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December 2, 2022


COO Career Path: How to Become a Chief Operating Officer

The chief operating officer (COO) is the second-in-command of an organization, responsible for managing day-to-day operations and reporting directly to the chief executive officer (CEO). The role of the COO can vary significantly from one organization to another. In some instances, the COO may be responsible for overseeing all of the company's operational functions, while in others, they may only manage a specific department or division. Regardless of their particular duties, all COOs share one common goal: to ensure that their organization runs smoothly and efficiently. 

What Is a COO?

A COO, sometimes called an “operating director” or a “vice president of operations,” works closely with the CEO to develop and implement strategies to help the company grow and succeed. They are skilled professionals who often have a background in business administration, financial strategy, or management.

The COO is responsible for ensuring that all departments are at their highest potential by:

  • Leading the company alongside the CEO.
  • Acting as a bridge between the executive team and other employees.
  • Evaluating business costs and finding ways to minimize expenditure. 
  • Building and executing company operational strategy.
  • Training to become the next CEO. 

Overall, a COO has a great deal of authority within the company and is regularly involved in major decisions that will impact the company as a whole.

Career Paths to Become a COO

While there is no specific track to becoming a COO, a few common career paths often lead to this position. Many COOs come from a business, finance, or law background and begin their careers as project managers or in executive roles, such as vice president.

  • Some COOs may start their career as a manager of a small team. Their commitment and time at a company could lead to them being promoted to higher-level positions within an organization, working their way up the ladder.
  • Other COOs may start in an unrelated field, like sales, then come to spend more time focusing on logistics and operations, leading to promotions in that area within their organization.
  • Some COOs may move to management positions at one company, and then find an opening at a different organization who would like fresh eyes and experience for their company. This allows them the opportunity to make a change as they move forward in their career.
  • Still other COOs have extensive experience in human resources and administration often gained through working in different organizations and work their way through that avenue to find success in their careers.

Successful COOs often have strong analytical and problem-solving skills. They can quickly identify issues and develop creative solutions that improve efficiency and productivity. They must also be excellent communicators, able to explain their vision to other members of the organization effectively.  

How Long Does It Take to Become a COO?

Like any executive position, the route to becoming a COO varies depending on an individual's education, work experience, and personal ambition. Most COOs have at least a bachelor's degree in business or a related field. However, some employers prefer professionals who have an MBA. On average, it takes 8–10 years of progressing through positions with increasing responsibilities to be considered for the role of COO. For example, someone may start out as a middle manager and work their way up to a senior executive position before transitioning into the role of COO.

No matter what path is taken, becoming a COO requires significant time and effort. However, for those who are up to the challenge, the rewards can be well worth it: The median annual salary for COOs in the U.S. is $179,520 with employment expected to grow 6% by 2031.  

A Typical Day of a COO

COOs need to understand the company's overall strategy and translate that into actionable items for their teams. A typical day for a COO might involve:

  • Setting strategic goals
  • Evaluating new business opportunities 
  • Reviewing financial reports
  • Dealing with customer service issues
  • Overseeing production and logistics 
  • Meeting to discuss progress on various initiatives
  • Attending board meetings
  • Developing and implementing policy
  • Maintaining good relationships with colleagues and stakeholders
  • Reporting daily to the CEO 

In general, a COO needs to be able to wear many hats and juggle multiple tasks at once. Excellent communication and people skills are essential, as the COO needs to be able to interact with employees at all levels. The role is demanding but also offers the opportunity to make a real impact on a company's success.

Take the First Step to Your COO Career

Are you interested in becoming a COO? First, consider pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business management at WGU. This degree program will provide you with knowledge and skills in business communication, project management, marketing, and strategic planning—all of which are important for a career as a COO. Additionally, earning an MBA can further increase your expertise and earning potential, as well as prepare you to motivate and inspire employees to do their best work.

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