as kind of a way to start the conversation.

[00:00:29] Sara Clemens I think it's misunderstood. Curious kinda way. Yeah, absolutely. It's a great question. So I think the single biggest myth is that there is a single COO role, uh, you know, that people sort of think, oh, it looks the same in all organizations. And there simply isn't COO roles vary as much as companies vary.

[00:00:45] It's highly dependent on the size of the company. Um, the stage they're operating at what industry or vertical they're operating in and most critically the CEO role. And so for me, [00:01:00] The biggest surprise was both how much you have to adapt the COO role for the company in question. And then also how much of a chameleon the COO has to be.

[00:01:11] It's not a role that's static, it's very fluid. Um, it changes quickly over time and you have to adapt the role as the needs of the organization. Change.

[00:01:25] Brett Berson why, why do you think it is so varied? Right. If, if you look at, you know, I don't know, a CRO role or a VP sales role, I think there, there are nuances, but you'd say it's kind of 80%,  similar, across different types of businesses. And so what is it about the role that you think makes it so, um, unique or different across C.

[00:01:46] Sara Clemens So COOs are ultimately a partner to the CEO. That's been my experience in talking to people about roles that the CEO is looking for. Somebody to assist them with a range of functions, generally in a [00:02:00] hyper growth or rapidly scaling business. And so the role is often defined by the functions that the CEO is either disinterested in or less experienced that.

[00:02:13] And what they're looking for is somebody who has deeper capabilities in those areas to come in and assist them. So. The COO role is really defined, not by sort of a functional scope, but by the needs of the business. And you know, what the needs of the business are at that point in time. So I'll give you a good example.

[00:02:35] You know, my role at Twitch, uh, the CEO image sheer is a product and engineering leader. He came up with the idea for Twitch, you know, built all of the product in Eng and as the business scaled, what he was looking for was somebody who had deep expertise in both the go to market functions and corporate functions where he had less experience, uh, was interested in learning, but really wanted [00:03:00] somebody to come in and scale those functions while he learned how they would operate.

[00:03:06] And, you know, That was very much defined by Emmit's needs and what the organization needed at that point of time, relative to what Emmett was performing. And I have seen this a lot in COO roles. Um, you know, it really comes down at the end to what is at that the CEO needs at that point in time. And that's why the role also evolves as the CEO's experience evolves.

[00:03:32] Brett Berson so how would you compare that with your previous COO job at Pandora?

[00:03:38] Sara Clemens Yeah, so Pandora was quite different. Um, I joined as chief strategy officer, so I was focused on defining new growth options. Um, the company at the time was, uh, standalone radio service and they were beginning to think about how they grew beyond that. And, you know, it's all public now. [00:04:00] They moved on to build a full service business.

[00:04:04] So, um, on demand music that was gonna require a foundational shift in their relationship with the music industry, uh, because their relationship had been quite adversarial historically. And to obtain the licenses that were necessary to do on-demand music, they would need to have a much closer relationship.

[00:04:22] And so after doing the initial work saying, you know, this is the investments we would need to make over what timeframes. Um, I then ended up leading a lot of these new investment areas. You know, there were no other leaders in the business that had done this before. Um, I had done a lot of the foundational work on it and had a background that, um, enabled me to build these things quickly.

[00:04:41] And so I ended up building out both our music makers business, which were all of the tools for. Labels for artists, they were promotional tools, marketing data tools, and then also integrated live event recommendations and commerce into the, the platform. Uh, and I did that in addition to the historical [00:05:00] functions, I run as the chief strategy officer.

[00:05:02] And so it was this very distinct transition from doing strategy work, to doing a much broader range of operational, um, efforts, but very much in the new venture side of the business.

[00:05:18] Brett Berson you think about the different co roles that you've had, maybe what you've observed in the ecosystem, could you cluster stylistically the different roles or do you find that it's a long tail of all sorts of different, uh, configurations.

[00:05:35] Sara Clemens I think there are definitely some archetypes. Um, so while it's defined by the CEO, you generally see three archetypes. Uh, the first is a classic operations leader. So somebody who is focused very much on operational excellence of service delivery. The second is what I did at Pandora, which was the sort of new [00:06:00] business COO who grows adjunct businesses outside of the core, um, and leads investments the third.

[00:06:08] And I've, I've not come up for a better name for this. It's the not product or engineering COO. So it's somebody who is working alongside a CEO who has deep expertise in experience in product and engineering. And the COO in those situations runs all the go to market in corporate functions, um, in the business.

[00:06:30] Brett Berson so if you go to the first one, uh, classic operations leader, can you talk more about what that looks like?

[00:06:37] Sara Clemens you tend to see those in organizations with a very heavy operational lift. So a good example would be an Uber or a Lyft, uh, door dash, um, Airbnb where a material amount of the business is real time transactions and operational delivery that require, you know, human beings [00:07:00] to resolve issues on a real time basis as they arise.

[00:07:04] And so it's a very different role than somebody who is operating in more of a plus one to the CEO, um, and helping lead strategy and run a sort of broader range of functions across the business.

[00:07:22] Brett Berson think about these three sort of broader personas, what do you think excellence looks like in that version of a, a COO and how transferable do you think the profiles are across those archetypes?

[00:07:41] Sara Clemens So I think about performance as a CEO, along a couple of different dimensions. And I'll have a think as I'm describing these about how different they would be in the three different archetypes. So I think a good COO helps define and communicate a clear [00:08:00] strategy for the company. I think they are someone who partners with the CEO to say, right, you know, what are we doing?

[00:08:06] Are we all aligned behind the same priorities? And we're all marching in the same direction. I think the second thing they do is ensure that we are organized effectively against those ambitions. And then. That they ensure that there is talent in the organization, um, that is going to be able to help the company succeed.

