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Getting sh*t done - Q&A with Christina Bellis, Chief Operating Officer @ CoGo

We recently had the great pleasure of having a deep-dive with Christina Bellis, COO @ CoGo. The conversation was centred around their recent organisation redesign (a fancy word for restructure) as they look to double in size by the end of the financial year as well as her role of "helping CoGo scale smoothly". 

We spoke about the core objectives of her role, what she loves about working as a COO in a high-growth startup as well as some of the lessons they learnt in their redesign. You can watch the full conversation here or read the transcription below.

Getting to know Christina

What is one other kiwi tech company you most admire and why?

Sharesies. They're demystifying something that can feel confusing and unattainable (stock market investing) and making it accessible and transparent. They're a values-led business, with a great employer brand and employee benefits, while working to increase financial empowerment. 
 
What is the best book you have read in recent memory?

These days I'm often listening to podcasts, but I did recently read a paper book called 'Still Alice' by Lisa Genova. It's a story of early onset dementia through the eyes of the victim, highlighting how we often focus support on their loved ones, but not on the hardship of the person who's literally losing themself. It was a poignant reminder that every day is precious, and not to take life - your own, or others - for granted. 


What is your favourite piece of tech that you use in your role and why?

We've recently adopted BambooHR and I'm loving it. It centralises our people, key documents, schedules quarterly assessments and development, tracks goals, and manages leave and employee benefits. It's also a game changer for recruitment, funnelling all candidates to one platform, centralising communication, and offering a quick overview on the status of each position. 


The best piece of career advice you have received? 

"Be gracious with people, and ruthless with standards."

Greg:

Kia ora, welcome everyone. Today, we are having a chat with Christina Bellis, Chief Operating Officer at CoGo about her role within the business, some of the current challenges that the team at CoGo are facing, and where to next for her and the team.

Christina, first things first, thanks for taking the time to have a chat. If we could kick things off with a quick intro as to who you are and your role within the business.

Christina:

Kia ora, thanks very much for having me Greg. I'm Christina Bellis, the Chief Operating Officer at CoGo. We have our head office in New Zealand, but we are a global company.

Greg:

And for people that are unacquainted with CoGo, at a top line what is CoGo? What is the big problem and mission that you're tackling?

“..we really want to help people is to understand their own data so that they can make better decisions that are in line with their values.”

Christina:

CoGo builds sustainability solutions that empower consumers and businesses to measure, improve, and compensate for their impact in the world.

So in granular detail, we all have a ton of data that's associated with our spending or anything that we do, and what we really want to help people is to understand their own data so that they can make better decisions that are in line with their values.

Greg:

It's a super cool mission and something that we really get around ourselves. In terms of the current state of play at CoGo, it's been a pretty exciting journey so far in terms of that hyper-growth path and expanding into different markets.

Can you give us a quick snapshot as to where things are at today for people to get an understanding of that?

Christina:

Certainly. We are currently working with some of the biggest banks in the UK, such as NatWest and CommBank, the biggest bank in Australia. And we're finalising a number of other partnerships at the moment. 

We are in a really high growth stage of our business, and we are gearing up for that significant global expansion. We've recently raised about $10 million in capital to help us do that.

And I've been spending a lot of time lately setting up a subsidiary in Japan to bring sustainability solutions to the Asian market, while we're also looking to move into the North American market and deeper into the European market. It's literally firing on all cylinders.

Greg:

In terms of the COO role within that context of your business today, and that fast paced startup environment, what would you say are the two to three main objectives of what you are trying to keep focused on, Christina?

“I'd say that right now, my role really is centralised on helping CoGo scale smoothly. That's the main object.”

Christina:

I'd say that right now, my role really is centralised on helping CoGo scale smoothly. That's the main object. And the offshoots from that would be anything from looking at all of our processes and all the platforms that we're using to ensure that we've got optimal integration across them, efficiency, and especially that security as we grow. 

Definitely another aspect in scale is our people, and we are planning for significant global recruitment. We want to ensure our employer brand is really great to attract that high calibre talent, and then all the way through to onboarding, induction, et cetera, for minimal disruption to our team and to not slow our progress. 

