When it comes to the C-suite, most roles are fairly well understood and universal. But there’s one that’s much less structured: the chief operating officer.
“COO roles are not ubiquitous,” said Connie Chang, COO of Michigan-based ONL Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biopharma focused on retinal disease. The company is developing first-in-class therapeutics to protect retinal cells from Fas-mediated cell death to treat blinding diseases such as retinal detachment, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and inherited retinal degeneration.
When Chang joined ONL in January 2021, she became the company’s first COO, stepping into the newly created role a decade after ONL was founded.
The launch of the COO position at ONL is part of a larger trend. According to a report from McKinsey and Company, 40% of leading companies had a COO in 2022, up from just 32% in 2018.
Moreover, the role itself is changing “from its roots in the back office into a catalyst for technology-driven growth, strategic expansion, and employee empowerment,” the McKinsey report said.
Chang’s approach follows that playbook.
“I'm more of a realist [and] practical. That's not to say that your CEO is not those things, but that's not primarily what they have to do. They have to set the vision. You have to take that vision and say, we can get almost there, but it's going to look a bit different.”
Chief operating officer, ONL Therapeutics
“What my role tends to be for a small company like ours is to make sure that everything we’re doing with the scarce resources that we have is aligned with the goals and objectives of the company and that they’re realistic,” she said.
Executing the big picture
When Chang took on the COO job, it wasn’t clearly defined, and part of the appeal for her was to shape what it would look like. ONL CEO David Esposito “wanted a closely aligned partner to help him build the company, to help him run the company,” Chang said. She added that while a CEO often takes an “aspirational … 30,000-foot view” of the company and its big-picture goals, the COO’s job is different.
“I'm more of a realist [and] practical. That's not to say that your CEO is not those things, but that's not primarily what they have to do,” she said. “They have to set the vision. You have to take that vision and say, we can get almost there, but it's going to look a bit different.”
Perhaps the most famous example of this dynamic is the relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, who led Facebook (now Meta Platforms) as CEO and COO, respectively. While Zuckerberg had the vision, Sandberg made the company profitable.
“You're not just developing a great strategy,” Chang said. “You actually have to be able to execute that strategy.”
So far, Chang has led the regulatory approval and start-up process for ONL’s early-stage glaucoma study in Australia and New Zealand and successfully filed the company’s first IND for a U.S.-based phase 2 study in retinal detachment. She established in-house financial reporting, accounting and operations capabilities, and worked with the CEO to drive engagement with investors, which includes healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson. In March, the company closed on the first tranche of a $15 million financing round, and now it’s preparing a $75-100 million fundraise.
Chang’s career trajectory wasn’t necessarily aimed at the C-suite, and there were aspects of the CEO role that didn’t appeal to her. The COO role did, though, and retrospectively, her prior jobs aligned with the position.
Chang’s previous experience ranges from a marketing director role at Pfizer to stints at Sunovion Pharmaceuticals (now a part of Sumitomo Pharma America), and Fast Forward Medical Innovation at the University of Michigan Medical School, where she was a founding managing director. Most recently, she was vice president of corporate affairs at Millendo Therapeutics, where she guided the company during its transition from private to public and helped achieve equity financing of $35 million in gross proceeds.
Now, the culmination of that experience influences how she approaches her work as COO. For instance, Chang likens working with investors to marketing because both require a knowledge of customer segmentation.
“You have to understand your different types of customers,” she said. “Not all investors are the same, and in our world, one of the biggest things is understanding what a venture capital investor is looking for in your company, in your management team, in your strategic objectives.”
The ability to juggle
For the COO, it’s not enough to be extremely skilled in one niche area.
“Don’t let the [word] ‘operations’ in COO fool anybody,” Chang said. “COOs have to be competent and have a command of everything from tactical execution all the way up to corporate strategy to be effective.”
Being a successful COO also requires the ability to multitask, prioritize, pivot and adapt between those responsibilities depending on the needs and information of the day, which can be “messy on a day-to-day level,” Chang said.
“It's constantly being able to incorporate new data points and adapting our strategy to those data points,” she said. “We’ve got to know what's important and what's not important.”
Making it your own
In addition to not being ubiquitous, the COO role is often misunderstood, and part of that might have to do with “the misunderstood role of how a company needs to operate in order to be successful,” Chang said.
“I feel like people have this weird conception that you're either doing strategy or you're doing tactics, and somehow strategy trumps tactics,” she said.
However, as COO, “you're not just developing this great strategy. You actually have to be able to execute that strategy. And executing the strategy isn’t just about getting the right work plan. It’s about getting the right people at your company, getting them motivated in the right direction … It’s about pulling all those different pieces together and going in one direction as opposed to different people moving in lots of different directions.”
It’s also a position Chang said many companies should consider adding.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for a role like this in many different types of companies, especially the early-stage ones,” Chang said.