Chief Operating Officer (COO): Definition, Job Description, Career Path, and More


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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg met Sheryl Sandberg at a party. Just a few years old at that point, Facebook was already a household name, and Zuckerberg deemed Sandberg a “perfect fit” for the role of COO. Sandberg left her role as vice president of global online sales and operations at Google to become Facebook’s first COO in 2008.

Today, Sandberg is one of the world’s most famous COOs. But many people understand little about the role of the chief operating officer itself. What exactly does a COO do?

We’ll give you a rundown of what a COO is and does—and how people rise to this C-level role.

Sample COO Job Description

What is the difference between CEO and COO? CEO and COO are very different roles.  A COO, or a Chief Operating Officer, is a member of the organization's executive team who handles day-to-day administration and business operations. They typically supervise the company's operations.

Companies often hire COOs to oversee all areas of their operations, from research and production to marketing, sales, and more. So, while the CEO looks outward at where the company can be, the market, and the competition, the COO looks inward at where the company is, its biggest assets, and how to maximize its strengths. Meanwhile, other companies may hire COOs simply to stand in as partners to the CEOs — a very advanced helping hand, if you will.

For your reference, here is what a sample COO job description might look like to help you determine the difference between a COO and a CEO.

Hiring: COO!

We're looking for our next COO! Our ideal candidate is a leader with a storied business acumen and the following skills to lead and supervise a multidisciplinary and growing team:

  • Strategic Thinker: Must be a strong strategic visionary with a creative and open mind. 
  • Results-Driver: Must be completion-oriented leader who can solve problems and drive results.
  • Decision-Maker: Must have superior decision-making skills and the ability to decisively delegate work in a way that maximizes the team's strengths.
  • Clear Communicator: Must be an active listener and a clear communicator who can verbalize a vision, influence, and motivate the team toward shared, common goals.

What is a chief operating officer?

Also known as the chief operations officer, the chief operating officer (COO) is a C-suite executive position, often considered second in command to the chief executive officer (CEO). As the title suggests, she is responsible for the daily operations of a business, supervising all or most aspects of the company’s procedures and plans. Depending on the organization, the COO may be tasked with managing issues including marketing, financial growth and development, sales, research, and personnel. 

Role and function of a COO

The role of the COO is often misunderstood, largely because her responsibilities can vary greatly depending on the organization, what need the organization is trying to meet, and other positions that exist within the business. For example, if an organization has a CMO, the COO will probably deal less directly with marketing responsibilities. 

Essentially, the COO acts as a supervisor and leader, ensuring that the organization and employees are carrying out the vision of the CEO. We will delve into how the COO functions in relation to the CEO in further detail below. 

The key responsibilities of a COO include:

• Analyzing the effectiveness of business strategies

• Finding ways to improve strategies and grow the business operationally

• Supervising staff and handling issues with personnel

• Developing growth initiatives

• Developing and implementing methods for meeting company benchmarks and goals

As you can see, the COO wears many different hats—which again may vary according to the needs of the company—but ultimately acts as a problem solver

What is the difference between CEO and COO?

The CEO is generally the top-ranking officer of an organization. Ultimately, the responsibility for creating plans and strategy for growth, communicating with stakeholders, investors, and the public, and making major decisions rests on her shoulders.

Meanwhile, the COO carries out the plans as directed by the CEO and oversees the day-to-day operations of the business.

Many COOs go on to become the CEO of their company. For example, Pamela Nicholson was COO of the car rental company Enterprise Holdings prior to becoming CEO in 2013.

In The Harvard Business Review, Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles identify seven types of roles for COOs in relation to CEOs: 

• The executor

The COO carries out strategies developed by the management team.

• The change agent

The COO facilitates the company’s transformation.

• The mentor

The COO guides a less experienced CEO.

• The other half

The CEO and COO act as complements and balances to one another.

• The partner

The CEO and COO work together as a pair.

• The heir apparent

The COO is being groomed to take over as CEO.

• The MVP

A valuable senior manager is promoted to the position of COO because the company fears it may lose her to a competitor.

Is COO higher than CFO, CTO, CMO, CIO, or other C-level executives?

In general, the CEO is the highest-ranking official within a business. Other C-suite executives, such as COO, CFO (chief financial officer), CTO (chief technology officer), CMO (chief marketing officer), CIO (chief information officer), and others generally report to the CEO, although this is not always the case. 

While the COO is often considered second in command, the standing really depends on the nature and inner-workings of the company. All C-suite executives are the most senior-level managers in their area of expertise, and often, these executives are peers. Many companies also combine the COO role with another C-level function. For example, the COO might also be responsible for marketing efforts.

How to become a COO

How does one become an effective COO? There are many different paths to reaching this level, of course, but some key steps include:

1. Get an MBA.

While it is not essential to earn your MBA in order to become a COO, many executives at this level have one, and it will give you an advantage. You will need to understand high-level business and management principles, and your coursework will help you learn these skills. It should also focus on areas such as statistical methods, economics, marketing, and entrepreneurship.

If you’re set on the career path as an undergraduate, obtaining a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) will give you a strong foundation in the business principles you will need to understand.

2. Gain experience.

Experience working in the business world will help you develop skills that COOs should have, including:

• Decision making

• Leadership and management

Project management

• Strategic thinking

• Business knowledge and background

Significant management experience is essential for COOs since they oversee most functions and departments within a company.

3. Network.

While the CEO is often a more visible leader, most executives got to where they were at least in part because of connections they made. Networking is important for any professional to grow in her career, and for a leader, it is an absolute must. Even if you’re happy at your current job, you never know what’s on the horizon and who may help you land your next great role. That’s why it’s a good idea to network with people from other companies in addition to your own.

4. Negotiate promotions.

As noted above, some COO positions come about because an organization fears losing an important employee. If you make yourself invaluable, you will be in a good position to ask for and earn promotions. And don’t be shy about initiating—you’re unlikely to encounter a COO who just waited for promotions to be handed to her and never asked for them along the way.

Top Women COOs

In addition to Sandberg, there are many successful female COOs at top businesses. Some CEOs, like Nicholson, formerly held the position of COO before achieving the highest rank at their companies. Current top women COOs include:

1. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook

2. Belinda Johnson, Airbnb

3. Marne Levine, Instagram

4. Jennifer Berrent, WeWork

5. Claire Hughes Johnson, Stripe

6. Pam Murphy, Infor

7. Jen Consalvo, Tech Cocktail

8. Stephanie Venn Petersen, LSS Data Systems

9. Sara Clemens, Twitch