[00:08:26] So have you bought the right leaders in, have you organized, um, the teams across the business to be effective? The third thing is, is the COO operating nimbly and adaptably so, you know, even if you have the best strategy in the world in a hyper growth business, you are going to learn new information every day.

[00:08:49] And so you are going to have to iterate the business, um, not  in a manner that creates the business to be unstable, but certainly if you've got great new information, you're [00:09:00] going to want to use it to scale more quickly. And so that's the sort of third performance factor. And then. The last one I would say is, are you bringing everyone in the company along in a way that maintains and grows the culture of the business?

[00:09:17] Are you really thinking about, you know, how do we communicate our strategy, the company, how do we build the culture? How do we make sure we have the right people in place? And when I think about those archetypes, the, the broadest archetype is the sort of plus one to the CEO. Um, when they're running go to market and the, the corporate functions, uh, you, you generally are managing, you know, 50 or 60% of the business from a headcount perspective in those circumstances.

[00:09:45] And you're running a really broad range of functions, you revenue, marketing, um, all of your, uh, operations functions, uh, finance people, et cetera. And so. these aspects of the role tend to all [00:10:00] be necessary for that leader. Um, you know, that they're really collaborating with the CEO very deeply to, to drive the business and grow it.

[00:10:08] I think the operations leader has slightly more of a siloed mentality. So they're going to be much more heavily focused on being as operationally effective and efficient as possible. But I suspect in those roles, the CEO, um, has more to do with thinking about how the entire system operates effectively, as opposed to just the operation silo.

[00:10:32] And I think for the COO who is more of a, you know, sort of new ventures, new business leader, , they will have a very strong relationship with the CEO around culture strategy. You know, thinking about like what the direction of the business is, but they tend to be less involved in the core day to day operations.

[00:10:54] And so, you know, in that respect, there's probably less focus on sort of [00:11:00] iterating the core of the business whilst they focus on those new businesses.  I think it's really tough to do all four of these things, but I think that's the aspiration, but I do think the weight of them differs with each type of co

[00:11:17] Brett Berson please go ahead, Sara. So let's chat about a couple of those, uh, dimensions in a little bit more detail. The, the first one is around  defining and communicating a clear strategy, I thought it might be interesting to talk about what strategy means to you because I've, I think it's one of these words that is very confusing and, um, has kind of been bastardized over many years. so I'm curious across the organizations that, that you've worked in  and sort of when you zoom out, what, what is a clear strategy or what makes a great strategy versus a poor one?

[00:11:57] Sara Clemens for me, strategic alignment [00:12:00] or having a strategy that everybody is bought into is around having a clear north star of the business. You know, it's the mission, vision strategy trifecta. So why do we exist as a business? You know, what is the, the opportunity we are going against? What problem are we solving?

[00:12:16] And you know, what do we want the outcome of having solved that problem to be, and really ensuring everybody in the organization is aligned around that. I think it's easy to say that there is a strategy statement and great. Everybody understands it, but you know, what I've seen is that often they can be very ambiguous and nobody does the double click on what it actually means at an operating level.

[00:12:46] And so you'll find that people are misinterpreting words in the strategy. They are, um, they believe different things are the priority, um, based on the [00:13:00] strategy of the business. And so what you find is that can end up with real division inside the company. I'll give you an example. You know, I joined Twitch.

[00:13:09] Uh, one of our sort of key tenants was creators first. And to start with that had absolutely been the right strategy for the business, because if you're building a. Marketplace supply side is where you start, you know, nothing else works until you get supply side. You then obviously need to drive demand.

[00:13:30] But what had happened as Twitch had evolved was that it had turned into a community service. The. heart of Twitch was the interaction between the creators and the community. And so we felt that by saying we were creators first, we were deprioritizing investments in areas like trust and safety, which were about the health and wellbeing of the viewers.

[00:13:56] And, you know, the members in the community who were there, [00:14:00] co-creating alongside, um, our streamers. And so we went through a process where we actually  redefined the strategy and said, we are community first. And so that rebalanced the resources and the efforts of the organization, and really forced us to sit down and say, well, okay, within the context of that, what are the things that we need to be building in order to achieve that vision?

[00:14:24] And. It's strategy is one of those things like, you know, a good one when you see it. Um, and in my mind, it gives you clarity on what you are doing and what you are not doing. And the second point is almost more important than the first point, because as organizations scale and get larger, it's very easy for things to be bolted on to the core business.

[00:14:50] And that can be highly distracting and stop the company from operating in a, you know, nimble and effective fashion. And so strategies really [00:15:00] need to align everyone in the org around what is it we are doing? What is it we are not doing? And then operations comes to the how question, you know, what are our priorities this year?

[00:15:08] What are we gonna build this year? Um, but I think it helps enormously to have that north star.

[00:15:14] Brett Berson so in the Twitch example, um, and you, when you came in H how do you know if you have a strategy problem, a people problem, like, do, do you sort of have a, diagnostic that's  running through your own head?

[00:15:30] Sara Clemens When you join a business, um, there are a series of things that you do in order to ascertain, where do you put your energy? And it's very rarely a single thing, but it is critical that you can triage the priorities because you can't do everything at once. Um, when I joined Twitch, I, uh, took on nine different functions in the business.

[00:15:58] And, you know, there [00:16:00] were a number of, um, leadership areas that we needed to up level, um, and functions that needed to be built out. And you really have to sort of triage well, okay. Where do I place this over? We have a strategy question in the business. That's creating a lot of friction, um, versus other things.

[00:16:18] I will say that strategic misalignment in an organization is the number one symptom that a company isn't scaling effectively. So when you ask people the same question and you get multiple answers, you know, you've got a problem. It means all those individual groups are operating independently against a set of misaligned goals.