And then the third thing that comes in is compliance, really looking at things like GDPR, different employment legislation around the world, reading NDAs for potential... non-disclosure agreements, for those who don't know, for potential clients and for all sorts of those little legal bits and pieces to make sure that we're staying on the right side of the law and protecting the company and the people we work with.

Greg:

It's a pretty broad spectrum of things that you're tackling. For you personally. What are the things that you really love about being a COO within that environment?

“I really love versatility in my job. So if you gave me one thing to focus on, I'd probably run away a few days later.”

Christina:

I really love versatility in my job. So if you gave me one thing to focus on, I'd probably run away a few days later. I'm a really good multitasker and having multiple things happening at once is really great.

I love being the person who is trying to unblock the organisation so that everyone else can be their best selves and do their best work, which is driving us all towards success. 

It's important to build the foundation underneath the company, and that's something that I've done in the past with other companies and something that really excites me, really looking at all those processes, the policies and making sure that we're really set up well to be the best for our people, as well as to achieve our mission.

Greg:

Yeah, and the flip side to that I suppose, having so many different plates spinning. What are some of the things that stress you out the most within that environment or things that make it really challenging to do that role effectively with such a broad reach of things that you're trying to achieve?

“There's always urgent tasks and those urgent things can't always supersede the important ones or the ones that other people need. ”

Christina:

I suppose it's that feeling that I'm not getting to some stuff that I know other people need that's... There's always urgent tasks and those urgent things can't always supersede the important ones or the ones that other people need. 

So I really try hard to manage my time well, block things out so that people aren't really waiting on me for stuff. But at the same time, with a growing organisation, there's only so many people and so many hands. 

So it's really about... I get stressed out when I think people are waiting on me. I wake up in the middle of the night and I write an email going, "This is on your to-do list for tomorrow, don't forget about this." So yeah, I think it's just time management.

“..no matter what else I'm doing in the day, as long as I'm getting shit done, then things are okay. ”

But it all comes down to, we get things done and that is one of my mottos is, get shit done, no matter what else I'm doing in the day, as long as I'm getting shit done, then things are okay. Am I allowed to say that here?

Greg:

Absolutely. And then in terms of, I suppose, some of those bigger challenges that you're tackling right now, you mentioned that you're going through a redesign in an explosive period of growth.

Can you tell us a little bit more about that and I suppose the process behind why you're doing it and how you're going about doing that at the moment?

“..the longer you wait to do these things, the more ingrained habits become, the deeper the tangled web of documents becomes..”

Christina:

Yeah, absolutely. Just like people, when companies grow, they're going to need different things to help them be successful and help them achieve their goals, and the longer you wait to do these things, the more ingrained habits become, the deeper the tangled web of documents becomes in your documentation system. 

So the reason for doing these is because it's really important for clarity. It's important for people to have clearly defined roles and responsibilities as the company grows and especially for them to know their career progression.

So yes, we have just gone through a massive redesign, which is basically a nicer way of saying a restructure, but it was a restructure for growth.

Christina:

So we were looking at what we've had in the team, what the team structures have been, and especially with that global expansion and with, I guess, the area with the banks and the APIs and the financial districts that we have been unlocking, what we really need to target those markets and adjusting our teams and our people accordingly. 

It is definitely hard because change is necessary, but it's not always easy nor is it comfortable for people, so that's really important that they feel bought into the process and part of that feedback and are allowed to have their voice and use their voice and know that their voice is being heard.

Greg:

Yeah, that's really interesting. And I suppose, being involved in the startup ecosystem, most of your employees would be used to a lot of change, hopefully. Has there been anything in that process has surprised you in a positive way as to how people have reacted or any other, perhaps, more challenging things that others might learn from if they go through that process themselves?

“..it was really, really great to see that very considered collaborative process that they did themselves through self organising.”

Christina:

Yeah, definitely. One of the things that surprised me in a really positive way was we put out the first big plan as to what our proposal on what we thought to the team and gave them ten days consultation for feedback. 

We gave them a number of channels that they could offer that feedback, which I think is really important, because some people don't have never done a feedback process before. So whether they want to talk through it or write something. 

Something that I loved seeing was teams actually got together, and not just necessarily with their own teams, but even cross-functionally brought in other people from other teams to have really good discussions on what they thought.

