Operating in Operations

As the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at WebDevStudios, I’m often asked about my role and how Operations get defined in a digital services company. Recently, I have engaged in conversations that made me realize that everyone has different perspectives on what defines Operations in a business, and even whether or not a company needs a COO as part of the C-Suite, executive team.

To me, Operation Management is a very important part of running a business, an integral part of employee experience, and absolutely vital in client satisfaction. Talent, skill, and experience are all important gears that make the digital services wheel turn, as well, but without Operational Management, talent and skill get wasted on inefficient processes, ineffective policies, and a lack of measurable goals that define, and allow your team to celebrate, successes.

Operations are all about management. Management is how business works internally. Operations are meant to promote two main things in a business: effectiveness and efficiency. So when the operations segment of a business is doing its job properly, then the business turns out to be more efficient and effective. 

Nicky LaMarcoSmall Business Chron

What Does a COO Do?

I network and communicate with a lot of COO’s and people in positions within Operations, and it occurs to me that every company does it differently. However, I have observed that most Operational people have common characteristics: pragmatism, OCD-level task management skills, obsessive organization, vision-driven, great communicators, a drive for perfection, a love for new tools, data-driven, passionate and they are great coaches.

Investopedia gives us a list of seven different types of COO’s:

  1. The executor, who oversees the implementation of company strategies.
  2. The change agent, who spearheads new initiatives.
  3. The mentor, who is hired to counsel younger or newer company team members.
  4. An “MVP” COO, who is promoted internally to ensure that he doesn’t defect to a rival company.
  5. The COO who is brought in to complement the CEO.
  6. The partner COO, who is brought in as the CEO’s right-hand person.
  7. The heir apparent who becomes the COO to learn from the CEO, in order to ultimately assume the CEO position.

I find you can be just one type or several different types all at once. For myself, I consider myself a change agent who spearheads new initiatives, a mentor who coaches team members, and a partner to the CEO. If I were to boil it down to one sentence, I work to ensure that our company is run in the most efficient way possible, maximizing profits and customer satisfaction. I help the CEO make strategic company decisions by reviewing and assessing the company’s quality and efficiency.

Mission and Purpose

In order to understand Operations in a digital services agency, it’s first important to understand your mission and purpose. Being intimate with your mission and purpose means that you can formulate realistic goals that can be set, tracked, achieved and met when you ensure that they encompass the overall mission and purpose of the company

Our Mission is Your Success.

WebDevStudios Mission

Our mission breaks down three ways:

  1. Our mission is our client’s success
    When our clients are successful, that means we have achieved success, as well. This does not only extend to making sure each client project is successful – but it also extends to building successful client relationships. We touch and interact with several stakeholders in each individual client project – we are consistently working to make sure those stakeholders are successful in their job by first understanding their definition of success for the project, and working with them to help them achieve that success to make sure they are building a successful portfolio of achievements to help them build their career.
  2. Our mission is our team’s success.
    This part touches everything from recruitment, compensation, job satisfaction, culture, advancement, and helping our team members achieve their personal and professional goals. When our team succeeds, we make sure to celebrate those achievements.
  3. Our mission is our company’s success.
    I firmly believe if the first two items on this list are met, then this one takes care of itself. Company success extends beyond financial and profitable success, but also includes metrics like satisfied clients, happy employees, and an enjoyable culture in which to work.

Every goal we set, no matter who or what that goal is for, needs to touch on those three aspects of our core mission. How does this help us achieve client, team, and company success? If we can answer that question with clarity, then I feel we are ahead of the game.

As COO, I work in the day-to-day operations of the company in helping formulate and ultimately reach, those goals. On the front end, we set the goals, and then on the back end, we track and report on those goals to make sure we are measuring our progress. My work is more internal-facing than that of our CEO, Brad Williams. Between the two of us, we cover internal and external aspects of our company pretty well.

A Week in the Life

What does a week in the life of a COO for a digital services agency look like? Here is my typical schedule – understanding that each week has a smattering of fires that need to get put out and obstacles that need to get removed – the following is what I have planned out, at least. I’ll talk about some of those fires and obstacles later.

