When it comes to a company’s C-suite executives, the chief operating officer (COO) is a crucial yet often misunderstood role. As a vital part of an organization’s leadership team, the COO significantly impacts an organization’s daily functioning. If you’re someone with a passion for business operations, COO may be just the right role to pursue.
We’ll explain a COO’s duties and explore the qualifications and skills you need to tackle this essential business role.
What is a COO?
If you’re wondering what a COO is, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone in business has asked this question at some point. The truth is, it’s not an easy question to answer, according to Fahad Shoukat, vice president of operations at Allocate.
“People don’t quite understand what a COO does and how it fits in,” explained Shoukat, who became COO of his previous employer, Skiplist, after spending most of his career in sales management. “The COO role is quite often very misunderstood and undervalued.”
Here are some critical factors to note about COOs:
- A COO is second in command: The COO is second in command and is sometimes called “vice president of operations.” They’re a senior executive who manages an organization’s day-to-day operations. Because “operations” encompasses almost everything a business does, Shoukat describes the COO as the “Swiss Army knife” of business.
- COOs execute a CEO’s vision: While a chief executive officer (CEO) generally is a company’s brain, a COO is its hands. The CEO determines an organization’s direction and long-term achievable business goals. In contrast, the COO executes those goals, breaking them down into everyday tactical decisions and duties.
“A COO is the driving force behind a successful brand,” said Laurie Windler, former vice president of operations at Camp Bow Wow. “[COOs] are always on the lookout for opportunities to systemize and simplify the brand.”
If you’re making a midlife career change and your goal is pursuing executive status, create a plan to learn relevant leadership skills, as well as skills in the specific industry you’re pursuing.
What does a COO do?
Every COO has different responsibilities because organizations and industries differ. In general, COOs take on the following roles:
- COOs are the CEO’s right-hand person: Generally speaking, the COO is the CEO’s right-hand person, according to George Whittier, CEO at Fairbanks Morse Defense. “[COOs] lead and oversee the company’s day-to-day operations to ensure continuous process improvement,” Whittier explained. Amy Sanchez, a certified career coach at Swim Against the Current, noted that COOs also work closely with CEOs to make important company decisions.
- COOs bring the CEO’s vision to life: For Randy Hayashi, vice president of operations at Stax Payments, perhaps the best way to define a COO’s responsibilities is to view them in relation to the CEO. “My role is to take the big vision of the CEO and make it actually happen,” Hayashi explained. “That means … I am responsible for coming up with the procedures to allow my sales manager, support manager and tech manager to execute the vision of our CEO. My role involves finding solutions and implementing them into our daily procedures to keep our company growing.”
- COOs work with other C-suite executives: COOs work with other C-suite executives, including the chief financial officer (CFO) and chief technology officer (CTO), to ensure all departments support the company’s objectives as defined by executives and the board of directors.
- COOs manage other execs and managers: The COO reports to the CEO, but everyone else ― mid-level managers like sales managers, marketing managers, product managers and other C-level executives like the CFO and the CTO ― report to the COO.
- COOs handle a company’s nuts and bolts: In Hayashi’s former COO role at Payment Depot, he regularly moved his desk between departments to gain a “ground-level view” of company events. He handled the “nuts and bolts” of the business and left creative aspects up to the CEO. “It takes a lot of trust on both parts to realize that we each have strengths and weaknesses and we are complementary pieces,” Hayashi noted.
How do you become a COO?
COO career paths can vary greatly. Some people skyrocket to COO status after joining a small startup or starting a business with a partner. Others take years or decades to become a COO by slowly climbing the corporate ladder inside one or several large organizations.
Other ways to give yourself a leg up on the road to becoming COO include the following:
- Gain experience in day-to-day operations: The more experience you have in day-to-day operations, the more advantage you have over others vying for a COO role. Professionals who start in a project management role may outshine the competition with their hands-on experience in daily business operations.
- Pursue professional certifications: You can also strengthen your operational knowledge and demonstrate your willingness to learn with corporate training and development certifications and other professional certifications relevant to your industry. A good COO will be enthusiastic about the type of business they’re helping to run and grow.