They looked at the proposal and how those teams were going to work together, because we do not work in silos, and they put in basically collaborative feedback and papers that they'd worked on together and gotten everyone's agreement on. 

So it was really, really great to see that very considered collaborative process that they did themselves through self organising.

Greg:

That's outstanding. So that wasn't even directed. That's just part of the fabric of the organisation that have got people together to come up with that?

Christina:

That's right. One of our values is trust and transparency. So we tried to be as transparent as possible through the process. Obviously some things we had to hold back because of legal reasons and you're not quite sure and you don't want to upset people before you're ready to put something out there. 

And in that way, when we were talking and being very, very open and clear with our communication, I was asking for their trust in that side of it, before we could be transparent with it, and they all really understood that. And when they were given the opportunity to give us feedback, they gave us some great feedback. 

We then adjusted because of their feedback and reconsidered with them to make sure that we had not left anything glaringly out. And I think that a lot of people really appreciated having that second eyes to go over it once we'd adopted a number of their feedback.

“..we very much understand that this can be disruptive and uncomfortable, but that we also still need to achieve what we're looking at doing on a day to day basis.”

Greg:

Yeah, that's interesting. And then I suppose, how do you balance that with, as you said, getting shit done and moving forward whilst making sure that people's opinions are considered?

Is there time boxing at the start of the process or how do you make sure that you keep up with the pace of the organisation's growth at the same time?

Christina:

Yeah, that came into the communication, saying we very much understand that this can be disruptive and uncomfortable, but that we also still need to achieve what we're looking at doing on a day to day basis. So we did try and time block some things. 

Obviously we wanted the process to be as quick as possible, but also allow people enough time to give feedback. 

So it was a balancing act there. We also did things for their feedback like open office days or open sessions, I should say, where we gave two hours every day where people could drop in and ask a bunch of questions and then gave them time with their teams to go and talk about it if they needed. 

Then we  tried to set them time to actually get shit done, which their managers were all over, our people experience managers or people experience team were all over, and that sort of thing, just to make sure people were very comfortable, but still working towards our goals.

Greg:

Interesting. And then, I suppose, prioritisation across the board is a pretty key skill to have. I imagine within your role pretty paramount.

How do you assess, across all of the things that you need to be doing, what takes precedence and what is the process as to how you prioritise the things you focus on?

Christina:

Carefully. As I said earlier, there's always those early urgent tasks that crop in and try and steal all of your attention, but basically what we do is we look... And this is what I'm trying to drive us towards for this next financial year that's right on our heels, which is exciting.

But it's ultimately looking at what we want to achieve in the next year as a company, and then breaking that down by quarters and creating work plans around it.

And what we do is we've got our core four values plus our purpose statement, and we also have these main goals that we want to achieve for the company. You can call them OKRs or OGSM, whatever, and everything has to have those lenses on it. Is it meeting those OKRs for this year, or is it outside of the scope? If it's outside of the scope, why would we do it?

Christina:

Kind of embedding that behaviour into people about asking the questions, why do you want to do this? What goal is it meeting? How does it get us closer to this, and what needs to be pushed aside? And then if something does need to be reprioritised, which it always does, what are the consequences that you're looking at or who can pick it up? 

So it's just trying to get us to not just think about, "Oh man, this is in front of me and this needs to be done right now." But also take 20 minutes and be like, "All right, what needs get pushed? How does that get pushed? What happens," et cetera, et cetera.

“..we are looking to double the team by the end of this next financial year. ”

Greg:

And then at the start you mentioned obviously this redesign was because you are growing so quickly and getting yourself ready for that next stage of growth.

What does that look like in terms of headcount and new markets? You are bringing on a lot of new people in the next 6 to 12 months. Can you give us a snapshot of that?

Christina:

Yep, sure. This is going to make me exhausted just talking about it. We're currently sitting at about 70 staff, which includes a few contractors, and we are looking to double the team by the end of this next financial year. 

So it's a lot of onboarding. We are prioritising positions that we need, looking at things like what's the pipeline for the sales that we want to achieve? What are the products that we need to build? What are the ones that need to... How many people do we need to support these, et cetera. Down to marketing. 

