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Don't Lick the Cookie (Dear, New Ops Leader | Part 3)
Why you should own temporarily, and master the art of the transition
(This is Part 3 of a multi-part series dedicated to new Ops leaders. In it, I share things I wish someone would have told me when I was starting out. If you missed it, Part 1 is here!)
So, you're in your new role, you're staying calm while problems rain down around you, and you're attempting to pick your boulders. At the same time, you can't help yourself — you really do want to add value and get some wins on the board, and there are opportunities to do so everywhere.
This brings up a related, but distinct point that really matters: Don't Lick the Cookie.
Now, if you have siblings, you already know what this means. But, just in case: "cookie licking" is the act of — you guessed it — licking a cookie so that your brother / cousin / spouse (just for example) doesn't take it.
In software development, especially in large companies, "cookie licking" can look like a team putting something on their future roadmap (like "AI" or "new feature X"), effectively staking a claim over it and preventing other teams from working on it.
Cookie Licking isn't always a conscious, greedy act. It can be done by accident, by someone with great intentions… like you, new Ops Leader. ❤️
Let me share an example.
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What it looks like to Lick the Cookie
One of the boulders that you take on is shifting how teams companywide communicate with one another. You and the rest of the exec team agree that everyone is over-utilizing meetings and too much time and knowledge is getting lost.
After a lively discussion, you all decide to test the use of video as a medium for asynchronous internal communication — so you get to work:
You scour the market and select a tool that you'd like to test in one org. The test goes well, so you roll the tool out companywide.
You then decide that modeling is important, so you shift a few high-visibility exec comms to video — that went well!
And then you decide that expectation-setting might be a problem — so you get involved with new hire onboarding and interject a video there for good measure.
The boulder officially gets off the ground — adoption is picking up, and you're hearing good things. That’s a win!
But then 3 months go by... and you are still the de facto "Head of All Things Video." At this point though, the company’s video needs have shifted, you've moved on to more pressing issues, and video stuff keeps slipping further and further down your list.
Uh oh. You've licked the cookie.
While you were making magic happen, stacking those wins, you forgot that your job is to actually work yourself out of a job.
And because you’re the COO, and you’ve associated this focus area with your name:
The general belief will be that you’re taking care of it, and…
It might feel high-stakes for someone to come and “take it away” from you, so…
Other teams or leaders will likely not work on it.
Having seen this movie a number of times, I’ve learned something:
After some time, your involvement in something (as COO) prevents others from stepping up to lead.
It could happen other ways too
If your mandate as COO is really broad, like “I’m here to make the company work better” — you might believe you should volunteer for every effort that lines up to that outcome:
Our employee onboarding is outdated? That’s really important. I’ll fix it!
Our internal reporting is lousy? On it!
We need to retool customer support to better utilize AI? Got it!
Or you beat the drum of “we’re the process [or data] people!” You might create the belief that you need to be in every process flow, or data effort.
Eventually, you become a single-point-of-failure (sometimes, out of complete exhaustion) and you crowd out the potential leadership and contribution of others.
The result is just as pernicious as the greedy cousin licking the last Oreo (even while well-intentioned).
So, how do you avoid licking the cookie?
For 80% of the things you touch: your job is to test, iterate (or kill), and gain sufficient support and momentum for something... before you officially make it someone else's job.
In doing this, you are as much an internal talent scout as you are a problem-solver. Eventually, and especially when scaling, you want to become best-in-class at the motion of lining up talent with problems, resources and real ownership — and sending them on their way.
This is the game of handing out cookies, versus licking them.
There are a few aspects of this that really matter:
1. Know your Definition of Done.
Step back and ask yourself: how far do I need to take this before it becomes a nicely packaged problem (or validated solution) that can be handed to someone else?
Discuss this transparently with your peers in advance, so that there is no confusion.
This does not mean you’ll drop it like it’s hot as soon as you reach the point of “Done” — but it does mean you’re clear-eyed on your scope, role and intended outcome coming in.
2. Start to identify and enroll others early
I’ll be drafting another post on how to spot underutilized talent internally, but for now: scan for passion and aptitude before job title. If this project truly has the support of company leadership, it’s going to be an excellent growth opportunity for the right person. It helps, by the way, if that person has more ground truth than you — as they’ll likely do a better job of rolling out the right thing.
Important, though, is the “enrollment” part — it’s not enough to find someone and loop them in. You will need to help ensure they have the support they need to be successful. This will require buy-in from their manager / team, possible reprioritization of their workload, and maybe even budget. Lean on your peer relationships to make these happen.
Finally, if you truly need to hire for this thing going forward, engage the future boss of this potential hire early. Help with knowledge transfer, but leave ownership of the search to them.
3. Resist the urge to parachute back in
Ownership will need to be communicated, and reinforced over time, especially when things go wrong. Your peers may still look to you for updates, or bring you problems. When that happens, extend support, but don’t parachute back in. This is another chance to not lick the cookie.
Also, be helpful if / when ownership needs to shift again as the company scales. It’s likely!
Tying it all together
Sometimes, you see COOs that are great executors, but lousy at the transition part. This causes friction and shortens the shelf-life of the solution at-hand.
You sometimes also see the COO with the desire to “empire-build” (ie. accrue functions and direct reports for the glory — an anti-pattern, for the record). Instead of transitioning at “done,” they build teams (under themselves) to support the solution going forward. This tends to erode trust with peers and leads to an unwieldy organization full of shadow-functions and unclear mandates (like the COO who runs operations, legal, IT, comms and product marketing).
S/he may be in that position because that is what is truly best for the company right now — or, it may be because s/he licked the cookie.
By focusing on smooth (and timely) transitions, you’ll model that “wins” happen not by amassing resources or glory, but by solving problems in a way that is sustainable.
I will now accept my award for saying “lick the cookie” 23 times in a blogpost. 🆒
Ready for Part 4 in this series? Click here.
Thank you for reading. Until next time!
Find the rest of Dear, New Ops Leader here:
Part 1: Dear, New Ops Leader...
Part 2: Pick Your Boulders
Part 4: Stay Heads Up, While Heads Down
Part 5: Invest in Yourself
I truly do this for the DM’s. If anything above was helpful to you, or you have a question, or a joke — I’d love to hear from you. Just reply!
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