[00:16:40] And so for me, that's like one of the quickest diagnostic tools for working out, like, where do I need to put my energy into in this first three, six months? Um, if you have friction intention in the org around what teams are doing, and you have people sort of pointing fingers at [00:17:00] each other around, you know, they're not doing what we need, et cetera, you will often see a lot of busy work.

[00:17:06] That's not landing because people aren't operating in a cohesive manner. And so for me, that that's always a early. Warning sign. And, and that would always be my priority coming into a company if I saw those symptoms.

[00:17:20] Brett Berson So building on that, you know, in this example of, of transitioning the strategy from creator first to really community first, what, what were you seeing that made you feel like there was a problem there? I.

[00:17:37] Sara Clemens So questions around the relative effort we put into building things for creators versus the effort we put into building things for the viewers. That was the core, you know, like when you are operating in a world where you say creators first, you would always prioritize your attention to the creators.

[00:17:56] You would always build them tools first that were, um, great for [00:18:00] them. And what we saw was that a lot of the feedback we were getting from the community was really around the viewer experience and issues that the viewers were having. in using Twitch and, you know, chatting to creators. Um, and so for us, it really defined a movement where we said, we are going to treat viewers and creators with equal weight.

[00:18:26] They are both equally important to Twitch. And we need to think about the health of both sides of the marketplace and the relationships in the community in a way that's really going to create like a healthy community versus what we were beginning to see, which were some issues around, um, toxicity to sort

[00:18:47] Brett Berson In terms of evolving the strategy. Do, do you tend to sort of do it in organic fashion or do you have a series of rituals or practices that allow you to [00:19:00] reflect and refine a strategy over time?

[00:19:04] Sara Clemens I think you want to do it organically. I've very rarely seen the, you know, speech quotes, big strategy, effort, uh, land very well. I think it can be like an awe consuming volcano in an organization. Um, it also takes time when you come into a new company to really understand the history. You know, something is obviously going very well.

[00:19:30] You're standing on the shoulders of the people who built the business. That's why they've hired you in you. You very, really are like, oh, I'm joining a failing business. It's like, no something is going great here. How do I accelerate it? How do I make it go even better? And so it's critically important that you really understand the history, um, how it was that things got to the place that they're in.

[00:19:53] You want to do that as quickly as possible, but I think it's easy to jump over that step and not [00:20:00] spend enough time with people to really be intimate and. the way that the business has evolved over time. And so for me, I feel like a more organic approach is better. Um, often you can just weave it into the existing processes of the business, you know, rather than doing a huge, um, you know, sort of single strategy piece of work, you incorporate it into the annual business planning process.

[00:20:25] You know, you, you identify key questions in the business and just do pieces of work around thoses that roll into your, your business plan. And so I think it, it lands better in that

[00:20:41] Brett Berson maybe this is kind of a little bit interconnected, but you mentioned sort of this idea of, of a COO operating nimbly and helping sort of iterate the business. I'd, I'd be interested to have you talk in, in a little bit more detail about that. Like what, what does that actually look like? And maybe if, if you were scoring your own [00:21:00] self, maybe in your last role, like H how would you even know how to, to rate yourself in that dimension?

[00:21:09] Sara Clemens yeah, I think this is one of the key skills that great CROs have, um, is the ability to once you've defined, you know, here's the strategic direction. Here's what our priorities are to actually be willing to change. Some of those as new information is available so that you, you aren't S slavishly sticking to a single point in time strategy.

[00:21:39] You are recognizing that in any hyper growth business, you were going to get new data daily that could. cause you to reconsider the direction that you're taking now, that is a really fine line because you equally don't wanna be in a position where every piece of data that comes in, you know, has you [00:22:00] adjust and therefore thrash around, you've gotta pick appropriate timeframes.

[00:22:04] You have to have the skill set to recognize the magnitude of the information and how much impactful it'll have on the business. Um, in terms of, you know, personal ratings on that, uh, that's always a hard one to say. You should probably talk to the team at Twitch. Um, uh, you know, I think I have a background in, uh, policy, government policy and strategy.

[00:22:27] And so, you know, I have a decent skill set in that space. Uh, I also grew up in New Zealand in a country where. There were 5 million people running the national infrastructure. And so there wasn't a lot of specialism. Um, it was very much a, a business environment where if you were a smart person, people were like, give it a go.

[00:22:48] You'll be fine. And so I learned how to learn quickly.  the early years of my career were much more about how do you learn inside corporations, [00:23:00] uh, new functions, new things to do. How do you get up to speed quickly? And the thing I think that helped me, you know, at the executive stage of my career was that it did give me the facility to be comfortably adaptable.

[00:23:15] Brett Berson 

[00:23:15] Sara Clemens I enjoy change. I think change management is one of the deepest functions that COOs do. You've been bought in as a change agent frequently. And so. you know, doing that in a way, which is comfortable for the organization, but also pushes it a little bit is a pretty essential part of doing the role.

[00:23:37] Um, I'd like to think I was good at it. You know, you'd be better to ask others.

[00:23:43] Brett Berson on that sort of topic of learning. Are there things that you did throughout the week or questions you tended to ask different people inside the organization that oftentimes help you learn the most.[00:24:00] 

[00:24:04] Sara Clemens We had a standing series of meetings. Uh, I am a fan of a standing meeting in that if you have the time booked, you can get the appropriate people together and deal with things in a proactive manner. But if you don't have any agenda items, you can cancel the meeting and. I actually, you know, learned that from Jeff Wener at LinkedIn who, you know, ran the company very effectively.

[00:24:31] And so for me, I liked to be in a situation where I was touching base with all the core teams weekly. Uh, so whether it was our trust and safety teams, customer operations, marketing revenue, um, checking in on, you know, how they were performing relative to the sort of operational KPIs of the business, but more critically, were [00:25:00] there any issues that were delaying them progressing that I needed to know about?

