Stepping up: What COOs will need to succeed in 2023 and beyond

COOs are increasingly important to corporations, but what skills will they need to perform at their best? Business leaders weigh in.

How many of us can name a famous COO? The role of the COO was low profile to begin with, and in the early 2000s, a trend toward flatter organizations and more hands-on CEOs took hold. In 2000, 48 percent of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies had a COO 1 ; by 2018, that number had dropped to an all-time low of 32 percent.

But COOs are making a comeback. As of 2022, 40 percent of leading companies had a COO, with the financial and energy sectors leading the way at 48 percent. Furthermore, the role itself has changed—it’s bigger, bolder, and more transformative than ever.

The COO job description has never been a fixed one: it varies by industry, organization, and need. 2 Some COOs may see their role as that of a mentor, whereas others may be partners or heirs apparent to the chief executive. Managing day-to-day operations and executing the strategies of the top management team are only part of the job. In an uncertain postpandemic environment, the COO role is evolving from its roots 3 in the back office into a catalyst for technology-driven growth, strategic expansion, and employee empowerment. As chief executives increasingly become the public face of organizations and deal with external constituencies and stakeholders, it often falls to COOs to provide internal leadership and direction. And as operations face extraordinary disruptions, COOs are now key players in boosting organizational resilience and value creation. As such, they are often leading contenders for the top job: in 2021, nearly 27 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies were promoted 4 from the COO role, more than from any other internal position.

We spoke with several current and former COOs from various sectors about what skills they see as necessary to operate effectively in the years to come. Currently, many are struggling with allocating time appropriately: only a third of their time goes to long-term strategic planning, with the remainder split between overseeing people and dealing with current operational priorities. Other challenges include managing the unique needs of the workforce, an expanding number of shareholders, rapid increases in automation, and workplace real-estate issues in the wake of the pandemic. Many of our interviewees wish they had acted earlier in their careers to identify and remedy skills gaps and prepare workers to move to the next level. Not surprisingly, they believe that the next batch of COOs should be better able to address these issues—and, ideally, possess some additional talents. In this article, we discuss the top five proficiencies they identified.

The COO role has traditionally taken a backseat to other C-suite functions within the organization. Its recent resurgence and increasing visibility showcase the importance of the job in building resilience and positioning organizations for success in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment. But the skills of the past aren’t enough. COOs must develop new capabilities and strengths to take on the complex and uncertain tasks that await them.

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