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Chief Operating Officer

How to Become a Chief Operating Officer: 5 Soft Skills to Develop to Lead

Chief Operating Officer (COO) is an important executive role within an organization. They are the second most senior executive after the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). As the name suggests, their main responsibility is to oversee internal operations1. Becoming a COO is an excellent stepping stone to the CEO position within a company. This makes it a prized position for people wanting to reach the highest level of management. According to a recent McKinsey study, 40% of large companies have a COO1. And that number continues to grow1. In this guide, we’re going to discuss all the key skills you need to become a COO. We'll pay special attention to the soft skills you need to develop to excel in the role. These skills include communication, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Illustration of a woman working on how to become a chief operating officer by having hard and soft skills

What do chief operating officers do?

The chief operating officer (COO) is responsible for overseeing the operations of the organization. Sometimes they are called the President of Operations. The list of responsibilities can be varied and depends on the specific organization. 

For example, optimizing daily operations or improving company culture. COOs provide strategic advice and implement new business initiatives. They may also oversee administrative functions. Their goals are to boost productivity and profitability.

The COO of a non-profit may also be responsible for implementing systems and logistics to ensure the delivery of aid. On the other hand, the COO of a car company may be responsible for ensuring that manufacturing operations become more productive. Either way, they are responsible for daily operations and need strong business acumen.

One of the most famous COOs in the world is Sheryl Sandberg. As the COO of Facebook (now Meta Platforms), she oversaw the business operations of the company from 2008 to 2022. This freed up CEO Mark Zuckerberg to focus on the strategic direction of the company. Often, a COO is a CEO's right-hand person. When a COO steps down from the role, they are often retained on the board of directors. This helps ensure their significant knowledge and experience isn't lost.

There are major changes happening in the way we work. These include new work environments, increasing corporate responsibility, and the automation of production. The COO is often responsible for responding to these changes. This makes it an exciting and valuable role. If you want to help shape the future of your organization, becoming the COO is a good way to be a part of it. You will oversee every single aspect of daily business operations.

Typically, the COO is the second highest C-suite position within the organization behind the CEO. They work closely with other executives such as the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Technology Officer. COOs often lead sales and marketing directors, product managers, human resources staff, and business development executives. Their role is to help other executives improve the operational performance of their departments. 

Many COOs go on to be promoted to the CEO position within the organization when a vacancy opens. Within an organization, the COO position can include a diverse range of responsibilities, such as:

  • Advising and supporting the CEO.
  • Taking the lead in implementing company strategies.
  • Implementing new initiatives in sales, HR, product, customer service, and other departments. Usually working alongside the executive in charge of the specific department.
  • Ensuring internal processes within the organization are working and making changes when necessary.
  • Verifying company operations are maximizing employee productivity and performance.
  • Working with an executive team to ensure all departments are working in unison to achieve company goals.

Organizations in both the public and private sectors have COOs. This includes larger private companies, non-profits, government departments, and educational institutions. This allows prospective COOs to specialize in a specific industry. 

What are the skills needed to become a chief operating officer?

Chief Operating Officer is a senior role in a company and they usually lead numerous people. Many COOs come up through the ranks of the organization they go on to become the COO of. This helps them have a good understanding of the company and the industry so they can be effective leaders. A great COO also needs to develop soft (or human) skills such as communication and problem-solving. Developing these skills will help you climb the corporate ladder and excel in your career journey. It can also make you a more effective COO.

Leadership skills

The COO helps to manage the direction of the organization. This involves helping to implement strategies that will improve its operational performance. During their work, they need to work with a diverse set of employees across the company.

To be successful, they must have strong leadership skills. Good leadership helps to inspire co-workers to boost their operational performance. For example, they might be tasked with designing a new operations process for a department to implement. This will involve leading the change and ensuring other co-workers are invested in making a successful transition.

Most COOs will have some natural leadership skills. All can benefit from improving leadership skills through personal coaching. Honing your skills will help you lead more effectively and get better results for your organization.

Communication skills

COOs need to have effective communication skills. This is because they will be interacting with a wide range of people across the company as well as external stakeholders. They need to know how to communicate well in both written and verbal forms. A key part of effective communication is great listening skills.