[00:25:07] And you will often find that in a fast moving fast growing. Business, there will be, you know, there will be something that has come up where they're like, we've hit a hurdle. We have a question. We don't feel there's alignment here. Um, there's a new issue that's arising in the market. You know, how do we think about this?

[00:25:26] And by having those standing meanings, you can have those conversations in a pretty fluid manner. Um, and it helps you connect the dots across the business. Uh, it really enables you to think about, okay, how's everything operating at a system level. So you can do your role as COO, which is really to optimize the entire system.

[00:25:48] You want the subsystems, you know, the sort of functional teams to be working, um, effectively, but what you are there to do is have them work effectively together. And [00:26:00] I think though, that sort of regular meeting mechanism really helps with that.

[00:26:04] Brett Berson 

[00:26:04] Sara Clemens 



[00:26:04] Brett Berson On sort of this theme  I think something that's, that's like a little bit underappreciated is, is the idea of how are the most important problems getting surfaced sort of highest up in the organization. And I think that, you know, some of the sort of management wisdom of like don't bring me problems, bring me solutions actually can create a culture where these problems are kind of tamped down or you have a direct or a direct direct that's just wants to figure it out and solve it themselves before surfacing bad news. And so I I'm interested. Ha have you sort of thought about that or, or engineered your leadership team with sort of that in mind?

[00:26:52] Sara Clemens I'm not a fan of the, bring me a solution, not a problem for the reason you just described. I think it can create some [00:27:00] perverse incentives, um, and often having a broader awareness brings more minds to the table and, uh, more information more quickly that can help resolve it more quickly. And I, I firmly believe that.

[00:27:16] Successful companies are able to resolve issues and address opportunities. Quickly. Speed is, you know, one of the predominant factors in successful companies. And so, you know, analysis paralysis or anything that slows down the issue coming to the table, um, I think is problematic. I like this model of raise issues when they arise.

[00:27:42] Um, and I think the critical thing here is that the culture of the business has to be a no blame culture. It's not that an issues arisen in, somebody has done something wrong or someone's to blame. It's just like, there's an issue. It's a neutral fact. We have an issue. And then it's a question of, okay, [00:28:00] great.

[00:28:00] How's it arisen? You know, what do we want to do about it? Is it business critical? Is it something that requires addressing in a meaningful way, but it really relies enormously on that. Sort of open-mindedness of your leadership and, or frankly, people all across the organization that there are no issues you can't bring to the table and that by bringing an issue to the table, it's not an accusation.

[00:28:25] It's literally a question it's a, you know, considered question. And, and I think when you can get to that culture, your ability to move more quickly and to have a much more enjoyable, um, way of operating is, is materially better

[00:28:45] Brett Berson you do other than. Are mindful when an issue is, is brought up to actually create a no blame culture,  like it's obvious  if, if you said, okay, here's the roadmap to [00:29:00] creating a no blame culture. The number one thing I would assume you would do is when these issues are surfaced, you don't start blaming people.

[00:29:08] Um, but other than that, if somebody agrees with that idea and wants to build towards a no blame culture, are, are there other things that you've done or you

[00:29:17] Sara Clemens somebody there other things, I think some of it comes down to respect of different functions across the business, generally, where I've seen blame cultures arise. It's when there's a lack of appreciation for different experiences in the company. You know, you get the product team who think the marketing team are idiots or the marketing team.

[00:29:45] Think the engineering team aren't delivering, you know, like the finance team think the analytics team won't deliver the information that they require. It, it often is a consequence of, you know, different silos or functions in the [00:30:00] business they're being tension between them. And I like to start any role thinking about where are those tension areas, why have they arisen and resolving them?

[00:30:13] And I think that's where I was talking about. You come into the organization, you need to get strategic alignment often as you're going through that process of getting everybody aligned, making sure everybody's agree with what you do do you don't do the consequence of that is often, okay. What's the right organizational structure for us to do this.

[00:30:31] And what are the. Decision rights across the organization that people will have. And what's the way that we're going to work together to make sure that those decisions are being made quickly. And it can sound quite dry and, you know, mundane, but if you don't get these things right, that's where you can end up with that blame culture arising.

[00:30:58] Uh, and [00:31:00] you know, I think it's easy when companies are in situations of stress, um, or going through a lot of change for that blame culture to arise quite quickly. I do think leadership has to model the right way to behave. I think that's absolutely critical. Um, you know, the second you have two leaders pointing fingers at each other, it gives everybody else in the company, the entitlement to do the same, but then also.

[00:31:26] Ensuring that anybody in the company who does behave in a blaming way understands that's not acceptable. You know, one of the things that I like to do is when you have an individual come to you and complain about somebody else, assuming it's not a sort of confidential, um, uh, HR complaint of some kind, but it was just a business matter.

[00:31:51] Ask them if they've already spoken to that person. If they have spoken to that person, say, listen, I'm really happy to have this conversation with you, but I'd like to do it with [00:32:00] both of you together. And that often engenders a situation where they're like, oh, okay, it's moved from being a person, a ACS versus person B CS to a, how are we gonna collaborate around how we resolve this issue?

[00:32:17] and I think that drives behaviors that are really critical as you mature in an organization, which is your first pillar of call in any situation, when an issue arises is, you know, working with your peers to establish how you can resolve it. You know, as COO, every time I had an issue to resolve, I didn't go to the CEO.

[00:32:36] I would go to my peer and say, listen, you know, what are we going to do about this? And how do we resolve it? And so I think it engenders that earlier on, but it also sets the foundation for a no blame culture.

[00:32:52] Brett Berson kind of been woven through what we've chatted about thus far, but we haven't really talked about directly is kind of this idea that [00:33:00] it seems like as a business scales, there's almost like these laws of physics where things get slower and bureaucracy tends to creep. If you talk to a 20 person company, and that grows to 2000 and you talk to those people, they often have the same pattern of complaints.