We're in new markets. What does that mean in that new market? What are the top roles that we would need to get that new market off the ground, for example, and how much support can we get from other markets in the interim?

Christina:

We're not hiring every position tomorrow. As anybody knows that would be kind of a nail in a coffin, but looking at where we can bridge certain roles. For example, if we need a website work done, but we don't yet have a website manager, how we can bridge some of those responsibilities into other roles until the time that we hire that next person. 

And nesting roles underneath other management, until we need that head of role, for example. One of the ways that we look at prioritising roles is we set trigger moments so that we know if this happens, that triggers this hire, and those triggers can come down to the amount of revenue, so obviously with your financial planning it unlocks the budget that will unlock that next role.

Christina:

It will come down to how many clients we have in a certain area. So if we sign X amount of deals in the European market, then that triggers that we need X amount of client leads who are going to manage them, or this amount of delivery managers to deliver on what we're selling them. 

And that's basically how we do it, or it could be that we have X amount of engineers and they need management, so that would trigger a people development manager so that we're not overloading someone with direct reports.

Greg:

You mentioned at the start it's obviously a pretty fierce environment globally for really good talent. Cogo has a fairly unique selling proposition in terms of the mission. But for you guys, what do you love to see when people are reaching out? 

Is it that they are demonstrating your core values? Is it because they realign with that mission? What are things that stick out outside of just the technical capabilities of the role that you are looking to fill?

Christina:

You just answered the question right there. Definitely an alignment to our values, that passion to create impact in the world, to leave a legacy of change, and people that are tied into our mission. 

Those are really key skills to have there. We don't just assess people on their craft and the skills that they're bringing to the company. It's also how well they want to live our behaviours and our values and help us to actually make change in the world because ultimately that's our goal.

“I'm not driven by money. I'm not going to take my riches to the grave with me. So my legacy in this short life that we all have is really helping to live with my values at the forefront”

Greg:

Then for you personally, Christina, before we let you get back to your day, two part question, but why did you join CoGo first and foremost?

What was it that really attracted you to the position in the first place? And second to that, what is it now that you've had some time in that role that you really find unique or you really enjoy working there?

Christina:

The first part of the question, what attracted me to them. I've known CoGo for 10 years since they started as Conscious Consumers, way back in the day. And I've always been a person that is bent on environmental action or social responsibility. 

I'm not driven by money. I'm not going to take my riches to the grave with me. So my legacy in this short life that we all have is really helping to live with my values at the forefront, and my values match the values of CoGo. 

So when this job came up, it was an absolute no brainer. It was getting to work with a bunch of passionate like-minded individuals that are working to create something significant in a monumental way for the world, and that is a massive driver for me.

“It's that analogy of the ducks where they're looking real smooth on the top of the water, but underneath their little legs are going 20,000 miles an hour.”

Greg:

That's really cool. And then the other part, which I think you've already answered, but is there anything unique about the culture that you've experienced now that you've been there that you really enjoy about that environment?

Christina:

I actually really love the startup mentality. I love the fast pace of a company that's growing really quickly. It's that analogy of the ducks where they're looking real smooth on the top of the water, but underneath their little legs are going 20,000 miles an hour. 

So that's really exciting for me, watching it change daily. I equate this to... I do a lot of physical labour outside of work. I built a glass house in my backyard recently and did some house renovations because I love seeing that stuff transform right in front of your eyes, instead of at the end of the day, you're like, "Look, look, it's actually changed."

Christina:

And I think with a startup that's growing as fast as CoGo, you can almost see that. Even though I'm working behind a computer, you can actually see this expansion happen over here. 

You can see this market blowing up over here. You can see people knocking on your door going, "How can we get your product because we want that change to our customers or our clients." And that's really exciting. So that keeps me waking up really excited and jumping out of bed every morning.

Greg:

Outstanding. Well, we really appreciate you taking the time to give us a quick overview there today, Christina. Obviously a pretty big year ahead in terms of that expansion. 

So for anyone that is listening, already interested in CoGo as an opportunity, there's certainly going to be plenty of roles available in the coming future. So thanks for taking the time and we look forward to hearing more from you soon.

Christina:

Thanks for having me. Catch you later.

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