  • Emails, Emails, Emails and Meetings, Meetings, Meetings.
  • Sales / Leads Weekly Review → this is a scheduled weekly meeting to review all new leads, opportunities, and closed sales that have landed within the past week. This meeting gives me an understanding of resourcing needs for our project teams, progress on monthly sales goals, and the health of our pipeline of work.
  • Weekly Ops Meeting → this is a scheduled weekly meeting to review the financial health of the company, overall and to review any policy changes that may affect our financial health, including AR/AP (Account Receivables, Account Payables), invoicing, recruiting, investments, employee reviews/compensation, and any upcoming expenses (expected or unexpected).
  • Active Projects → this is a scheduled weekly meeting to review the health of all projects happening in the company. All of the project managers in our company report on their individual projects and we take a look at things like project completion percentage, client satisfaction, project budget and profitability, and project challenges & risks.
  • One-on-One Director meetings → once a week, I meet with the Directors of the departments that fall under me in our Org Chart, which includes: Project Management, Strategy, Engineering, and Operations. These meetings are an hour-long each and we discuss new goals and report on current and ongoing goals, discuss department challenges, risks, and celebrations, and review policy and workflow procedures that help us refine and improve our service delivery. In these meetings, I cover topics from employee reviews to continuing education efforts, as well as project process and personnel issues.
  • One-on-One Team Meetings → once a month, I meet with every project manager, every member of the Strategy Team, the Lead Engineers and Delivery Leads to touch base with them. These meetings are 30 minutes each and we review any challenges they are currently facing in their departments and project, celebrate successes and I do a lot of leadership coaching. It’s a really nice touch base with some of the people that really make things work around here.
  • One-on-One with the CEO → My business partner, Brad Williams, is the CEO of the company and he oversees our Sales, Marketing, and Support Services departments. He and I make sure that we meet every week to touch base on initiatives we are working on separately in each of our departments, as well as company initiatives that he and I work on together. This is probably the most important call of the week for me.
  • Leadership Meeting → This is a weekly call for all of the department Directors and Executives to meet and discuss the progress of departmental goals and to talk through any roadblocks or issues that are being faced in each department. This meeting is also an opportunity for Brad and I to announce new company initiatives. Recently, we announced our new 401k matching program for all employees, but it’s important for us to announce this to our Leadership team first, so they have the context and answers they need if their department team members go to them with questions. Our Leadership Team is monthly, quarterly and annual goals that are set – this meeting allows us the time to review progress on those goals, including adjusting them as needed, and/or celebrating progress when it happens! All progress is celebrated, no matter how small!
  • Project Profitability → This is a monthly meeting with a sole focus on the profitability of every active project that is happening in the company. We have set goals for profitability for every project, and in this meeting, we review our progress towards that goal. This meeting also allows us to see potential indicators that tell us we may not meet our goals if we don’t intervene befor it gets that far. It is important to be proactive in this area as much as possible because if you find yourself reacting to lost profit, it’s already too late.
  • HR-related work → Human Resources falls under me in our Org Chart, as well. Recently, we hired an Employee Experience Coordinator who works as an HR Manager, as well. I spend time reviewing Job Postings, assisting with the creation of new job descriptions, make decisions on recruiting methods, as well as the timing of our recruitment and the positions we need to hire for. Many people think that Operations is primarily HR, but for me, that is only one part of what I do and manager at WebDev.

Data-Driven Decision Making

I have become very data-driven in my decision-making with my work. The past several years of running WebDevStudios have taught me so many valuable lessons in business, especially running a digital services business from an operational standpoint. My job since I joined in 2012 was to really dig in, find out where our pain points were and fix them and then constantly tweak the process to improve them. In some cases, that meant creating new positions and roles that get filled with specific responsibilities and goals. In other cases, it was creating whole departments to address larger pain points, and assembling a team to provide solutions and reduce the churn and increase productivity, efficiency, and ultimately, client satisfaction.

One of my first initiatives at WebDev was to bring design to the team. In 2012, WebDevStudios was known as an development group who specialized in WordPress. When I joined, I brought my background and experience in design to create our creative teams. By the end of 2013, we were already accepting projects that not only had a good deal of development work, but also full design solutions, as well. This included UX/UI design, full mockups, branding – pretty much the whole gambit. Now, in 2021, I would say more than half the projects we engage in have a UX/UI design aspect to the work we contribute.

Design was an obvious initiative for me to engage in during those early months at WebDev, because that was what our merger was all about. I ran a freelance company that specialized in design and light development of custom themes for WordPress – – but the real heavy lifters on the development end was the team I outsourced to at WebDevStudios. So when we merged our two companies – for me, design was the low hanging fruit.

From there, it’s a matter of listening and understanding where pain points exist. I rely on data to tell some of the story. All of our project teams track time at WebDevStudios (we use Harvest for time tracking) – and it’s not because we try to micromanage and make everyone a slave to the timer. Rather, we started to use that timed data to tell the story of the project. After looking at the project after project, you begin to see patterns. Early on, one pattern I began to see in the data was a very large amount of hours getting logged too, what we call, our 30-Day Support Phase. This is the phase that clients are able to report bugs in the project and our team dives in to get them fixed up. Project after project, the amount of time logged there was huge – so I dug in and found out that the teams did not really have a formal QA (Quality Assurance) process in place. From there, once you’ve identified the issue – you put a process in place to address it, with the team members in place to make it happen – make sure they understand their role and responsibilities, set parameters and guardrails, set goals and milestones, and then let the team do what they do best! QA is now a very very important part of what we do, as it should be (as it should have been) – we have tweaked and revamped the process over the years, and now the amount of time logged during the Support Phase for bug fixing is minimal.

