The Role and Responsibilities of the Chief Operating Officer (COO)

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Business Administration

Executives in professional dress sitting together, having a discussion.

C-suite roles, including chief executive officer and chief operating officer, are often highly sought-after in enterprise organizations. Not only are these C-level executives in charge of crafting the business’s strategy and ensuring that daily operations run smoothly, but these positions also come with attractive salaries.

However, there are key responsibilities that C-suite executives must fulfill, as well as critical challenges that come along with these tasks.

The COO, for example, must maintain awareness of the activities of the business’s various individual departments. At the same time, the COO must also ensure that the plans and strategy developed by the CEO are properly and successfully implemented. In this way, the COO often represents a bridge between C-level executives and other department heads and lower-level employees.

The COO fills a specialized role in many organizations and has specific daily tasks and responsibilities. This professional oversees all of a company’s important day-to-day operations and may even be considered the heir apparent to the current CEO. Professionals who want to be successful in this type of high-level, senior executive role will need strong leadership skills, along with the right Master of Business Administration degree.

Role of the Chief Operating Officer: An Overview

The COO – sometimes known as the vice president of operations – is typically the second in command in a company and reports to the CEO. This person manages and handles the daily business operations of the company, working closely with department heads and supervisors to support the day-to-day activity of employees.

Whereas the CEO is more concerned with big picture elements, like the business’s overarching goals and strategy, the COO typically oversees internal, daily operations. This includes ensuring that the company’s operations support the CEO’s vision and strategy. The CEO represents the public face of the organization, and is involved in marketing and public relations communications.

Managing Business Operations: Top Responsibilities

The daily responsibilities of the COO can be different, depending on the operational structure and needs of the company itself, as well as the industry in which it operates. As The Balance and other sources note, there is not a single, standard list of responsibilities when it comes to the COO role. Duties can change according to the goals and requirements of the company. In some businesses, for example, the COO may be more involved with the development of operations strategy and maintaining the company’s financial health. In other companies, though, these tasks may instead fall upon the CEO, accounting team supervisor or another senior executive.

Some responsibilities of the COO may include:

  • Maintains and directs the daily operations of the business, including coordinating with human resources, legal, sales, marketing, manufacturing, accounting, IT and other departments
  • Meets with and reports to the CEO about the company’s daily operation, as well as about the CEO’s plans for any upcoming adjustments or developments to business operations strategy, or other company goals and objectives
  • Represents the heir apparent for the CEO and may stand in for the CEO if this senior executive is out of the office or otherwise engaged. The COO might also assist in training and guiding a CEO who is new to the organization and help this person get used to the business’s operations and strategy.
  • Helps support other senior executives and employees, including to advise on promotions
  • Develops and implements policies for daily operations, and communicates these policy changes to department supervisors
  • Ensures alignment with current company policies and goals, including those that the COO creates themselves, as well as those developed by the CEO and other executives

In some organizations, the COO also oversees and supervises the operations of the human resources and legal departments. This is common in organizations where the COO structure is an internally facing job.

Overall, however, the COO supports and complements the role of the CEO. As TechTarget contributor Margaret Rouse explains, the COO functions similarly to the role of U.S. vice president, in that the role of president is highly dependent upon the vice president.

“[T]he CEO is the magnetic force with which the COO must align,” write Harvard Business Review contributors Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles. “This makes the question ‘What makes a great COO?’ akin to asking ‘What makes a great candidate for U.S. vice president?’”

Seven Types of Chief Operating Officers

Because the COO role can vary according to the internal structure and needs of the organization as well as the work of the CEO and other senior executives, responsibilities are not the same for COOs from company to company.

In this context, there are seven different types of roles that a COO can align themselves with, based on their mission. These seven types of COOs are defined in the 2006 Harvard Business Review article, “Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of Chief Operating Officer,” written by authors Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles. But, as Kaplan Executive Research and several other sources agree, these seven roles are just as relevant today as they were more than two decades ago.

These different types of COO roles also help us to understand how the responsibilities of this professional can change from business to business, depending on the operational and functional needs of the organization.

  1. The Executor COO: The main goal of this type of COO is to implement, communicate and support the strategies created by the CEO and other senior executives. The Executor’s focus is on daily operations, allowing the CEO and other C-suite leaders to manage larger, overarching company strategy and the long-term challenges that might impact that vision.
  2. The Change Agent: This COO still maintains a focus on day-to-day business operations, but was hired to spearhead and lead a specific initiative. This might include supporting a large-scale organizational shift like rapid growth or leading the charge to decrease the business’s turnaround time. Businesses including Microsoft have brought on COOs to lead strategic initiatives, making these professionals Change Agent COOs.  
  3. The Mentor: Just as the name implies, the Mentor COO is responsible for supporting and guiding a new or inexperienced CEO. In these cases, the COO role may change or shift as the new CEO learns the ropes, or may even disappear entirely when the CEO no longer needs the COO’s support. Businesses that bring on a younger CEO, for instance, often hire a more seasoned professional as the COO to help develop the skills and experience of the CEO.  
  4. The Other Half: In other cases, the COO serves to complement the skills, style and expertise of the CEO, becoming the “other half” of the senior management team. If the company’s CEO manages with a direct and aggressive management style, for instance, organization leaders may select a calmer, more modest individual as the COO. This balance between the CEO and COO requires careful recruitment to ensure just the right mix of management approaches and skills. When done correctly, though, this Other Half COO can represent a strong ally to the CEO and an asset to the business.
  5. The Partner: This type of COO takes the Other Half role to the next level. In some cases, the CEO simply works best with a partner in a co-leadership style. While companies don’t typically like to assign the coveted CEO role to more than one individual, having a Partner-style COO can address needs for dependent and balanced leadership.
  6. The Heir Apparent: This type of COO is typically brought onboard specifically to be prepared and groomed to take over as the CEO once the current CEO leaves the company or retires. In this way, before taking over as the CEO and managing the business’s larger picture concerns, this professional can learn about the business and its daily operations through the role of COO.
  7. The MVP: Some companies may use their COO role to recognize a top employee’s work and prevent turnover.