- Build professional relationships through networking: While building your career, you should continually expand your professional network with care. Most successful business professionals enjoyed fruitful relationships along the way. “Many people spend so much time inside their company they forget to focus on building their network,” Sanchez explained. “If you really want to become a COO, the best strategy is to [do] well at your company, but also build your external network with individuals who are climbing the ranks at other companies, executive coaches and recruiters.”
What qualifications should a COO have?
COOs typically have a combination of solid education and work experience. Here’s what experts have to say about COO qualifications:
- COOs must walk the talk: According to Winder, future COOs should have a business degree or a proven track record of successful team building. “I believe a COO needs to have walked the talk,” Windler asserted. “They need to understand every role on their team and have either lived it or take the time to understand it. This gives them the ability to identify gaps and understand needs.”
- COOs need a solid business foundation: Whittier agrees that having a solid business foundation is essential. A specific degree isn’t necessary ― although having a Master of Business Administration degree can be a “huge plus from a standpoint of building business and financial acumen,” Whittier noted.
- COOs must be good managers: If you have experience as a good manager, you have a leg up on gaining a COO role. “A good rule of thumb for those hoping to become a COO is to have a deep understanding of business, people management and the industry as a whole,” Whittier explained.
- COOs should have broad experience: According to Shoukat, what qualified him to become a COO was not necessarily his depth of business experience but rather his breadth. “Because I’ve had experience with sales, marketing, business development, partnerships, customer service ― a little bit of everything ― it made sense for me to become COO,” Shoukat explained. “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of a few.”
- Experience trumps education for aspiring COOs: Aspiring COOs should focus on getting the right experience instead of pursuing the right education. “While my education was in economics, I think that previous management roles in other jobs are what prepared me to be a COO,” Hayashi said. “I think that people who aspire to be in this role should be the hardest worker in their organization and should also take any and all opportunities to learn and lead whenever [those opportunities] are presented.”
What skills should a COO have?
To be a COO, you must cultivate the right hard and soft skills. “[COOs] must be flexible and amenable to the CEO … They must be good decision-makers and possess good leadership skills,” Sanchez noted.
Along with a solid set of soft skills, COOs should understand project management and how to build a team. “You need to be a strategic thinker with a solid business and financial acumen,” said Whittier. “The ability to negotiate is also helpful.”
Consider the following additional COO qualities experts noted:
- COOs should be great communicators: Like all C-suite executives, COOs should be great communicators and leaders. “Operations can be very black and white, but you need to understand the gray to be effective,” Windler advised.
- COOs should be good with people: People skills are a necessity for COOs. “A good COO has to have the organizational and analytical skills to be able to solve problems and create procedures, but they also need to be able to deal with people,” said Hayashi. “I personally take sales calls, support and tech calls and participate actively in the work lives of my employees. I want to know what challenges they have and how I can solve them.”
- COOs should inspire trust: Hayashi said his approach yields trust, which, in turn, yields positive business outcomes. “People have to submit to you if you have a C-level title, but if you want a healthy team that buys into the vision of the company and your leadership, you have to prove that you care and understand what they go through,” he added.
While leadership development training and other executive-level seminars can assist with skill development, COO skills are best nurtured “in the trenches,” according to Hayashi.
How much is a COO’s salary?
Although COOs have many responsibilities and must possess many skills, they often are rewarded handsomely for their hard work.
A COO’s salary varies depending on myriad factors, including:
- Company age
- Length of tenure
- Salary history
According to Salary.com, the average COO base salary is $477,665 annually, plus an additional $194,869 per year in bonuses. COO salaries range between $274,886 and $748,011 before bonuses. For comparison’s sake, the average salary of a CEO and CFO is $818,745 and $426,918, respectively.
The road to becoming a COO can be long but worthwhile
Cultivating a COO career isn’t easy. It takes a wide breadth of knowledge and a strong enthusiasm for your industry. But if you excel in project management and feel excited about the daily responsibilities of running a business, it can be a rewarding career journey. And if you put in the effort, working toward your goal of achieving the COO title can pay off quite a bit.
Natalie Hamingson contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.