From Here to COO

Want to be a chief operating officer? You'll need to get wide experience in all aspects of your company. Patience and a backer help, too

Q: I'm a mid-level manager with an engineering degree and an MBA. I'm currently working for a major telecommunications company as a sales account manager. Previously I was an operations and production manager.

My interest is in running the ins-and-outs of a business. Therefore, I'm inclined to take a career path that's indicative of a chief operating officer. Although there's no magic bullet for becoming a COO, what is the background of those who tend to make it to this level?

-- R.H., Atlanta

A: Turn back the clock for a second, and think about your high school days. Someone in your class -- it may have even been you -- was probably known as the all-around boy or girl. They made good grades, held positions in student government, captained a varsity sports team, volunteered to tutor kids after school, and so on. They excelled in many things and were pegged early on as high achievers.

An aspiring chief operating officer needs to have the same sort of well-rounded experience to make it to the top, experts say. Before you become the key operations person, you have to understand how various parts of the organization tick and how they work together as a business.

Don Gienger, vice-president of the telecommunications practice at executive recruiter Cook Associates in Atlanta, says it's typical for senior managers to identify up-and-comers early on and rotate them through different areas of the business. If you haven't done so already, let your boss know that you want to be one of these people.


  Since you're in sales now, your next move might be to marketing or business development. From there, you'll probably need to do a stint in finance to acquaint yourself with how to keep Wall Street happy. After that, you might do another round in operations or get a chance to run a small subsidiary for the company. Plan on spending one to two years in each function, Gienger says, which will give you plenty of time to show what you can do.

Moreover, if you want to be considered COO material, you'll need to make some real contributions wherever you are in the company. Find ways to cut overhead costs during your time in the finance division. Or, while you're in marketing, come up with a brilliant strategy for a new product rollout. "If you're a high-flier, you'll be in the position to get noticed," Gienger says.

Don't expect to leapfrog from middle manager to COO overnight, however. Companies want at least 10 to 15 years of operations experience in a potential COO -- and a "little gray hair" doesn't hurt, Gienger says. Along the way, you may have to make some lateral moves to get the experience you're lacking. "Don't be impatient," says Jane Greenwald, a partner at executive search firm Battalia Winston in Edison, N.J. "The director and vice-president titles will come once you have a range of experience."


  Consider Denise Gibson, newly appointed COO at Brightstar Corp., a services company for the wireless telecommunications industry. Back in 1982, she started her career as an administrative temp in Motorola's staffing department. Soon she was hired full-time and quickly climbed the management ladder in Motorola's human resources office. Then she was recruited for a sales position in operations. The job was several notches below her current level, but Gibson saw it as a way to learn about the company's products and services.

It turned out to be the right move. During her 17-year career at Motorola, she held various positions within the company and eventually left as a senior operations executive to join Brightstar.

Just remember that a stellar résumé doesn't guarantee admission to the executive suite. "You may be perceived as a performer, but there are probably a number of people with that same label," Gibson says. "The reality is that the funnel gets narrower as you move up."

To keep yourself in the running, get people on your side who can vouch for your performance and help you spot areas where you need improvement. They can also become your personal headhunters: Gibson landed her job as Brightstar's COO through a former colleague who recommended her for it.

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By Jennifer Gill in New York

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