19. The Wartime COO

Our special guest is Huw Slater, COO of Oliva Health, formerly COO of TravelPerk and Bella Davis-Riemer, Head of Operations for Joblift.

11/30/20234 min read

We discuss the following with Huw and Bella

  • What is a Wartime COO? How does this impact how you operate the business?

  • How do you surface existential threats to the organisation and inject a sense of focus, without scaring folks?

  • What have been some of the worst storms you’ve weathered? Lessons learned?

  • More broadly, what are risks the COO should always be vigilant about?

  • What would you recommend tactically in a wartime setting?

  • How do values pragmatically inform your decision-making process in wartime?

  • Who was in your war room? Why?



Huw Slater, COO and Co-founder @Oliva. With >10 years of experience in scaling tech companies in Europe, Huw Slater is the COO and co-Founder at Oliva. Prior to this, Huw was the Chief Operating Officer of TravelPerk, helped Box through their IPO by globalising their growth, scaled Typeform’s expansion from Europe to the US and drove the series B funding, and has 10 additional years’ experience as the Finance Director of a $5bn turnover division in a FTSE 10 company. A passionate leader, Huw is excited by making an impact and instilling a growth mindset in his people where transparency and clarity are key.

Bella Reimer, Operational Leader | Strategy Growth | Speaker & Mentor. With over 14 years of experience in various roles and industries. I am a passionate operational leader with a proven track record of driving efficiency, strategic growth, and cross-functional collaboration. I specialise in overseeing end-to-end processes, optimising operations, and aligning teams to achieve impactful results.

Special note

This special episode was originally recorded as a fireside chat at International Ops Fest organised by Operations Nation. For more information about the event and to sign up for next year’s please visit - https://operationsnation.com/events/international-ops-fest.

  • Leadership during times of financial threat. 0:06

    • Brandon and Bethany discuss the birthday party of Brandon's son, including the surprise of not passing out gifts during the pass the parcel game.

    • Bethany shares that her children are older and have moved on from shows like Bluey and Peppa Pig.

    • Brandon jokes that he's the "eternal 50 roll" who looks 25, while Bethany refers to him as "everlasting 50 roll."

    • Brandon: In a wartime scenario, the organization must operate with a sense of urgency and focus, doing the essential tasks while watching expenses.

    • Bethany: In a scaleup, there is always an existential threat due to the finite timeline and cash availability, making it essential to stay focused and achieve the next most important goal.

  • Leadership during economic uncertainty. 5:59

    • Bethany and Brandon discuss the importance of contextualizing financial information for employees, providing transparency without causing panic.

    • They emphasize the need to explain the purpose and mission of the company, and how it aligns with the employees' reasons for joining, to instill optimism and galvanize the team.

    • Ben Horowitz coined the term "wartime CEO" to describe a leader who takes bold actions in the face of an imminent existential threat to the business.

    • In a war-time scenario, a CEO may swear or speak in an unusual tone to signal to their team that they are taking the situation seriously and will do whatever it takes to protect the business.

  • Startup survival strategies during economic uncertainty. 11:07

    • Huw Slater defines "fat" as unnecessary projects and "muscle" as working initiatives that may not provide immediate ROI, but are essential for long-term survival.

    • Bella discusses a past debate within her company about cutting "muscle" to conserve capital during a financially challenging period.

  • Leadership challenges and communicating existential threats to a business. 13:23

    • Bella faced a difficult decision as a servant leader: cutting 50% of her team due to financial pressure from the board.

    • Huw Slater emphasizes transparency and setting expectations early on to avoid confusion and ensure the right candidates join the startup.

  • Risk management, cash flow, and resilience for ops professionals. 16:31

    • Bella emphasizes transparency and one-on-ones to build trust and relationships within an organization.

    • Huw Slater emphasizes the importance of cash flow management for ops professionals, highlighting the potential risks of not keeping a close eye on cash inflows and outflows.

    • Slater advises ops professionals to view financial data as another operational data set, rather than a separate entity, to ensure timely and accurate information for decision-making.

    • Brandon and Bella discuss the importance of resilience and optionality in business, with Bella emphasizing the need to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and create a flexible operating model.

    • Huw Slater agrees, highlighting the importance of building resilience into the business model and creating a recruiting machine that can scale quickly in both good times and bad.

  • Managing HR and business operations during crises. 22:11

    • Bella recommends implementing cross-trainings and automation to help handle HR tasks in a survival mode or crisis, where there is only one HR person left.

    • Huw Slater suggests plotting jobs to be done based on core value prop and specialist vs generalist skills, and only hiring internal capacity for core business functions.

    • Huw Slater recounts a crisis in which revenue suddenly dropped to zero due to COVID-19, resulting in a "total shit show" with cash flow issues and difficult decisions made to issue refunds and vouchers.

  • Navigating a crisis with company values and communication. 25:59

    • Huw Slater recounts the challenges of leading a company during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the need to prioritize and communicate effectively with employees and stakeholders.

    • The company prioritized survival and then thrived by being transparent about the situation, taking pay cuts, and finding new revenue streams, such as offering solutions for travel managers.

    • Huw Slater shared how his company navigated a serious crisis during COVID-19, prioritizing values and communication to maintain a sense of belonging and purpose.

    • Slater emphasized the importance of not compromising on values during difficult times, instead using agreements to guide behavior and decision-making.

  • Cost-cutting measures during a crisis with a focus on transparency and cultural values. 31:24

    • Huw Slater and Bella discuss how they prioritized layoffs during a company crisis, using a mathematical model to determine who would be let go.

    • Bella highlights the importance of values and culture during layoffs, but acknowledges that they may take a backseat during times of crisis.

    • Huw Slater and the War Room team provided financial transparency through monthly updates and a Reed Hastings-style financial literacy training program.

    • The team used a sliding scale of transparency, from not leaving the executive team to full exposure to financial sheets, to balance cultural and financial considerations.