For example, say the business wants to implement a new payroll process. The COO will need to communicate to employees the changes that need to be made and why. To ensure they are implemented, they need to communicate clear and concise instructions. Communication is another soft (human) skill that can be developed through continuous learning. Learning to become a more effective communicator makes you a more successful COO.

What advice would you give your younger self?

"Certainly, there were lots of working styles that I wasn’t good at collaborating with, so I missed out in the Microsoft days on some types of talent. I was in a hurry. I knew my own style of dealing with complex problems, and as I’ve gotten older and I’ve seen certain problems arise [I’ve worked out,] there are definitely different working styles.
I’m more of a motivator and a leader than an individual performer, but it takes a lot of time to develop those skills. So maybe I would have wanted to accelerate some of that."

Bill Gates, co-founder, Microsoft Corporation
A portrait image of Bill Gates.
Source: Technology Editor, Paul Smith. (Feb 9, 2023) Australian Financial Review


Making decisions is an important skill for COOs to possess. Their role involves making a lot of decisions on a day-to-day basis. They need to have the ability to weigh different options and make sound decisions. This involves having a “system” they can use so their decisions are reasoned and backed by evidence. Listening to all viewpoints and understanding the options helps a COO make better decisions. When a decision is made, they need to communicate it to stakeholders effectively. They should also be prepared to change course when new evidence is presented. For example, when implementing a new process into the company's operations the first idea might not work. The COO will need to make the decision to change course and implement another solution.

Organizational skills

Good organizational skills mean being able to organize your time effectively and manage multiple different projects at once. COOs may be responsible for implementing new projects across different departments. Some of these projects may be cross-functional and require different teams to work together productively. To be successful, COOs need to ensure each department does its part to achieve the goals of the project. They need to know how to organize, prioritize, and delegate work to ensure an efficient workflow. Having great organizational skills results in a higher level of operational performance.


One of the main roles of a COO is to solve problems. For example, they may have the responsibility to investigate a work process that is creating an operational bottleneck. Detective work is required to figure out what's causing the issue and how to put it right. Knowing how to think through complex problems is extremely important. Being able to weigh-up solutions to find the best option is also crucial. Problem-solving is a skill that can be developed and will make you a more effective COO.

Develop these important chief operating officer skills

To rise to the level of COO within your company, you’re most likely already an expert in your industry with strong technical knowledge. A combination of industry knowledge and soft skills mastery will boost your performance and desirability to prospective employers.1

At Fingerprint for Success (F4S), we have over 20 years of experience supporting executive success through coaching. We help people develop soft skills by using analytics tools to provide awareness of the skills they have, and the ones they need to develop.

To start enhancing your skills, take the F4S free assessment, set a goal, and Coach Marlee will provide you with personalized insights. This will help you create a plan to achieve your professional success.

Leadership skills

Energy towards becoming a compelling leader.

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Problem and risk aversion

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How long does it take to become a Chief Operating Officer?

Depending on the organization you work for, becoming the COO can take anywhere from a few years to decades. To help inform you of the possible pathways to becoming a COO, let’s discuss some of the important factors.

What higher education is required to become a COO?

Most COOs have a relevant undergraduate degree. This may include business administration, economics, management, or a related field. Many also go on to do a post-graduate degree.

The most common is a Master's degree in Business Administration (MBA). An MBA can be completed after you have some business operating experience. Some organizations will even pay for you to do an MBA if they see you as a candidate for upper management.

MBA programs usually have a focus on strategic business management, which sets you up well for a COO role. Combined with practical experience in business operations, an MBA can help you become an effective COO.

What licenses, certifications and registrations are needed?

There are generally no official licenses, certifications, or registrations required to become a COO. Some specific industries, such as healthcare, may require industry registration or experience. Many COOs will join business industry groups such as the International Institute of Management. These groups provide training and networking opportunities for members. Joining a group that is specific to your industry is also a good idea. This helps to build your network and stay up to date with industry standards and trends. You can also gain expert insights and look for mentors.

What on-job mentorships and leadership training is typically undertaken?

Many large organizations have internal programs to help develop employees. These can involve mentorships and leadership training. Some organizations will even sponsor employees to do an MBA or other management qualifications. A COO works very closely with the CEO. This means they will often be mentored by the CEO. COOs may end up succeeding the CEO when they step down. Many large companies have deputy COOs which can be a good stepping stone to becoming the COO. A deputy COO may manage a specific aspect of the day-to-day operations of the organization.

What are the career progression steps needed to get there?

To begin the pathway to becoming a COO, you generally start by completing a business degree. You can then find your first job and start to gain experience in your industry. The best areas to work in if you want to become a COO are marketing, sales, product development, or operations. These departments will give you a good understanding of how the business and wider industry operate.

After you gain experience, you can apply for management positions. Management roles allow you to manage projects and people. You will better understand the processes within the business units you manage. 

Many prospective COOs elect to do a post-graduate advanced degree such as an MBA. This is usually after they have some industry experience. An advanced degree may help you progress up the management ladder and eventually reach the position of COO.

Progressing from graduate to COO may require you to work for multiple organizations. You'll be able to gain broader experience this way. Some people can progress to senior management roles during their careers at just one organization. This will largely depend on the opportunities available to you during your career. Gaining international experience is also very valuable. Spending some time working at a multinational organization is a great option.

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Where can chief operating officers work?

The COO role is available in a range of different organizations. These include private companies, public institutions, and non-profits. Many organizations now operate across borders (multinationals). This means there is now a greater need for COOs with international experience.

Many COOs start their career by graduating with a degree in business, economics, or a related field4. They usually start in an entry-level position within an operational team, such as marketing, sales, or customer success. As they gain experience and business knowledge, they may be promoted to a team lead or manager role. Learning how to lead people is crucial for success in senior roles. Over time a combination of technical knowledge, industry experience, and soft skill development will make them suitable for COO roles.1

If you gain experience as the COO of a small to a mid-sized organization you will be able to eventually become the COO of a larger organization. You could even move into the CEO role.

How much can chief operating officers earn?

The average base salary for a COO in the United States is US$472,2615. As you can see, becoming a COO offers great financial rewards. The exact amount you will earn largely depends on the size of the organization. For example, the COO of a large Fortune 500 company can expect to earn millions of dollars a year. A COO of a small start-up can expect to make below the US$472,261 average. Both examples will most likely involve stock options or bonuses in addition to the salary.

Higher salaries are offered in states such as California and New York6. This is due to the number of large companies that are headquartered in those states. Globally, this is also true for large cities with corporate head offices such as Singapore, London, and Hong Kong.

COOs in industries such as healthcare and manufacturing require specialist skills. This makes them more likely to receive higher salaries. COOs with international experience are also able to earn higher-than-average salaries. Operating a global business is difficult. If you have global operating experience you will be in high demand.

Frequently asked questions

What makes a good chief operating officer?

A good COO must have the ability to lead. This is because their main role is to oversee all operations. They are also responsible for implementing changes when necessary. This requires attention to detail, great communication, and problem-solving abilities. Overall, they need to be goal orientated and have excellent decision-making skills.

What should I study to become a chief operating officer?

COO is often a stepping stone to the role of CEO. To become a CEO, formal education in business, economics, management, or a related field can be helpful. This can be done at an undergraduate level or post-graduate level. A common post-graduate qualification is an MBA. These study programs will give you a good understanding of fundamental pillars of business. This includes how organizations operate and their business functions. Most C-suite executives follow this pathway.

How do I become a chief operating officer of a hospital?

The COO of a hospital is a challenging position. You need to have a minimum of a business degree in healthcare, business, or financial management. Many hospital COOs get an MBA or an advanced healthcare management degree. This gives them the necessary skills to manage large organizations such as hospitals. Before you can become COO, you also need experience in healthcare management.

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1. Piasecki, D. (2022) What COOs will need to succeed in 2023 and beyond. Available at:

2. Zippia. (2023) Chief Operating Officer Project Growth in the United States. Available at:

3. Raconteur. (2022) What will the COO of the future look like? Available at:

4. Quantic. (2020) How to become a COO: Your path to Chief Operating Officer. Available at:

5. (2022) Chief Operating Officer Salary in United States. Available at:

6. Ibid.

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