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What is a COO?

By Y. Chen
Updated May 17, 2024
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When the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is too busy to manage the production quotas and other operational factors of an organization, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) steps in to fulfill that responsibility. Often known as one of the top executives or the senior vice president in the corporate hierarchy, the COO reigns over the day-to-day activities of an organization, reporting back to the Board of Directors on a regular basis.

As one of the highest ranking members of an organization, a COO can be found in a variety of settings. Corporations, public sector organizations, nonprofits, and other institutions often employ this executive to oversee potential problems and improvements. Having both a higher authority and subordinates, the COO is under enormous pressure to succeed. There is also pressure to perform by increasing profits or making operations more efficient. Other characteristics of the position include a considerable amount of travel and working long hours, though times can be flexible.

Perks to the COO position include a spacious office, a prestigious reputation, and numerous support staff. Much of the travel is sponsored by the organization, since he or she must meet with other executives, staff, and customers to identify better operations procedures. Travel is also crucial for attending meetings and conferences in order for the COO to network as a company representative. Travel can entail a range of geographic distances, from local to regional, national, and even international.

Because of the authority and high pay garnered by the COO, the applicant pool is relatively larger than the number of open positions available. Because much of the position entails formulating company policies and directing daily operations, new applicants typically are expected to have at least a bachelor's degree in business administration or in liberal arts. A Ph.D might be required for positions in highly specialized fields. However, it is also possible for staff members to be promoted into the role from the company's internal structure by working their way up.

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Discussion Comments
By horsebite — On Jul 29, 2011

@cloudel - Isn't that typical? Everyone envied your friend even though he probably had the hardest job in the place.

I find this happens a lot, especially when people work themselves up through the ranks and end up managing some of the people who were formerly their peers.

Everyone thinks the boss has the easy job, until they have to try to do it. Not so much after that. I have sat in break rooms many times and listened to people who could barely tie their own shoes go on about how different things would be if they were running things. They'd be different all right.

By Nepal2016 — On Jul 29, 2011

Operations is like this at many levels, not just the COO. Whether the title is Operations Manager, Director of Operations, or COO, they basically are the one who makes sure things get done on a daily basis. Essentially, they are a white-collar foreman.

It is definitely not a job for the indecisive or those afraid to make and commit to a decision. Nor is it a job for people looking for glory, since the higher-ups will likely take the credit when something big goes right (and you will take the blame when something goes wrong).

By Veruca10 — On Jul 28, 2011

@abundancer - I see the COO job as being very much like the Executive Officer (XO) of a military unit.

The Commanding Officer (CO) is in charge, and is ultimately responsible for what happens in the unit. However, they can spend a lot of their time doing "big picture" things and they need someone to be an interface or liaison to the people below them.

A lot of times the CO plays the role of the benevolent father (or mother) figure, and the XO plays the heavy. This is very much like the CEO-COO relationship. The XO gets the blame for the harsh policies or decisions, but really they come from above.

If the XO performs well, they often get a CO job of their own. Same with the COO. It is a difficult and often thankless job, but it can have great rewards.

By EricRadley — On Jul 28, 2011

@pennywell - I have to disagree. Of course the COO is a sort of scapegoat for the CEO. In most companies, wouldn't the COO be in charge of enforcing policies or strategies that the CEO doesn't want to deal with? If that is the case, then it would seem that part of the COO's role is to help maintain the CEO's reputation as well as that of the company.

By pennywell — On Jul 27, 2011

@abundancer - I wouldn't say that the COO is a scapegoat, but they do have a lot to answer for. In turn this means that they are responsible for a lot within the company and it is the COO's job to make sure that all departments are functioning smoothly and in sync. Of course they have to deal with plenty of office politics, but that goes with the territory, considering how many people answer to them.

By fingered — On Jul 26, 2011

@StarJo - You're right - the role of a COO involves a heavy load of responsibility and issues. They have to find a balance between the CEO's wishes and the good of the company and stakeholders. As you might guess, these two are not always the same thing. Essentially, the COO can be considered the CEO's right-hand man (or woman!).

By StarJo — On Jul 25, 2011

It seems that the main difference between a CEO and a COO is where the power lies. A COO must be capable of doing all the things that a CEO can do, but he has to answer to the CEO.

In fact, a COO has to be deeply involved in the CEO’s dealings so that he can offer advice and help him make decisions. He must know what is necessary to make adjustments to operations that will yield the desired results.

Because a COO is usually a vice–president, he will inevitably be a more behind-the-scenes person. Though the pay is great, he must be willing to take a backseat to and support the CEO.

By cloudel — On Jul 25, 2011

I have a friend who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He got an internship at a prestigious company, and he eventually worked all the way up to COO.

All his coworkers envied him, but the position filled him with a sense of doom and dread. Despite all the perks, he knew that any failings in profits would be considered his fault. He worked so hard to get there, only to find true unhappiness at the top.

Fortunately, a CEO is about to retire, and my friend’s boss has told him that he is the top pick to replace the guy. I think he would feel a lot better in that position than in his current situation.

By abundancer — On Jan 29, 2011

@linc2010 -- I don't have a single word to describe a COO, but to me he or she seems like a jack of all trades. Besides managing production quotas and reporting to the board, they also work closely with the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) to make sure they stay on budget. If I had to sum it up, it almost sounds like this position is set up to be the scape goat if anything happens. Anyone have any thoughts?

By linc2010 — On Dec 21, 2008

What evocative words describe the challenges of a COO?

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