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Chief Operating Officer Career: How To Become a COO

November 27, 2023
Chief Operating Officer and team discussing strategy

The chief operating officer (COO) is a critical figure within any company or organization. If you are in this executive-level position, you have several important responsibilities. In most companies, a COO is second in command to a chief executive officer (CEO) and oversees staff and day-to-day operations.

Like other C-suite executives, you can only reach a COO position with a combination of education and professional experience in your industry. Most of these executives gain experience in management-level positions. 

Because a chief operating officer’s decisions can affect employees and company performance, extensive experience and knowledge are necessary for success. These responsibilities come with added pressure, but you can also expect to be among the top earners in your company. 

COO Duties: What Does a Chief Operating Officer Do?  

The exact duties of a COO can depend on how a company’s leadership is organized. Some COOs focus on advising other executives, while others manage the day-to-day operations of the entire company. 

Most chief operating officer positions focus on these areas: 

  • Overseeing day-to-day operations: You will work with managers to ensure effective and efficient daily operations. You will delegate tasks and set priorities, and the leaders in each department will implement your directions.
  • Coordination between departments: You are a bridge between various departments in this role. You’ll ensure that they coordinate activities and are all working toward the ultimate company goals. 
  • Reporting to the CEO: You must keep the CEO informed about the company’s operations. You will provide performance reports, identify areas for improvement, and offer recommendations to help the CEO with their “big picture” strategies and plans. 
  • Standing in for the CEO: You are the second in command as COO. You will handle leadership responsibilities and make decisions when the CEO is unable to do so. 
  • Developing employee policies: You will craft policies that optimize daily operations and deal with employee issues. You will shape daily operations and advance long-term goals through these policies.

In smaller companies or organizations, you may take on additional administrative or management responsibilities. In larger firms, these get delegated to others. 

CEO vs. COO: What’s the Difference? 

To those outside the C-suite, the roles of CEOs and COOs might seem to blend together. Though both make crucial decisions for the company, their responsibilities are actually quite different. 

You can think of the CEO as the captain of the corporate ship. They chart the long-term course, set goals, and adopt big-picture strategies to help the company get there. 

COOs are the company’s managing directors. You might think of them as the engineers of the ship itself. They organize employees, equipment, and processes to ensure smooth operation at all levels. In many ways, they are responsible for implementing the CEO’s plans on a practical level. 

These two positions often collaborate. The CEO often relies on the COO’s operational expertise to verify that their strategies and plans are practical and will bring the desired results. Meanwhile, the COO relies on the CEO’s planning and vision to guide their operations organization. 

Where Do COOs Work?  

COOs work in a variety of settings. Corporations and larger companies are often headed by CEOs and COOs. Healthcare facilities, non-profit organizations, and start-ups have similar arrangements. Smaller companies may also have COOs with the expertise to assist owners and other executives with day-to-day organization. 

In this role, you will find yourself in an office setting. However, you may not spend much time at a desk. As an executive, you will attend meetings and visit different departments. Your job may also include traveling to build relationships with partners, suppliers, or recruiters. You’ll also attend conferences and give talks to external audiences. 

COO Salary: How Much Can You Make as a COO? 

A COO position can be quite lucrative, with the national median wage exceeding $200,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Salaries can vary depending on the size and nature of a company or organization. However, the lowest 10% still earn around $80,000 annually, on average. This is much higher than the average salary across all occupations, which is $48,060 according to the BLS. 

Location, experience, education, and other factors can also influence salary. Also, some executives tie their compensation to performance or receive additional payment in the form of company stock or options to purchase stock. 

How To Become a COO

COOs need a combination of experience, education, and knowledge to achieve their positions. You do not become a COO right after getting a degree. Here are the steps you have to take along your career path to reach a chief executive position within a company. 

What Skills Does a COO Need?  

In this career, you will need a variety of leadership and organizational skills. Technical abilities and knowledge may be important depending on the industry. You can develop your skills through education and experience in your industry and in lower-level leadership roles. 

Here are five of the most vital abilities you’ll need to hone on your career path. 

  • Leadership: Employees will have more contact with the COO than the CEO. For them, you are the face of the company. You need to motivate, inspire, and get the workforce to buy into your plans and policies. 
  • Decision-making: Employees and other executives will look to you to make decisive decisions. Sometimes, you will have to act without all the details. 
  • Business savvy: You will need to understand how to cultivate and grow your business. Your decisions and plans will ultimately affect the company’s performance. 
  • Problem-solving: You will need to resolve operational problems or sign off on solutions that others bring to you for approval. 
  • Collaboration: You will work closely with other executives and department heads. You’ll need to be able to collaborate and incorporate their expertise and insights into your decision-making processes. 

Honing these skills in the workplace will position you to pursue an executive role. 

What Types of Education Does a COO Need?  

There’s no single educational path to becoming a COO, but strong foundations in business and management are essential. You can start on your career path with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, finance, or a related field. 

However, some COOs come from different educational backgrounds. They have technical degrees in subjects like engineering or hone critical thinking with a liberal arts degree. Multinational or international firms may prefer candidates with degrees in global business and foreign language skills. 

Some companies prefer to hire or promote people with a master’s in business administration (MBA) to executive roles. Such degree programs can also teach you high-level leadership and strategic thinking skills. 

Experience and Career Progression

Most executives begin their careers in entry-level roles, such as project management or analyst positions. Some manage teams before taking leadership roles in a specific department. Others move into executive positions at smaller companies to prove themselves before moving to larger firms. 

You can decide to focus on one area and move through the ranks of the relevant department. You could also opt to gain experience in different departments so that you have a general understanding of how the whole company operates. 

How Long Does It Take To Become a COO? 

COOs typically work for at least 15 years before reaching their executive position. You can select a position that fits your skills and interests and offers chances for promotion to leadership roles. After gaining experience, you can consider pursuing additional degrees. Earning a Master of Global Business Administration can be particularly useful for moving up the corporate ladder, especially if you’re looking to work with a company that has international reach. You can consider online degree options that allow you to continue working as you study. 

With a good career plan and focus on gaining skills and experience, you can rise to a senior role within a company and apply for chief operating officer positions.