I have also used the timed data from Harvest to assist our Sales department in estimating projects for new clients and we have improved our estimating process ten-fold just by paying attention to and reviewing the data from each historical project. While every project is different and unique, there are similar/global elements to a digital project that are the same enough to become predictors for future projects. By tracking this data we can easily see where we have been underestimating the time it takes to complete a particular feature, and have adjusted our estimates. As a result, we are more profitable on our projects and have a fuller understanding of how we are estimating those for clients. We take a cost-based approach to estimates. If we understand what our overall costs are in the delivery of a project, and we set profitability goals of 20-30%, then we know exactly what we need the project budget to be. Combine the cost-based approach, with the understanding that we’ve gleaned from the historical data on projects, then we’ve brought ourselves closer to a number that is more accurate for us, and for our clients.

People Watching and People Listening

Data is a lot, but it is not everything. There are some intangibles that data does not tell us. We are, after all, in the people business – and people can tell you a story better than any numbers on a spreadsheet. This is where my One-On-One Meetings come in and why they are so important to me. I pick up on and hear things that data isn’t going to tell me. What components of a project are frustrating to my team members? What aspects of client delivery are challenging? What are they grumpy about, or excited about? What are the inefficiencies that THEY are seeing in their day-to-day? I gain so much insight from talking to my team members – one-on-one. I want to make them feel like I am really listening to them because I am – they have insight into things that I may not see. I want them to feel empowered to bring these things to me and encourage honest and clear communications because I value what they bring to the company.

Within the past 2 years, my biggest initiative at WebDevStudios was the creation of a new department, our Strategy Department. This department encompasses the research, discovery, and strategic planning that goes into a project build. Projects go a lot smoother, more efficiently, and are more profitable if the team knows what the goals of a project are, and how and what they need to build in order to make sure the goals are met. I talked about this a little in my Brain Dumping post here on this site, and talked about it a LOT in my LinkedIn article: From Idea to Launch: Why Strategy Plays an Important Part in Your Website Project.

My method for creating a new department is to get down in the weeds and get my hands dirty by doing the job, myself. I expected that I would need to do the job of Strategist for about 6-months before I had a clear process and method of delivery for this department – at least enough to hire my own replacement. So, I told Brad that I was temporarily stepping down from my COO role so that I could fully concentrate on creating this new role of Digital Strategist. Turns out, the processes and structure that I built for that department were for more than one person – it turns out it was for a team of 3-4 people to be successful in the delivery of the work that was involved. But it all started by listening to my Project Managers tell me that they were missing milestones and deliverables in certain areas because the Engineers weren’t entirely sure of the requirements. I listened to the Engineers tell me stories about having to switch gears mid-project because they thought features needed to ABC when really, it needed to do XYZ. Now, we have a full-fledged Strategy Department with processes that our team loves, our clients are responding incredibly to and the numbers and data are showing me that the entire process, while it added some cost, increased our efficiency and profitability in the long run. I handed the department off to one of our Directors to oversee, and between hers and my oversight – we continue to tweak the processes for continual improvement. Our team considers it a total win.

When you hear these things over and over – a pattern emerges to the point that it becomes a red flag. My theory is that if a red flag lands on my desk more than once, then I need to dig into it, understand it, acknowledge the failure and take steps to turn it into a success through process, goals, and people. Sometimes that means I need to take the bull by the horns and do it myself, and sometimes it means empowering the people around me to get it done. It really depends on what it is.

Being an owner of this company means that sometimes I have to step outside my COO role to get something done because that is what owners do. As an owner, when a crisis arises, you cannot sit on the sidelines and observe. You are always on the frontlines during a crisis – or when fires need to get put out. Sometimes it’s a client who wants only to speak to the owner, or it’s a very large client who requires that high-level relationship. Sometimes It’s an employee who needs to be heard, or an invoice that needs to be chased, or a contract that needs to get reviewed. I think Brad and I do a pretty good job of divvying up the responsibilities of running a growing company and I am proud of the work we do and the culture we’ve been able to build together. I work with the most amazing people in the world who are smart and funny and talented and, together, we do some pretty great things!

I love my role in Operations – it challenges me every day. I’m convinced that Operations people are the unsung heroes in any company – and, really, don’t we prefer it that way? I think we do.

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