[00:33:18] It's slow, it's bureaucratic, it's big company. And so do you think that there's just a certain set of laws that as you add more human beings in a business matures, that it just sort of moves in that direction? Or there are ways to meaningfully fight that or, um, not necessarily get slower and more bureaucratic as you get bigger.

[00:33:42] Sara Clemens necessarily, I absolutely think that keeping 20 people aligned around what you want to do and what the latest information is that you need to consider and how you go about doing that is easier than getting 2000 people, you know, [00:34:00] like that is a law of physics. Uh, it is much harder to, you know, keep everybody in a 2000 person org across the requisite information that they need, um, in order to be across every detail of the business.

[00:34:13] And when you're a 20 person org, you often are because you generally hire an. Generalists at that stage, you're hiring people who can roll their sleeves up and do a whole range of different things. And because of that, they are capable of keeping across, you know, what's going on in all parts of the business.

[00:34:33] You'll also find early on people often move between functions. And so they're learning, they've learned the basics of a range of different functions. They sort of haven't come in and specialized immediately. As you grow,  the functions that you are building are going to get much more sophisticated, you know, like a finance organization and what you need to do to run finance in a 2000 person.

[00:34:57] Multi-billion dollar org is very different to [00:35:00] what you need in a, you know, say 200 person early revenue org. And so you are going to have a lot deeper specialism and that specialism comes with less breadth. People will have less awareness of. What's going on across the organization because they're more focused on what they are doing and their part of the company.

[00:35:22] Um, and I think the trick as you go through that evolution is two things. The first is helping people understand that not everyone in the org is either going to understand or have all of the information or be involved in every decision in a way they once were like, it's, it's just not practical to run the company.

[00:35:47] What once worked and was fast, actually ends up massively slowing you down because trying to get everybody's perspectives when they don't all have the same level of experience in the decisions that [00:36:00] might be being made, actually slows things down. You know, it's sort of the irony of the, the situation.

[00:36:05] And so helping people understand. You know, actually we need to have arrangements where people have decision rights over different functions and different questions. Because by doing that, we move much faster and you are consulting necessarily people, the right people in the room, and we will let everybody else know what decisions we made.

[00:36:24] And we will explain why, so that you have that information as necessary. But, you know, having 2000 people in a room to make a decision is not a practical way of running the business. So I think there are some laws of physics. I also think. , you know, the evolution requires really careful management and I don't think it's impossible to have a fast moving large company.

[00:36:49] You know, I think it is around design and culture and decision rights and, you know, really getting everybody aligned around the same thing and everybody knowing what [00:37:00] they're running against and then having, you know, systems for resolving issues quickly. Um, and so it, it just requires a lot of management.

[00:37:12] Brett Berson maybe it's about sort of explaining a little bit more about decision rights, but there things that you think tend to have the highest impact as it relates to increasing cadence? Like, you know, you join a new company and there's a bunch of people that feel like and believe that they're moving too slow, that there's some sort of 80, 20.

[00:37:33] Where there's a small number of things to work on that tend to have the biggest impact as it relates to velocity.

[00:37:42] Sara Clemens I think the key thing that leads people to feel like companies are slowing down is when decisions don't get made, when there is an opportunity or an issue and it just drifts on [00:38:00] and things that previously it would've been clear. Okay. Either the five of us are making this decision or there was one person responsible often this CEO not knowing who can make that decision is the curse of large organizations.

[00:38:15] You know, one of the, the jokes I used to make about, um, a large corporate I, uh, spent time with, uh, was that making decisions was not a matter of getting somebody to say yes, it was a matter of getting nobody to say no, . And so I think that is where things go vary sideways quickly. And you know what I mean by decision rights is just literally who can decide the thing who can decide, you know, whether that can be funded, who can decide whether or not we are going to review a customer query and make a change in policy based on new information who can decide whether we do a marketing campaign in Brazil, you know, who can decide these things.

[00:38:56] And once [00:39:00] you set up a system where it's like, okay, these are the people who make the decision, then everything most pretty seamlessly. And what I felt my role as COO was, was to diagnose where there were decisions that were not clearly, um, allocated to someone in the business. Uh, and where there was a lack of clarity around who would make those.

[00:39:25] Uh, and so, you know, I think that that is the ball game on helping companies stay adaptable is just ensuring, you know, who can make decisions for what

[00:39:40] Brett Berson So switching gears a little bit,  I'm interested when you think about how to create the most productive relationship between a CEO and a COO  what have you learned about it?

[00:39:59] Sara Clemens [00:40:00] Yes. As, as I said, at the, the beginning of the conversation, you know, the relationship between the CEO and the COO, um, is really the foundation to how well the company will work. Um, and so. For me, you know, I think it's important to start the conversations with the CEO, uh, in a really transparent way, you know, what is it that they need?

[00:40:28] Why are they thinking of hiring a COO? Um, and I have a, a framework I've used, um, and, and shared with people over the few years that I know others have found helpful, um, which is really thinking about the question of what is a CEO great at and what are their strengths and weaknesses. So what are they not good at?

[00:40:52] And then the second set of questions is what do they enjoy spending their time on versus areas that they like really lose [00:41:00] energy doing? Um, I think that is a question you can ask of a CEO that will help them think about like, where do they. Want functional existence, where do they want somebody to take things off their hands?

[00:41:13] And where do they want to transfer, you know, accountability in those decision rights versus the things that they want to keep doing themselves. And so, you know, what are their superpowers, um, how much time do they get to spend doing the things that are their superpowers? And in my experience, if you find CEOs who are spending a lot of time doing things that they don't feel like they're very good at, it's not their superpower and they deeply dislike.

