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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Bullock

The COO Career Path (link)

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

No surprises here... there is no *standard* career path. Most often COOs rise through the ranks of a firm, holding a senior level job as either a CFO, SVP of Operations, or SVP of Sales and Marketing prior to becoming COO. So the career path towards a COO usually starts by aiming at holding and suceeding as a senior c-suite level leader in a significant operational function. If that is not you yet, get started on that aim first.

In addition to focusing on get promoted *within* your area of functional expertise, seek out and accept any chance to work outside of your functional area (mine was strategy and business operations). Secondments to other functions, or any partial ownership is a good thing. Almost always the COO needs a firm grip on the numbers so make sure you can talk the finance game. It also helps to have some people operations experience. Finally if you can run some slice of sales or business development it is absolutely a bonus. Most commonly this is the "farming" account management and customer success aspect of the business, or longer tail of customers; rather than the more specialized "hunting" large customer sales.

The bottom line is that diversity of experience and demonstrated ability to manage across senior leadership functions to get things done without directly managing an operation is critical. As well as that the experience and knowledge of an industry is a must for any sizeable COO company role.

In scaleups that are appointing their first COO, or evolving the role ahead of IPO or an major international expansion it is more common to see external appointments. Here most often there is not the suitable talent capability within an organization who can step-up and rapidly scale with an organization that will like 5x (or more) in size over the next three years. In these situations Boards and CEOs are looking for a proven pair of hands that has operated at a slightly large company and can help navigate the coming growth. That capability is often more important than sector knowledge. Importantly the successful candidate doesn't necessarily have to been a COO already, they could be a very competent Head of Ops (a.k.a. HoOper) or Ops SVP at another larger company.

Being a CoS can be a good route towards a COO role, but typically it is not a direct path. Usually there are one, two or three roles in between. A CoS has to show the managerial capacity to directly line manage a function, get things done across functions, and operate at the C-Suite level as a true peer of the other leaders with a respect driven from their own capability rather than implied through their priviledged position relative to the CEO.

The bottom line is that for the roughly third of CoS who aspire to being a COO, they have to play a set of stepping-stone roles carefully. Most critical is accepting any and all line management responsibility beyond the core CoS role, and calling it out as such. Transitioning to a HoOper role helps, especially if it can be multi-hatted with existing CoS responsibilities. But most likely is not enough. Typically the CoS/HoOper has to 'jump down and across' companies to get their first COO role (i.e. they do a role at a 250 person Series C, but then shift to a 50 person Series A firm).

But what do I know! I am mot a career counsellors or recruiter. I have just seen the game play out several times and have some pattern recognition skills!

Building a good gameplan and getting some specific mentorship to help you navigate this journey is often priceless. Meanwhile here are some other excellent perspectives on COO careers to spark your thinking.


Specially Curated Content (link here)

Jonathan Bullock - 5+ Articles & Videos - c1hrs

⚡ COMMENT: Addresses topics including:

+ Becoming a COO

+ Which type of COO are you

+ The COO of Tomorrow

+ Evolution of COO roles

If you have other great articles, videos or content that you think should be added to this free resource document please just drop me a line.


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