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Chief Operating Officer (COO) Career Guide

What is a chief operating officer?

A chief operating officer serves as an organization’s key executive, overseeing the efficient and effective functioning of day-to-day operations. The role exists to bridge the gap between the strategic vision of the chief executive officer (CEO) and the operational activities that bring this vision to life. Often considered the second-in-command, they work closely with the CEO to translate organizational objectives into operational realities.

While the CEO typically focuses on long-term goals, stakeholder relationships, and the broader business landscape, these professionals work to implement these goals by optimizing internal processes. In doing so, they contribute significantly to an organization’s performance, shaping its internal culture and impacting its competitive standing. Their role is essential for translating board decisions and CEO directives into actionable plans, ensuring that the company functions seamlessly and is positioned for sustainable growth.

Duties and responsibilities

COOs are responsible for managing the organization’s daily operations and implementing strategies to achieve long-term objectives. They oversee various functional areas such as production, supply chain management, human resources, and customer service, depending on the industry and the company’s specific needs. These executives work closely with department heads to ensure that operational objectives are being met and that cohesive strategies are in place for scalability and efficiency.

In addition, they are frequently responsible for identifying problems, implementing process improvements, and driving operational excellence. Their role often involves financial oversight, ensuring the company operates within budget constraints while aiming to increase profitability.

Work environment

The work environment for a COO is predominantly corporate, characterized by a fast-paced, dynamic atmosphere that demands quick decision-making and strategic foresight. The role generally involves a mix of desk work and meetings, as they collaborate with other executives and department leaders to coordinate various organizational activities.

Given the high level of responsibility, they are frequently called upon to solve critical problems. These professionals must be able to adapt to varying scenarios, as they are the ones who are often responsible for making sure that the different parts of the organization are working cohesively to meet business goals.

Typical work hours

The work hours for a COO can be extensive and often extend well beyond the standard 40-hour workweek. Due to the high-stakes nature of the role and its importance in ensuring smooth operations, they frequently work evenings or weekends, especially during critical operational events or emergencies. In some industries requiring round-the-clock operations, such as healthcare or manufacturing, these executives must be available at all times to address any urgent issues.

How to become a chief operating officer

Becoming a COO requires extensive managerial or supervisory experience, advanced educational qualifications, and exceptional leadership skills. Below are the comprehensive steps that can lead to career opportunities in this role.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree is typically the minimum educational requirement for most executive roles. Individuals often pursue degrees in business administration, finance, or related fields to establish a foundation in business practices and principles. Specializations in operations management or strategic planning can be especially valuable.

Step 2: Gain professional experience

With your bachelor’s degree in hand, the next step is to gain experience related to operations management. Most COOs have an extensive work history that includes managerial or supervisory positions. Working in lower level management roles can provide insights into best practices and challenges in day-to-day operations, vital knowledge for a future executive.

Step 3: Pursue advanced education

Many organizations prefer an advanced degree, like an MBA, often emphasizing operations management, strategic management or business administration. An advanced degree can provide a deeper understanding into the complexities of organizational leadership and operations and are generally well-regarded in every industry.

Step 4: Obtain executive experience

Most COOs have developmentally-progressive work experience, often culminated in a preceding executive role. This could be as a vice president or director in operations, or even another C-suite role. This experience develops the strategic and leadership skills necessary to manage a company’s operations.

Step 5: Develop a robust network

Networking plays a significant role in top-level executive appointments. Participating in industry forums, attending business events, and actively maintaining relationships with peers can raise your profile and open opportunities for future positions.

Step 6: Maintain continuous professional development

The business world evolves rapidly, and top performers evolve too – keeping up-to-date with the latest trends and changes. Regularly attending professional workshops, enrolling in courses, seeking mentorship, and reading the latest industry-related literature are all part of a well-rounded approach to continuous professional development.

Step 7: Apply for COO positions

Once you have the requisite education, experience, and networking connections, you are ready to start applying for positions. Apply for openings that fit your field of specialization and geography, and leverage your professional network to gather referrals and recommendations.

How much do chief operating officers make?

COOs compensation can vary significantly based on many factors. Experience is a prime influencer; seasoned professionals typically command higher salaries than those just stepping into the role. Education also plays a part, with advanced degrees like an MBA often leading to higher compensation. Industry is another critical factor; those in tech or healthcare may earn more than those in retail or manufacturing. Geographical location is not to be overlooked; larger cities with a higher cost of living generally offer better pay. Bonuses, profit-sharing, and stock options can also substantially boost their total earnings.

Highest paying industries

  • Finance: $250,000
  • Computer Manufacturing: $245,000
  • Pharmaceutical: $238,000
  • Merchant Wholesalers: $235,000
  • Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing: $230,000

Highest paying states

  • California: $235,000
  • New York: $225,000
  • Massachusetts: $218,000
  • New Jersey: $213,000
  • Connecticut: $210,000

Browse COO salary data by market

Types of chief operating officers

This career guide section covers the different types and specializations associated with COOs.