[00:41:36] They're very unlikely to perform them well. And you know, it's true. Not if only CEOs, I think it's true of everybody. And so how do you optimize the CEO spending most of their time on the things they're great at, and then some of their time on things they want to learn to get better at. And I think that's a really helpful way to start a conversation around what the COO [00:42:00] role might be and how the CEO and COO might work together.

[00:42:05] Brett Berson When you think back to your last COO role? Are there rituals or ways that you two work together on a daily, weekly or monthly basis that you think led to the success that you had?

[00:42:23] Sara Clemens think the first thing was, you know, uh, image year this year. And I spent a lot of time together before I joined. Uh, and I think he was very open and honest about the things that he felt he needed help with, uh, and the things that he enjoyed doing. And I think we came to realize that we had very complimentary skillsets, you know, the things that I was great at em was not and vice versa and that he was really looking for somebody to take on some of those areas.

[00:42:56] And so. both recognizing each other's strengths and [00:43:00] weaknesses and them respecting them, I think is like the foundation to a good working relationship between the CEO and the COO in terms of sort of cadence or mechanisms in the business, you know, Emma and I certainly did regular one-to-ones. I think we were doing a couple of week to start with, um, they probably went to once a week over time, and then we also did a lot of joint meetings.

[00:43:23] So in the first couple of years where he and I were basically co-leading the company, he was running product angels, running, everything, where else, you know,  all our business planning was done together. You know, a lot of the issues around how do we take a product to market were done together.

[00:43:38] And so we formed a pretty tight relationship in terms of, you know, how we ran meetings, um, how we both liked to operate. And I also think we. we're really comfortable. If we felt like something wasn't going well, having a conversation with each other about it. But again, in a really respectful way, you know, like we would do that after the meeting, we [00:44:00] would do that separately.

[00:44:01] Um, you know, we, you never want to have two parents in the room, you know, bickering in front of the kids and that's equally true of executive leadership in front of teams, um, having a United force. And then if there are real disagreements, taking them offline, I think is, is a powerful way to both build trust with each other, but also to build trust in the organization

[00:44:28] Brett Berson you were mentioning that you spent a lot of time with Emma before you kind of both, I guess, got to mutual conviction. Um, how did you spend that time?

[00:44:40] Sara Clemens there were a range of things we did. So we did a, we started with a, a series of formal. Meetings, uh, you know, me sort of questioning him on the, the situation with the business, him questioning me on the things I'd done in the past. And then once we realized, like you can do the job, you [00:45:00] have a job that I can do.

[00:45:02] And we like each other enough to bother investing. More time, we moved onto more like brainstorming situations. So, you know, we spent an afternoon working through, you know, how they were operating international, right. Then it was a real live issue for them and what the options were. Um, and you know what I'd done previously and then sort of creating solutions together and talking about how those might be executed in a world where we were both leading the business.

[00:45:32] And that was really helpful. Cause I think it. Puts you in a situation where you're actually deploying the kind of, um, skills that you do on a day to day basis when you're enroll with each other and you can flesh out pretty quickly, like, you know, do we feel like we can spar with each other? Are we able to have quick conversations about areas of intellectual disagreement?

[00:45:55] Um, we're both comfortable when we disagree. And then the last thing we did [00:46:00] was some social things, you know, have a meal. Uh, we walked the entirety of Dolores park and many other parts of the Castro, one Saturday drinking coffee, um, you know, like just seeing each other outside the world of an offers building, um, and you know, having conversations about, um, you know, various things.

[00:46:20] And then we sort of did a bunch by text. Um, you know, I, uh, was meeting some additional people and so I felt very comfortable asking Emmett for his input on like, what are these people like, what they want to know about, um, I think all of that, you know, accumulates to the point where you say, I think this feels right.

[00:46:38] And I think this is, you know, there's always gonna be things you discover after you get in the door, but it felt like we were both being transparent and honest about what we wanted and what we felt like the, the opportunity was and what the challenges might be

[00:46:53] Brett Berson And when you reflect on what made that such a successful partnership over the past four plus [00:47:00] years, are there other things that come to mind outside of this important idea of,  a certain extent, I guess, complimentary or non overlapping skills?

[00:47:16] Sara Clemens I think it's the same as with any human relationship, you know, it's, it's listening to each other, being curious, caring about the other person, uh, , you know, don't lie. tell the truth. Um, don't be mean, uh, you know, think about how the other person feels. I don't think it's a rocket science often. Um, I do think having Frank conversations about roles and responsibility helps, so, you know, like, okay, do you wanna do all the press for the company?

[00:47:48] Um, I'm gonna be running a bunch of functions. You know, if you are doing press, I would need to then like, bring you up to speed on what's going on, or are you comfortable with me doing it? Um, those things can get [00:48:00] really fractious if you're not aligned around them, you know, sort of like, how are we both going to show up, um, outside the company, inside the company.

[00:48:08] And I think we, we just felt comfortable having those conversations and coming to sensible resolutions

[00:48:17] Brett Berson  I assume you, you, over the past five or 10 years have spent a lot of time with other cos or people that are considering becoming a COO. And I'm sure you've seen as, as you've articulated sort of some of the underpinnings of really successful CEO, COO relationships.

[00:48:34] I, if you were to kind of bucket the fail case, the reason why co a COO didn't work, are there a handful of reasons or two things that tend to sort of run across sort of all the different COOs that you've,  observed.

[00:48:56] Sara Clemens a handle of reason across all the, so I definitely think misalignment with the CEO on what you are there to do is, is [00:49:00] very hard to overcome. Uh, if you are not aligned going in the door, it is not going to get any better. And so, you know, one of the great pieces of advice I got, uh, as I was interviewing for executive roles was.

[00:49:13] You'll go for the first round of interviews. And, you know, they'll clearly be interested in you. You're interested in the role. And at some point you will be close enough to the end that you'll get excited. And, you know, executive interviewing is a process. It's many, many hours of work and it's easy at that stage to be like, I'm just not gonna ask those questions.

[00:49:33] And the reason you wanna ask them is cuz you, you actually don't wanna know the answers. Um, you know, because you know that if you have the answer, it would make you reconsider the role and you've, you've made all this investment. You're really excited about this opportunity. And so I think asking those questions is critical because those will be the things that will make or break you.

[00:49:52] Um, and like really thinking about like, what are the things that are niggling at me that have arisen during the course of [00:50:00] this that I wanna bottom out. So I think that's the first thing. Um, I think the other thing that I've seen is where CS go in, who. Want to build for scale, but don't recognize that there will be ongoing periods of chaos.

[00:50:19] If you're in a hypergrowth company as COO, your job is change management and your job is change management forever because fast growing companies are always going to be evolving. Things are always going to be changing and I've seen COOs and, and frankly, other executives come in to companies that are, are moving very quickly and they, they just wanna build for the end state.

[00:50:43] They're like, let's, you know, build for as far out as we can, so we don't have to repeat ourselves. And so, you know, the analogy I use is it would be like designing a four bedroom house and saying, you know, one day we're gonna have six people living in this house. We're gonna need solar panels on the roof.

[00:50:57] And so we're just gonna stop everything until we've. [00:51:00] The solar panels in, which is like, you know, a three year exercise by the time you finish the house, as opposed to, okay, we're gonna leave space for solar panels on the roof, but tonight we're gonna pick up two sticks and rub them together and make a fire.

[00:51:13] And those are people who make great COOs and executives in, in hyper growth companies, because they recognize that you wanna build in a way that gives you the facility to scale most effectively over time. But that's also gonna involve doing some scrappy stuff in the short term. And, you know, you are comfortable with that and you recognize what those trade offs are.

[00:51:35] And so I think as you're interviewing for someone who is, you know, ultimately a, a change leader, really digging in around how comfortable they are with change, um, is important.

[00:51:49] Brett Berson That's an interesting one. What,  why do you think so many potential cos or COOs tend to behave in that way?

[00:51:59] Sara Clemens do you think so many intentional cos or cos tend to, I would say, I don't think this is [00:52:00] just CLOs. I think this is C-suite executives.

[00:52:03] Brett Berson Mm-hmm

[00:52:03] Sara Clemens And I think there are people who get energy from change and there are people who find change exhausting. And being honest about that is really important because if you end up in a high change environment and you find it exhausting, it's really hard to do your job well, because what you will aim to do is reduce the amount of change and, you know, hyper growth companies that are doubling year on year, you know, going global really quickly adding new lines of business, having to upgrade systems.

[00:52:38] It's just all change all the. And so you want people who are excited about that. You want people who are like, I am here. And every day I am thinking about how I make this better, not in an incremental way, but in a step change way. And you know, that's a really different mindset than somebody who's more comfortable with more [00:53:00] stable environments.

[00:53:01] And so I think really digging into that, it can be a certainly, you know, an executives I've hired across my career is a defining factor on whether or not they're able to succeed in hyper growth

[00:53:14] Brett Berson Another thing you just mentioned, that was really interesting is sort of this,  idea of continually asking the tough questions. As you get deeper in the interview process. And I think that that goes in both directions. I think that like, um, confirmation bias is really underappreciated. Um, you know, when you're in the hiring seat, for example, you've already spent all this time  and then you go do references.

[00:53:35] And you're just hoping on that reference that nothing bad comes up so that you can move on and hire this person and kind of get back to building the business. Um, and sort of your point in the inverse is, is absolutely the case you've invested all this time. And you've built your enthusiasm as a candidate, as an exec candidate or candidate more broadly.

[00:53:54] Um, are there tough questions that you've asked, you know, in interview [00:54:00] processes that kind of illustrate the point or that gave you more conviction that constantly sort of checking your priors and doing more work is really valuable.

[00:54:15] Sara Clemens that I find it helpful to think of a handful of questions and these will be somewhat business specific, somewhat individual  specific. So I can't just reel off a list for you, but I'll, I'll give some examples, uh, a list of questions where you're like, I want to test how this would work. So I'll give you an example.

[00:54:34] Uh, an executives joined the business. The CEO thinks they're underperforming. I think that they are performing well, but there are development areas and that it's my responsibility as their leader to help them with those development areas who can make the decision about firing them.

[00:54:54] And, you know, it's a question you wanna be on the same page about, [00:55:00] because if one of the things that I found really blows up sort of partnerships like the CEO and COO partnership is when the COO feels like they have lost authority over the areas that they are responsible for. And that tends to happen when the CEO stops believing that the CEO is doing those things as well as they would like.

[00:55:27] and you can circumvent some of that by agreeing upfront on really tough decisions that have to be made as you run a business, um, how they will be handled and explaining what your approach to those situations would be. Um, it has two benefits. The CEO can give you their point of view on whether they think your approach is a good one or not, and they'd be comfortable with it if they aren't.

[00:55:53] That's one of those questions you'll have to take into account about whether you want to do their role, but I think it also sets you up because it, [00:56:00] it sets some expectations. It sets some foundations for, you know, awkward things you're gonna have to deal with in the course of the first year to 18 months.

[00:56:10] And so it somewhat reduces the friction because you've, pre-head those conversations.

[00:56:18] Brett Berson Are there other scenarios that you have found or useful to go through in that process? Or, you know, if a friend of yours is interviewing for a COO role, I thought that that one about the, the way in which one of your direct reports is operating is such a great. Sort of area to dig in on. Are there others that pop to mind that you think are sort of useful scenarios to game out as a part of that process?

[00:56:46] Sara Clemens that to mind S out, yes, there are a lot, uh, let me think. So certainly around, I normally look at the business and say, what are the big decisions we'll have to make? So people, decisions are always [00:57:00] applicable. You know, how do you think about firing people? What's the context for how you would manage somebody who was underperforming?

