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Feb 12, 2019
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Before joining the non-profit charity: water as a consultant in 2009, Chief Operating Officer (COO) Lauren Letta ran large-scale global marketing and branding campaigns for fashion brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Swarovski. Inspired by charity: water’s mission to provide people in developing countries with clean and safe drinking water, Letta joined the organization. She rose quickly to become the Chief of Staff and is now the Chief Operating Officer.

Therefore, with almost a decade under her belt at charity: water, Letta has intimate knowledge of the organization’s ins and outs, which allows her to thrive as its Chief Operating Officer. We asked her a few questions about her role as COO, her decision-making process, and how she approaches performance management.

 

What makes a good Chief Operating Officer?

In the world of start-ups and fast-paced companies, being Chief Operating Officer can mean a million things. It definitely does for me, and that’s why I like it. As a result, it’s about multi-tasking and being a generalist. I’m the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Revenue Officer. I run the people and culture, IT, production, marketing, and creative departments. A great COO needs to be able to, at any point, identify how the organization (and world) is changing. Because organizations are organisms. They’re constantly evolving, and they need to be able to adapt to whatever’s happening. It doesn’t matter what title I have or what team I’m in charge of. It’s more about flexibility and agility and the ability to view things from a people and brand perspective in order to make the right decisions operationally.

 

As the Chief Operating Officer, how do you manage staying focused both on your role and on how the world is changing?

I like to be solution-oriented and operate with optimism. I don’t try to assume I know what I’m going to be doing for the full year. The organization is growing so fast and we’re founder-led, which means we’ve got a lot of passion, creativity, and ideas flowing in. And a huge part of my job is filtering those ideas, making sure we’re choosing the right ones, and then organizing around them effectively. I look at the big picture and say, “These are the three most important things I’m going to do for the next 30 days, and then I’m going pivot.” It might be totally different in 45 days, or it might be the exact same.

What drives the decisions you make?

We always go back to what we’re ultimately trying to achieve, which is bringing people clean water. Does this decision help do that? Check. But also, we have to do it in a way that reinvents charity, since that’s one of our main goals—disrupting the way charity traditionally works. We need to make sure these two things are happening. Because if they are, that means we’re making the right decisions and we’re focused in the right areas.

What is your typical decision-making process?

It depends on what type of decision is being made. Most importantly, though, we have such a great team. I love creating an environment that’s really candid, and I make sure we have a diverse group of people sitting at the table and that we’re thinking about it from every angle. When it comes down to it, however, a lot of it’s based on my gut feel. I’ve been in the organization a long time, and I’ve watched the way we’ve grown. For that reason, I have a thorough understanding what we do and don’t do. So, there’s this kind of initial reaction and then there’s this gut reaction. It’s important to know the difference between those two.


As COO, what’s your approach to performance management?

Other than the standard bi-annual reviews, I’m a big proponent of the fact that not only is the organization a living organism, but so is everybody in it. Because we’re humans. Maybe somebody deals with decisions really emotionally. Maybe somebody else deals with them at home. Whatever it might be, it adds to the person’s style and you need to understand it when evaluating them. Whenever I assess someone’s performance, I always make sure I answer the following questions about them first.

  • Who is the person?
  • What team are they on?
  • How is that reflected in the way they’re being managed?
  • How is their manager setting expectations and supporting them?

Remember the human aspect of it all. Don’t just treat this like another process to get through.

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This interview was conducted by Aastha Jain and condensed by Abby Wolfe.

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