How to Become a COO 🚀 Your Path to Chief Operating Officer

So, you’ve got your eye on the Chief Operating Officer position? Way to shoot for the stars! The COO is second-in-command in most companies. It’s a unique position that’s largely considered one of the most challenging positions in the boardroom. 

We know you’ve got it in you, and we’re excited for you to take this step. To help you get there, we’ve put together this handy guide on how to become a COO. We’ll take a close look at:

  • What it’s like to be one
  • How to determine where you are in your path to becoming one
  • The skills you should cultivate now in your career 

By the time you’re finished, you’ll know exactly what you need to do next to get the second-top job in the boardroom. Let’s go!

What is a COO?

The COO is responsible for the daily business operations of a company. You can think of the role as something similar to a high-powered general manager. You’ll directly report to the CEO and play an integral role in the leadership of the organization. 

If the CEO is the visionary leader, then the COO is the one who makes things happen. The CEO strategizes and sets goals for the organization — you’ll be the one to figure out how to make those plans a reality.

For example, if a CEO wants to expand the company by offering a new set of services, it will be your job to lead the discovery team to determine what departments, acquisitions, or investments the company will need to make.

As a result, you might see the COO sometimes called the operating director, managing director, or the “executive vice president of operations.” Whatever your title, you’ll be known as the one who gets things done.

The COO Works Closely with the CEO

As a COO, you’ll forge a close relationship with your counterpart, the CEO of your company. Most companies look for a COO that meets the specific needs of the CEO. That might mean: 

  • Leadership with technical experience. A good COO complements the skills and abilities of the CEO. You’ll find this especially true in startups, where the COO often has more practical experience. Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, is one such example.
  • A successor. As second-in-command, you’ll have unique access and insights to the company. Many organizations reserve this position for successors as a result.
  • Someone to handle all internal affairs. It’s not uncommon for CEOs to prefer their COOs to handle the internal operations of a company while the CEO functions as the company’s public face. 

The Job Outlook for the CEO’s Right-Hand Person

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top executives field on a whole is growing at 6 percent per year – about the same rate as other management positions. However, it’s extremely difficult to measure the position’s growth for three main reasons:

  • It’s constantly changing. According to EY, the COO role is one of the most rapidly changing roles at the executive level. That’s why it can be difficult to pin down who and what the COO is.
  • Companies hire or promote from within. When this happens, it’s called an “MVP” COO, someone who is promoted to keep them with the company.
  • COOs are sometimes cofounders. This is especially true in the case of startups, where the COO was there from the start.

What this means for you: Be prepared to round out your education and experience as much as possible so that you can be flexible when the opportunity arises. The greater your ability to demonstrate leadership, business acumen, and industry insight, the stronger candidate you’ll become.

A Day in the Life of a COO

Officially, anything that involves the business or administrative functions of your company will fall under your responsibility. However, the COO’s role means different things to different people and organizations. Therefore, no two roles are ever quite the same. On any given day, expect to find yourself:

  • Managing people or departments. You’ll take an active role in department operations, but you’ll also manage people directly. That may mean coaching employees to help them develop professionally or strategically promoting talent to retain them.
  • Leading projects or initiatives. You’ll constantly look for ways to improve the company’s operations, making them more efficient, cost-effective, and performing better.
  • Communicating strategy and policy to employees. COOs increasingly spend a lot of time managing the company’s overall culture. You’ll create policies, incentives, and an environment that fosters the desired culture. 
  • Supporting your CEO. As the right-hand person, you may find yourself showing the ropes to a new CEO, providing insight or perspective on ideas, or even being a partner on initiatives where the CEO can’t take on everything alone.
  • Undertaking industry-specific responsibilities. If you’re in healthcare, you may find yourself responsible for identifying new ways to deliver critical services to a demographic of patients. Likewise, if you’re serving an insurance company, the CEO may tap you for advice on creating strategies that address major current events as they unfold.
  • Overseeing any business-related operations. In an interview of the COOs of Stripe, Infor, and Instagram, all three mentioned that they routinely oversee business functions as wide-ranging as marketing, advertising, and human resources, plus things like subscription revenues or services.
  • Working very long hours. Excited to check your email at 6:30 AM? That’s the reality for Vera Quinn, the COO of Cydcor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that half of all COOs report working more than 40 hours per week — all the more reason to make sure you love what you do!

Who Does the COO Work With Each Day?

Since all internal operations will fall under your responsibility, expect to have a lot of contact with people. In a small company or a startup, you may form relationships with all employees. In a larger corporation, you may primarily work with department heads and other executives.

