What Is a Chief Operating Officer?

The chief operating officer (COO) is a senior executive tasked with overseeing the day-to-day administrative and operational functions of a business. The COO typically reports directly to the chief executive officer (CEO) and is considered to be second in the chain of command. In some corporations, the COO is known by other terms, such as "executive vice president of operations," "chief operations officer," or "operations director."

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Chief Operating Officer (COO)

Understanding the Chief Operating Officer (COO)

The COO mainly focuses on executing the company’s business plans, according to the established business model, while the CEO is more concerned with long-term goals and the broader company outlook. In other words, the CEO devises plans, while the COO implements them.

For instance, when a company experiences a drop in market share, the CEO might call for increased quality control, in order to fortify its reputation among customers. In this case, the COO might carry out the CEO's mandate by instructing the human resources department to hire more quality control personnel. The COO may also initiate the rollout of new product lines, and may likewise be responsible for production, research and development, and marketing.

The Role of the COO

Depending on the CEO's preference, the COO often handles a company's internal affairs, while the CEO functions as the public face of the company, and thereby handles all outward-facing communication.

In many cases, a COO is specifically chosen to complement the skill sets of the sitting CEO. In an entrepreneurial situation, the COO often has more practical experience than the founding CEO, who may have come up with an excellent concept, but lacks the start-up know-how to launch a company and manage its early stages of development. Consequently, COOs often architect operations strategies, communicate policies to employees, and help human resources build out core teams.

[Important: Instead of having one or two skill sets, most successful COO have multi-faceted talents, enabling them to adapt to different tasks and solve a range of issues.]

There are generally seven types of COOs:

  • The executor, who oversees the implementation of company strategies
  • The change agent, who spearheads new initiatives
  • The mentor, who is hired to counsel younger or newer company team members
  • An "MVP" COO, who is promoted internally to ensure that he doesn't defect to a rival company
  • The COO who is brought in to complement the CEO
  • The partner COO, who is brought as the CEO's right-hand person
  • The heir apparent who becomes the COO to learn from the CEO, in order to ultimately assume the CEO position

Qualifications for COOs

A COO typically has extensive experience within the field in which a given company operates. COOs often work for at least 15 years, climbing the corporate ladder. This slow build helps prepare COOs for their roles, by letting them cultivate extensive experience in the practices, policies, and procedures of their chosen field.

Key Takeaways

  • The chief operating officer (COO) is a senior executive tasked with overseeing the day-to-day administrative and operational functions of a business.
  • The COO typically reports directly to the chief executive officer (CEO) and is considered to be second in the chain of command.
  • Depending on the CEO's preference, the COO often handles a company's internal affairs, while the CEO functions as the public face of the company, and thereby handles all outward-facing communication.

Also, because they're traditionally responsible for directing multiple departments, COOs must be resourceful problem solvers and must possess strong leadership skills. Educationally, COOs typically minimally hold bachelor's degrees, while often also holding Master's in Business Administration (MBA) degrees and other certifications.