Manufacturing COO

These individuals focus on the smooth running of manufacturing processes. Their specialization includes overseeing production planning, quality control, and inventory management. Their role is crucial in ensuring products are delivered on time and meet the industry standards.

Technology COO

Unlike manufacturing industries, in technology companies, chief operating officers often focus more on software development, infrastructure management, and technological innovation. They may also oversee IT teams and help align technological advancements with strategic business objectives.

Healthcare COO

Healthcare organizations require chief operating officers with a deep understanding of healthcare systems, policies, and regulations. They usually manage the healthcare facility operations, patient care quality, and regulatory compliance, among other responsibilities.

Financial COO

In financial institutions, these professionals focus on managing daily operations, ensuring compliance with financial regulations, and strategizing for fiscal growth. They play a crucial role in the financial stability and growth of the organization.

Nonprofit COO

In the nonprofit sector, a chief operating officer oversees the effectiveness of the organization’s operations, including marketing, fundraising, programming, and staff management. These professionals often focus on ensuring that the organization’s operations align with its mission and objectives.

Top skills for chief operating officers

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a COO. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Strategic thinking and decision-making

This role often involves making crucial business decisions based on careful evaluation of the short and long-term consequences. Therefore, the ability to think strategically is essential. They must evaluate various strategies, projects, or partnerships for their potential impact on the organization. Effective decision-making involves the ability to balance risks and opportunities and produce solutions that drive progress.

Advanced business acumen

Having an excellent business sense is a fundamental trait and involves understanding how different aspects of the business interrelate and influence each other. Deep knowledge of financial management, market trends, and competitor behaviors forms an integral part of this critical competency, enabling them to steer the company toward sustainable growth.

Exceptional leadership skills

In the demanding environment of company leadership, being able to motivate and guide a team is critical. These executives often serves as a bridge between the CEO and the workforce, translating strategy into actionable plans. Hence, leadership skills that foster a productive, inclusive, and innovative company culture are indispensable.

Technology comprehension

In the modern business world, all effective leaders have a solid grasp of technology. This is not just about understanding specific software or systems. It involves insights into how digital trends and innovations can be harnessed to optimize operations, increase efficiency, and create competitive advantages.

Outstanding credibility and ethics

The role calls for a high level of integrity and ethical standards. Any discrepancies in these areas can severely damage the corporation’s reputation and stakeholder trust. Therefore, maintaining credibility through transparency, honesty, and consistency is paramount for anyone occupying this position.


Due to the evolving nature of the business world, adaptability is another crucial skill. It’s essential to keep up with industry trends, regulatory changes, and shifting customer expectations. Being able to adjust strategies and operations in response to these changes, while still keeping sight of long-term objectives, contributes significantly to the success of the role.

Chief operating officer career path

The career path has a variety of future opportunities and many directions in which to go. For one, the COO role is often a stepping-stone to the top leadership position, the CEO. After obtaining the experience and expertise necessary for leading an entire organization, they might ascend to the CEO position when the incumbent retires or moves on. Alternatively, they may move laterally to other C-suite roles, such as the chief financial officer (CFO) or chief intelligence officer (CIO), if they have interest and experience in those particular fields.

In addition to upward mobility within the organization, these professionals also frequently transition to leadership roles in other companies, bringing their operational expertise to a new environment. These roles could include equivalent positions in diverse industries, depending on the individual’s career interests and professional network. Another potential career advancement is a board membership or a high-level consulting role in similar industries, where they can leverage their extensive knowledge and experience to guide other organizations.

For those with a more entrepreneurial spirit, the experience can also open doors to founding a startup or becoming a partner in an existing business. With an impressive operational background, their insight is incredibly valuable for growing businesses and navigating complex organizational challenges. Lastly, teaching, writing, or public speaking engagements can also serve as viable avenues to share learned wisdom and give back to the industry.

As business sectors evolve with technology advancements and unprecedented market volatility, the job of a COO continues to be instrumental in implementing transformative change within organizations. Looking forward, professionals in the role may anticipate a shift in responsibilities, not only overseeing the company’s day-to-day operations but also steering the strategic direction alongside the CEO. In many companies, this role has also become instrumental in ensuring businesses’ sustainability goals and digital transformation initiatives are met effectively.

The increased focus on customer experience across various sectors has made these executives pivotal in enhancing the customer journey. COOs today are not only dealing with operational effectiveness but also defining and creating an optimal customer experience. The necessity to marry technology with operations has also led them to oversee IT infrastructure and cybersecurity, making the role increasingly cross-functional.

Employment projections for COOs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of top executives, including chief operating officers, is projected to grow 6 percent through 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment growth will vary by occupation and industry, and the high pay can attract strong competition for jobs. However, despite moderate job growth, high-level management positions are expected to remain in demand as organizations need leaders who can guide and manage a company’s operations effectively amidst changing business landscapes and economic conditions.