Salary Statistics: What You Can Expect to Earn

According to PayScale, the median salary for a COO in 2020 is $142,735. Aggregated data from Glassdoor indicates a similar average: $143,336 annually. 

Of course, all of that depends on your company size, industry, and education level. According to research by LinkedIn, companies with more than 200 employees tend to pay over $135,000 per year. Likewise, the Energy and Finance sectors yield the highest compensation, averaging at $190,000 and $175,000 respectively.

If you’re not in one of those two industries, however, fear not. LinkedIn notes that COOs with MBAs make on average $185,000 annually in 2020.

The Winding Career Path to Become a COO

If you spend any time reading the thoughtful responses on Quora, you’ll quickly discover that there’s no one path to becoming a COO. Some people start at the bottom of the corporate ladder and work their way up, while others walk into the position after decades of experience in an industry. Here’s our best insight:

It Takes About 10 to 15 Years to Become a COO

Interviews around the web with current and former COOs indicate that it takes around 10 to 15 years of experience in a specific industry (but not always at the same job). 

COOs appear to share a passion for their industry. That’s crucial because you’ll need to have very deep knowledge of your industry to adequately guide a company. Consider Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook who knew from the start she wanted to get involved in a tech company.

So, if you’re planning out your path to the COO role, pay special attention to what industries you’re interested in and go from there.

The Path from Project Manager to COO

If you’re a project manager, you’re in a great position to step into a COO role down the line. You’ll already have many of the skills that you’ll use every day as a COO. If this is you, you’ll want to round out your skills with some solid business admin skills. A free, online MBA can give you exactly what you need to fill this knowledge gab.

You’ll Need a Bachelor’s Degree

Speaking of courses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a four-year degree is essential to any top-level executive. The COO is about as close to the top as you can get! Since you’ll be overseeing business operations, we strongly recommend you consider a bachelor’s degree in business. 

If you’ve already got a degree and it’s not in business, you’re certainly not out of luck. Some COOs do have degrees that have nothing to do with business, such as technical degrees. However, if this is your case, you’ll want to look into developing your business knowledge as you prepare. Consider supplementing your next steps in education with free courses in strategy or leadership.

What Can Further Education Do for You?

Advanced degrees are common in the board room, especially MBAs. As a COO, the position of CEO will lie within reach – and some 40 percent of the top CEOs have MBAs. 

Having an MBA not only improves your chances of commanding a higher salary, but it also puts into your hands the skills you need to competently lead the operations of a company. We very strongly recommend that you consider one, especially if your bachelor’s degree isn’t already in business. 

However, there are two specific reasons why an MBA is particularly necessary for a future COO: 

1. Your Professional Connections Matter

Your ability to rise to the C-level broadly hinges on who you know. That’s especially true with positions like the COO, where you’ll be chosen based on how well your personality and specific skills complement the CEO’s. 

If you’re looking into upgrading your business skills (such as getting an MBA), pay attention to what sort of networking opportunities exist alongside your education. A developed career network will prove tremendously valuable. 

2. It Can Set You Apart from the Competition

An executive MBA can also set you apart from the competition. It still gives you the business knowledge you’ll need for the role, but it focuses more on the leadership skills that you’ll also need. That’s a smart move if you’re specifically pursuing the role of COO, which is a very leadership-oriented position. 

(Here’s more about the MBA versus the EMBA).

The Other Skills & Qualifications You’ll Need

Of course, an MBA does more than just give you the professional connections and business skills you’ll need. It’ll also help you develop an array of hard and soft skills that will amplify your effectiveness in the role. You’ll need:

  • Leadership skills. From leading cross-department teams to working on small, special initiatives, you’ll be a leader at all times. Make sure you develop the fundamentals of leadership so you’re ready.
  • People management skills. Understanding the ins and outs of organizational behavior will help you manage people, encouraging them to become their best.
  • Project management skills. You’ll have projects, and lots of them. Make sure you’re ready to manage all of it with your stellar project management abilities.
  • Strategy skills. You’ll need to understand the components of business strategy to execute those created by the board or the CEO. Learning Blue Ocean Strategy is a fantastic way to cultivate that understanding.

What Makes a Great Chief Operating Officer?

There are plenty of ways to become a COO. This challenging, high-powered position requires a combination of business acumen, leadership skills, and dedication to your industry. It’s a tough road, but no matter where you are in your career, you can take steps toward the boardroom today.

We’ve laid out the degrees, business expertise, and soft skills that you’ll need to develop. In many cases, earning an online MBA can accelerate your trajectory without disrupting your current career. A competitive, rigorous program with a robust career network can help you put the top jobs of the business world within reach.