[00:57:07] Um, what time did, do you think that it's appropriate to manage under performance over. You know, those kinds of questions can like really flush out. Like how do people operate as an executive leader? Um, budgetary questions are applicable in all sorts of environments. Like, you know, what would you do if you discovered that your budget was being haled?

[00:57:30] Uh, what would you do if you discovered someone in your team had, um, spent more of their budget than they should. And so really thinking about like, what are the tent situations that arise that need to be handled and how does that person react to those situations? Um, I think it, it, it really does help bottom out.

[00:57:54] Like how comfortable is somebody, you know, working through [00:58:00] change, working through things, not going the way that you might expect because in hyper growth businesses, the very really go as you expect, that's the nature of the, the situation.

[00:58:14] Brett Berson Something we haven't yet touched on is when the right time to potentially bring a COO  in is, and so,  is there a framework or guidelines or ways that you would help a founder think about when the right time is, and maybe some of the areas or some of the things that might seem like the right time, but it actually isn't.

[00:58:36] And so like, One thing that pops to mind for me is,  does the founder or CEO need to get better at exec hiring or hire a COO? And I think those things can be conflated, um, at times, but kind of what comes to mind for you when you think about the right time, uh, to bring, uh, someone like a COO one.

[00:58:57] Sara Clemens  what I often see is there's a couple of [00:59:00] factors.

[00:59:00] The first is how much time they're spending doing things they don't enjoy doing and are not very good at. And so you will often see them put their head up and say, you know what, actually, I'm sitting at like 50% of my time on a bunch of functions that I won't run really well, but I don't actually want to run them myself.

[00:59:18] And that's a classic situation where you look for a COO because. You could go out and hire five great leaders, but if you are a, a new CEO or somebody who's maturing into the role, like you are not going to get five outta five on your hiring. And if you bring in an experienced COO who's, you know, frankly just done more of it, you know, practice makes perfect.

[00:59:42] Um, they have a much better likelihood of, uh, hiring in great other leaders. They also are going to be able to fill the gaps if they don't, you know, generally a COO is a pretty, um, multi-functional leader. Uh, they will have done a lot of the functions in some fashion, [01:00:00] in their roles in the past. And so, you know, I was interim leader of every function that I led at Twitch other than our content function.

[01:00:09] Um, when I joined in the first two years as I was hiring my leadership team. And so. It just gives you a CEO, a lot of capacity, bringing somebody in who can take a range of functions off your hand. Um, I think if you have already built a leadership team where 60 or 70% of them are doing great, maybe you focus, you don't bother with a COO at all.

[01:00:31] You're like, actually I'm gonna focus on hiring three more great leaders. And, uh, that will mean that I have a great leadership team and I can focus more on the things that I want to, and, you know, just managing the, the exec. I, I think if you don't have a lot of experience, that is tough. I think for more seasoned CEOs, they will generally go that path.

[01:00:52] You it's, it's where you see a season CEO hire a COO. Um, I think where they [01:01:00] do it's because again, they have decided that they prefer to spend their time on a certain range of functions and they want somebody else that they trust to take other things off their hands on a day to day basis. And so I think that decision is really the heart of it is what, what do you a CEO want to be doing?

[01:01:14] How much of your time do you want to be spending on it? How much of the business does that leave to be run? And is that collection of function? Something that a good COO could run on your behalf?

[01:01:34] Brett Berson of my favorite questions, which is, uh, what are the CEOs you think you've learned the most from? And what did they teach you? And maybe we could focus on I'm sure. A lot of what you shared, you've sort of figured out both on your own, but also from other folks that you really admire. And so are there, are there any big ideas or, or, or ways in which you've approached the role that have been heavily influenced by, [01:02:00] by others?

[01:02:03] Sara Clemens I would say I'm a quite early gen COO. So it wasn't a career path that was defined as I was progressing in my career. And there were very few examples outside of industrial businesses where COOs ran the operational processes. So, you know, telecommunications had COOs, um, you know, any industrial business.

[01:02:25] Would've had one, the first COO I struck in a meaningful way. And I would say the one I learned the most from was Dennis Durkin. Uh, so I was on Dennis's team at Xbox. Uh, he was both the COO and the CFO there. And then he went on to do the same role at Activision blizzard and. working with him. Um, I learned a lot, there are a couple of things that really stuck with me.

[01:02:52] Uh, the first was he was a phenomenal strategic operator, so he knew the details of the business intimately. [01:03:00] He could roll up his sleeves and totally dig into the details, um, and you know, work through any issues in a micro level. But he was also a very strong strategist and was instrumental in helping the organization, define its long term growth plan and, and really think about like, what were the opportunities we were addressing and how we did it.

[01:03:19] And he. Was really comfortable moving between those states, moving from the operational to the executional. So jumping from a meeting, which would be about our, you know, five year long range plan and, you know, multi, billions of dollars of investment in different projects we were doing to the details of, you know, a deal that we were executing on or, you know, a business case or, you know, just a, an operational conundrum that had occurred and, and how we were going to work through that.

[01:03:51] He had a really strong ability to think about the business over multiple horizons. Um, so the short term, the medium term, the long term, and connect the [01:04:00] dots across those. And I think for me, it helped me really understand how important doing that was to be a COO, like. In particular, you know, I think I, I had more of a strategy background.

[01:04:14] So I was, I was very comfortable with the, the kind of long range and building new business aspects of things, but being involved in the details of the business on a day to day basis and just how important being great at that was, um, and connecting between the day to day in the long term. And that, that was a fundamental factor to be a successful COO.

[01:04:37] Um, that was a, a really important learning for me.

[01:04:42] Brett Berson That was a great place to end. Thanks so much for joining us, Sara.

[01:04:45] Sara Clemens Wonderful. Thanks Brett. It was great chatting to you.