What Is a COO?

Learn About Being a Chief Operating Officer

Pensive COO
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A COO—Chief Operating Officer—is a member of an organization's executive team. He or she "is tasked with the day-to-day administration and operation of the business” (Chief Operating Officer (COO). Investopedia). With the proper training, experience, and skills, one can work in a business, non-profit organization, government, school, or healthcare facility. His or her title may alternatively be Vice President of Operations.

As second in command to the CEO, "The chief operating officer position provides the leadership, management, and vision necessary to ensure that the company has the proper operational controls, administrative and reporting procedures, and people systems in place to effectively grow the organization and to ensure financial strength and operating efficiency.” The individual who occupies this position "has overall supervisory responsibility for all corporate operations” (Job Descriptions: Chief Operating Officer.

Society for Human Resource Management.)

Why Do Organizations Hire COOs?

The roles and responsibilities of a COO vary, depending not only on the organization for which he or she works but also on how that entity defines that position at a particular point in time. According to Nathan Bennet and Stephen A. Miles, authors of an article that addresses some of the confusion surrounding this position "there is no single agreed-upon description of what the job entails or even what it’s called. Often, companies turn responsibility for all areas of operations over to the COO—this typically includes production, marketing and sales, and research and development.

In some firms, the job is to be Mr. Inside to the CEO’s Mr. Outside. In others, the mission is focused on a specific business need.”

The authors describe seven different reasons an organization may bring a COO on board. It may hire one to:

  • Execute strategies developed by the top management team
  • Lead a specific strategic imperative
  • Show the ropes to an inexperienced CEO
  • Complement a CEO’s experience or management style
  • Provide a partner to a CEO who does not work well alone
  • Groom the organization’s next CEO or test the individual to make sure he or she is right for the job
  • Promote someone they don’t want to lose

(Bennett, Nathan and Miles, Stephen A. Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer.” Harvard Business Review. May 2006)

How to Become a COO

To be considered for a COO position, one needs a combination of education and significant experience. The minimum educational requirement is a bachelor’s degree in business or a related subject, but many organizations prefer to hire someone with an MBA.

In addition, a COO typically needs "extensive experience within the field in which the company operates and has often worked their way up through the ranks for at least 15 years.” (Chief Operating Officer (COO). Investopedia). At least five years of that should have been in a senior management role.

Organizations look for job candidates who have excellent leadership skills and business acumen, excel at strategic thinking, are results driven and great at financial management, and have superior decision-making skills (Job Descriptions: Chief Operating Officer. Society for Human Resource Management).

Straight From Employers' Mouths

When recruiting people for the role of COO, what characteristics, in addition to educational requirements and experience, are employers seeking? Here is what job announcements on Indeed.com revealed:

  • "Ability to delegate and oversee risk assessment, case management review, compliance plan initiation"
  • "Must be able to work independently in a team setting and to react to change productively"
  • "Ability to effectively manage, lead and supervise a multidisciplinary team"
  • "Executive level communication and influencing skills with ability to resolve issues and build consensus among groups of diverse internal/external stakeholders"
  • "Open to new perspectives and better ways to do things; is creative, a visionary, and can manage innovation"
  • "Proven skill in negotiating and mediating conflict"

Salary and Employment Statistics

In the United States, approximately 309,000 people work as chief executives, including COOS, CEOs, and CFOs. They earn a median annual salary of $183,270, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but individual earnings can vary greatly based on the size of the organization and the industry, as well as the individual’s responsibilities. The government agency predicts there will be about an eight percent decline in jobs between 2016 and 2026. This undesirable job outlook can be attributed to the fact that fewer new firms are expected to be created during this period and improved office technology that makes it easier for CEOs to manage organizations’ operations.

(Top Executives. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics)