Business Administration

How to Become a Chief Operating Officer: Which Type of COO Are You?

How to Become a Chief Operating Officer: Which Type of COO Are You?
If you're looking at becoming a chief operating officer merely as a stepping stone on the path to CEO, you may end up burning out before you make it into the corner office. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 3, 2019

Playing second fiddle isn't so bad when you're making hundreds of thousands of dollars serving as a CEO's right hand (wo)man. Chief operating officers aren't glorified the same way chief executives often are, but without them, nothing would ever get done.

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Unlike the chief executive officer (CEO) of a company, the chief operating officer (COO) does not occupy a glamour role. If the motives driving your c-suite aspirations include a desire for fame and glory, the COO spot is not for you. You probably want to become the public-facing, idea-generating, power-wielding CEO.

If, however, you derive more satisfaction from getting things done, the role of COO might be a better fit. That’s because it’s the hardworking chief operating officer who actually brings the CEO’s strategic visions to life.

To be a capable COO, you must understand both the granular aspects of a company’s operations and how those operations integrate to achieve objectives efficiently. The role requires varied, hard-earned professional experience, which means you won’t land in the COO’s office on the strength of your diplomas alone. Getting a business degree is a great start, but you’ll need more than that to identify roadblocks and delegate resources so your CEO’s big-picture ideas can be translated into real-world growth.

Ready to find out what it takes to become a chief operating officer? In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is a chief operating officer?
  • Chief operating officer duties and responsibilities
  • The seven types of COOs
  • Educational commitment to become a chief operating officer
  • Typical advancement path for chief operating officers
  • Is the chief operating officer role going extinct?
  • Should I become a COO?

What is a chief operating officer?

COOs (also known as chief operations officers, vice presidents of operations, general managers, or managing directors) are the executives who handle the small stuff. They are the leaders focused on the day-to-day details of running a business. When you become a chief operating officer, you’ll oversee:

  • Management
  • Human resources
  • Budgets
  • Operational controls
  • Administrative processes
  • Reporting
  • Just about everything else

Your goal will be to make your company, nonprofit, or government agency more effective and more efficient.

Chief operating officers are like orchestra conductors: to succeed in this role, you need a broad understanding of how different people and areas of your organization work together. You need to know what benchmarks must be met, the work it will take to reach them, how that work gets done, and who is responsible for doing it. In a smaller organization, you might know precisely what each and every employee is doing in a given quarter. If you work in a larger organization, however, you will likely be focused on departments rather than on individual employees.



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Chief operating officer duties and responsibilities

A COO’s responsibilities and daily to-do lists are as varied as the companies in which they serve. In the abstract, a COO is responsible for overseeing a company’s internal operations, while the CEO handles all external-facing duties and strategic planning. In reality, the roles can blur together; it really depends on the CEO, the COO, and how they choose to work together. As one interviewee told business school student and writer Cori Land in an interview for a piece on Medium, “the COO is whatever the CEO doesn’t want to be or do.”

Your duties and responsibilities in this role may largely depend on what your CEO excels at and what they enjoy doing, but chances are good that you’ll handle some or all of the following:

  • Executing on strategies developed by the CEO
  • Creating procedures that help others meet goals related to that strategy
  • Finding solutions when problems or roadblocks arise
  • Evaluating departments to be sure their work supports company objectives
  • Overseeing regulatory compliance and security
  • Fostering effective collaboration between departments
  • Building staffing models that support organizational goals
  • Identifying and solving operational, fiscal, and cultural challenges
  • Developing departmental goals and metrics, policies, procedures, and reporting standards
  • Communicating budget goals and expectations to staff

The best way to get a feel for a COO’s responsibilities is to read lots of job listings. These will help you understand the types of skills you’ll need to succeed in this role.

The seven types of COOs

Given how different the COO position can be from company to company, it makes sense to categorize this executive officer’s possible functions by type. In an eye-opening Harvard Business Review piece by Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles, the authors identified seven distinct roles a COO can fill. Each is defined by their relationship to the CEO:

  • The executor: In this role, the chief operating officer is responsible for executing on strategies developed by the CEO, freeing them up to focus on thinking forward.
  • The change agent: Sometimes, COOs have to act autonomously to lead a transformative initiative. In this role, the chief operating officer isn’t merely carrying out CEO orders.
  • The mentor: Veteran COOs are sometimes brought on to guide young or inexperienced founders and CEOs.
  • The other half: Sometimes, the chief operating officer is there either to balance out or to complement the skills, experience, or quirks of the CEO.
  • The partner: Two heads are better than one; sometimes, the COO occupies a co-leadership role that’s on an even plane with the CEO.
  • The heir: Some COOs are clearly auditioning for the role of CEO. That said, don’t assume that being named COO guarantees you’ll be considered for chief executive.
  • The MVP: An organization that doesn’t want to lose an operational leader to a competitor may “promote” them to COO as a way to keep them around.