“Finally, some companies offer the job of COO as a promotion to an executive considered too valuable to lose, particularly to a competitor,” authors Bennet and Miles write. “With this strategy, an organization may try to hedge its bets by stopping short of identifying a specific heir or setting a time-table for leadership succession, in an effort to keep its high-potential executives intrigued about what the future may hold of them, should they stay on board.”

Schedule and Work Environment

The environment and working hours of a COO can vary, similar to the responsibilities that can come with the role, and will depend on the needs of the business. COOs can operate in large, enterprise-level organizations, but are also important in smaller companies. The Balance points out that most COOs work more than 40 hours per week, and may even need to work late into the evenings or on weekends to support the company’s operations.

It’s also worth noting that the COO working environment and schedule can create stress for professionals. “[COOs’] work involves a high degree of stress because they bear the responsibility of making the business successful,” The Balance states. “They risk losing their jobs in a poorly performing organization.”

Chief Operating Officer Salary

Because the role and responsibilities of a COO can change according to the goal of the CEO and executive team, the compensation for the role is similarly flexible.

According to the Economic Research Firm, a COO’s salary averages around $294,000 annually, but can range between a starting salary of $200,000 annually and a senior-level salary for experienced professionals of upwards of $400,000 a year.

The Economic Research Firm predicts a 16% increase in salary for the COO role, forecasting that professionals in this executive position will earn an average of $340,372 by 2025.

How to Become a Chief Operating Officer

The COO salary and job description can be quite attractive for those looking to pursue enterprise senior leadership roles. And, as Bennet’s and Miles’ Seven Types of COOs show, there are different routes that the role of COO can take. It’s possible to find a position that plays to professionals’ strengths and supports the needs of business.

To become a COO, guide a business’s daily operations and report to and support the CEO and senior executive team, there are certain skills and educational requirements that students should strive for. Although a senior executive role like COO is highly sought after for many business administration students, like any professional function, it does come with its share of challenges and obstacles. However, with the right skills, characteristics and education, professionals can become successful COOs and enable the prosperous operations of their employer organization.

Skills and Characteristics

Some of the most important skills and abilities for professionals in the role of COO include:

  • Organizational, administrative and leadership skills. COOs oversee a host of daily operations, including activities related to each of the business’s departments. This means that the COO must accurately and efficiently organize all of these activities and operations to support business strategy and align with clients’ or customers’ needs. The COO must also effectively administer guidance and direction for the HR, legal and other departments that report to them, making strong leadership skills incredibly important.
  • Goal-oriented and results-driven. Successful COOs are also very goal-oriented, and strive to achieve not only the day-to-day objectives that support the company’s daily operations, but the larger goals of the CEO as well. As The Balance pointes out, this goal-orientation should be balanced with needs for results. In other words, the COO should prove and demonstrate to the CEO and other senior executives how their strategy is supported.
  • Decision-making and delegation. COOs will regularly make decisions about how to best direct the company’s daily operations. This might include addressing any operational issues that hamper progress in the short term, as well as working with the CEO to resolve any long-term operational challenges. In addition to possessing strong decision-making skills, COOs must also delegate tasks appropriately to the department heads and supervisors under them. This delegation and separation of the workload supports efficiency and prevents one professional from taking on too much in the way of operational responsibilities.
  • The COO will need to report to the CEO on daily operations, but will also consult with the rest of senior-level management on strategy. At the same time, the COO also needs to communicate any changes to strategy, business goals or daily operational tasks to department heads and other employees. In this way, the COO will need to express themselves in a professional and big-picture way to the senior leadership team, while also effectively breaking down management decisions to lower-level managers and workers.
  • Critical thinking and multi-tasking. Often, the COO will have to balance the goals, needs and challenges of all of the company’s departments. Striking this balance requires the COO to think critically and prioritize department supervisors’ needs, while also taking into consideration the goals and direction of the CEO’s strategy. Additionally, as the COO manages the daily operations of the business’s main departments, he or she will need to multi-task and balance these responsibilities.

Higher Education Requirements: MBA Paves the Way

Most organizations recruiting professionals for the role of COO will not consider candidates who don’t have a master’s degree in business administration. Earning an MBA can put students in a beneficial path to pursuing executive-level roles like the COO. However, as Investopedia notes, senior-level executive roles like the COO will also require considerable real-world corporate experience. Some companies prefer that candidates work in the enterprise field for at least a decade, if not 15 years, and can demonstrate their ability to climb the ladder.

Young professionals seeking COO or other C-level executive suite roles should begin their journey with a robust degree program like the Online Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. This Online MBA degree program can help students build skills and expertise in a number of key areas, including leadership and teamwork, supply chain management, corporate finance, ethical leadership, strategic management and more.

Currently, more than 27% of our Robert H. Smith School of Business graduates achieve employment in general management, and work in a variety of exciting sectors.

To find out more about how a degree like the Online Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland can benefit your career goals, check out our website and connect with one of our enrollment advisors today.


Recommended Readings:

Maryland Smith’s Online MBA Program Ranks Among Top 10

Pursuing an MBA: When you need it and why you should get it



The Balance, What Does a Chief Operating Officer Do?

Investopedia, Chief Operating Officer (COO)

TechTarget, Chief Operating Officer (COO)

Harvard Business Review, Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer

Kaplan Executive Research, The Seven Roles of the COO

Economic Research Institute, COO Salary