Chief operating officer career tips

Understand the market trends

Knowing current market trends and staying ahead of industry movements is crucial. Attentive officers can effectively predict and prepare for industry-specific fluctuations or changes that could impact the organization. This could include changing technology, consumer behavior trends, or shifts in the regulatory environment. Participate in industry conferences and online forums, and subscribe to relevant industry journals or publications for continual learning.

Foster clarity and transparency

The COO is often the bridge between different departments. Thus, fostering transparency and clarity is key. This involves clear communication of goals, expectations, and challenges across all levels of the organization. It also implies sharing information about the broader strategic direction of the organization, departmental updates, and any upcoming significant changes. This transparency can lead to greater employee engagement, trust, and collective responsibility for business outcomes.

Build a professional network

Networking is essential, especially for a role at the executive level. They can gain insights from peers in the industry, stay informed about ongoing changes in the business world, and explore potential future opportunities. Specifically, building relationships with other professionals can also lead to partnerships or collaborations that could assist the organization.

  • International Association of Chiefs of Police
  • Inner Chief Podcast
  • Chief Executive Officers Club
  • EO Network
  • The Executive Connection

Recommend continuous learning

Senior leaders need to stay on top of industry developments, new managerial techniques, or technology changes. Therefore, continuous education is essential. Enrolling in executive education courses or attending relevant webinars and workshops can provide great opportunities for learning and professional growth.

  • Online courses from accredited platforms like Coursera and Udemy
  • Webinars and workshops focused on strategic leadership, operations management, and advanced data analysis
  • Executive education courses at top-tier universities

Consider advanced certifications

Consider advanced certifications to solidify your knowledge, validate your skills, and significantly raise your professional credentials. This could be especially appealing if you’re planning to work in heavily regulated industries or aiming for a role in large enterprise-scale organizations.

  • Certified Manager (CM) certification
  • Certified Business Operations Professional (CBOP)
  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • Certified Supply Chain Professional (CSCP)

Where the COO jobs are

Top employers

  • Accenture
  • Salesforce
  • Amazon
  • PWC
  • Oracle

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • Simply Hired


What is the role of a chief operating officer?

A COO is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of an organization. This can cover a variety of tasks such as overseeing business processes, managing employees and teams, developing operational strategies and implementing effective management systems. They generally ensure that the business operations are efficient and effective and align with the organization’s overall strategy.

What skills and qualities are expected of a chief operating officer?

They must demonstrate strong leadership skills, the ability to develop strategic operating plans, and an understanding of performance metrics. They should possess strong communication skills to interact with different levels within the organization. Proven experience in managing a high-performance team, strong decision-making capabilities, and problem-solving skills are also crucial. A thorough understanding of financial management is also a key component of a successful leader.

How does a chief operating officer contribute to the organization’s growth?

They help develop and implement growth strategies, optimize business operations, and oversee the execution of strategic plans. By managing teams and resources effectively, they can ensure organizational productivity, which ultimately leads to growth. They also work closely with the CEO and other top executives to make data-driven decisions that can spur growth.

What qualifications are usually required for a chief operating officer?

Qualifications can vary, but generally, a bachelor’s degree in business or a related field is expected. Many organizations prefer candidates with an MBA or a similar advanced degree. Along with education, a significant amount of leadership experience, often at least 10 years or more, is usually required along with proven experience in managing diverse team and implementing strategic plans.

Is it necessary for a chief operating officer to have industry-specific knowledge?

Yes, understanding the specific industry of the organization is usually essential. This includes knowledge about the market trends, competition, consumer behavior, and other key industry metrics. Having a deep understanding of the industry helps develop effective operational strategies that would give the organization a competitive edge.

What is the difference between a CEO and a COO?

The CEO role is more strategic and focused on the long-term direction of the company, while the COO is primarily engaged in the daily operations and typically implements their strategies. In most cases, the CEO makes the strategic decisions, and the COO executes these decisions. However, roles may overlap, and the level of collaboration can vary from one organization to another.

What roles report directly to a chief operating officer?

Typically, senior managers and department heads. These can include managers or heads of departments such as human resources, IT, marketing, sales, operations, production, etc. However, the reporting structure can vary based on the size and type of the organization.

How does a chief operating officer interact with board members and shareholders?

They frequently interact with board members and shareholders, usually alongside the CEO. They might provide updates on operational performance, discuss strategic plans and their implementation, explain operational decisions, or answer directly to any concerns or queries. This requires them to have excellent communication and people skills and a deep understanding of the organization’s strategic goals and performance.

What are the biggest challenges faced by a chief operating officer?

Managing the multifaceted operations of an organization and ensuring they align with overall strategy, managing and motivating diverse teams, forecasting and managing issues affecting operational efficiency, and keeping pace with industry changes. They also have to balance day-to-day operational concerns with strategic planning for future growth, which can be challenging.

What does a typical day in the life of a chief operating officer look like?

Daily responsibilities differ based on the organization’s size and industry. However, a typical day may involve meeting with department heads to review progress and address concerns, assessing operational reports and performance metrics, developing or implementing operational strategies and processes, and collaborating with the CEO and other top executives. They also spend significant time planning and problem-solving to ensure organizational goals are met.