It’s worth noting that most of the time, a chief operating officer will wear many of these hats simultaneously. You could, for instance, be promoted to COO because you’re too valuable to lose and then shine as the perfect foil for an impulsive CEO.

Educational commitment to become a chief operating officer

There’s no required degree path for aspiring chief executive officers, but you probably won’t be seriously considered for any executive position without a master’s degree. You can’t go wrong with an MBA. Earning a Master of Business Administration is a signal that you have a deep understanding of business principles, management, finance, and industry.

Before you can get an MBA, however, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. One good option is a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) with an operations management major. In a BBA program, you’ll take classes in:

  • Accounting
  • Management
  • Business math
  • Economics
  • Information systems
  • Finance

Once you get your bachelor’s degree, you have two options. You can either start racking up work experience or look for a business master’s degree program willing to accept applicants right out of college. There are MBA programs that don’t have strict work requirements for applicants, but these are relatively rare. Most Master of Business Administration programs prefer applicants with a specific number of years of related work experience (usually at least two, and sometimes five or more for top-tier schools).

Aspiring COOs should look for MBA programs with a management track or specialization. Some of the best MBA in management programs can be found at:

The core coursework in these programs typically includes in-depth business classes, such as:

  • Accounting
  • Ethics
  • Finance
  • Macroeconomics
  • Microeconomics
  • Marketing
  • Management
  • Operations
  • Statistics

Students also take classes related to this concentration, including:

  • Management Theory and Process
  • Managing Organizational Change
  • Leading Change
  • Cross-Cultural Management
  • Managing for Environmental Sustainability
  • Negotiation
  • Power and Influence
  • Behavioral Skills for Managers

While COOs frequently have MBAs, you may also be able to advance into a chief operating officer position with a Master of Science in Operations Management or a master’s degree in management, accounting, economics, or international affairs.

Typical advancement path for chief operating officers

Because COOs have to know a little bit (or a lot) about so many areas of operations, a broad background is helpful. It’s not uncommon for chief operating officers to have worked in project management or as department heads. One possible advancement path for chief operating officers looks like this:

  • Project lead
  • Project manager
  • Program manager
  • Portfolio manager
  • Director of operations
  • COO

If you’re eyeing the COO’s seat because you hope to become CEO one day, you’re not alone. Also, you’re probably on the right path. A whopping 44 percent of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 CEOs were chief operating officers first. Of course, not every COO dreams of moving into the chief executive role. These leaders serve very different functions, and many people will prefer one role over the other.

Is the chief operating officer role going extinct?

The quick answer is no. The title may not be used as frequently as it once was, and the chief operating officer may not always fit neatly into a corporate structure, but jobs for COOs are out there.

Some people believe the COO role is dying because more companies are leaving vacant COO spots unfilled or merging the roles of chief financial officer and COO. This trend is real, but it hardly represents a death knell for the COO. It simply means that some companies have figured out a way to save money by handing off the COO’s duties to other execs.

Plenty of other companies, however, still recognize the value a chief operating officer brings to the table. Those firms pay their COOs accordingly. The average COO salary is $464,586.

Should you become a COO?

That depends on what you want out of a job, how much effort you’re willing to put into developing your career, and whether you can handle being number two. Becoming a chief operating officer takes decades of hard work and a lot of patience. You may need to take jobs that are technically “beneath you” to get practical experience in different areas of operations. Depending on your responsibilities when you land a COO spot, you may exist in the shadow of a CEO who gets all the glory for the things you made happen.

In a Business News Daily article, Fahad Shoukat, COO at enterprise software startup Skiplist, summed up why. “People don’t quite understand what a COO does and how it fits in. The COO role is quite often very misunderstood and undervalued.”

The bottom line is that there are advantages and disadvantages to taking on this role. If you’re looking at it as a stepping stone on the path to CEO, you may end up burning out before you make it into the corner office. Or you simply may never get the chance to take that final step up. However, if you’re interested in becoming a chief operating officer because you love leading people and making things happen, the choice is clearer. You are a born COO.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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