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CEO vs. COO: Comparing These Top-Level Roles in the Business World

Learn about the similarities and differences between a CEO vs. COO in the business world and the experience and education required to move up the ladder into these rewarding and impactful executive roles.

A photo of two young professionals, a female with blond hair and a male with dark hair, sitting together at a table; the female is taking notes while the male is on a tablet and using a stylus; this could be a CEO vs. COO relationship in a business

People in high-level positions within a company’s organizational charts are often referred to as c-suite executives. If your goal is to ultimately hold one of these top roles, two to consider are chief executive officer (CEO) and chief operating officer (COO). What’s the difference?

Primary Responsibilities of a CEO vs COO

The CEO is the highest-ranking c-suite executive and, therefore, is tasked with making major decisions about a company’s growth and future direction. This often involves following a specific strategy based on the goals of the company as a whole. It requires an outward-focused view that is executed in collaboration with the stakeholders, partners, and investors within a business.

The CEO’s attitude and approach impact the company’s internal culture. CEO’s also set the tone for the way the business or organization interacts with the rest of the world. They are the face of the company and are generally considered one and the same. Some of the better-known CEOs are Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and the late Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple.

Instead of being responsible for the entire company, individuals in a COO role are focused solely on the company’s daily operations. They concentrate on the way the company operates and, thus, are tasked with developing the processes and procedures designed to help it run smoothly and efficiently.

Typically, the COO is second in command and reports to the CEO. Though these individuals aren’t usually as well-known as those in the CEO position, the information that COOs provide is invaluable as it helps guide the CEO when making long-term decisions about the way the business functions. These decisions are based, in part, on the company’s day-to-day processes, which are executed by the COO.

Where CEOs and COOs Work

When you hear the title CEO or COO, you likely think of a person holding this role within a business setting. Admittedly, this is the type of setting where you will typically find a c-suite executive, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) sharing that the highest level of employment is within companies and enterprises.

That said, you may be surprised to learn that you can also be a CEO or COO within elementary and secondary schools as this is the industry that employs the second-highest number of executives. This is followed by those who are employed by state government, computer-related services, and, finally, consulting services. This highlights your ability to work in many different industries within one of these two roles.

CEO vs. COO Salary Differences

Another difference between CEO and COO is salary. Because CEOs are responsible for the well-being of the entire company, individuals in this role generally earn more than lower-level c-suite executives such as COO.

For instance, the average pay for CEOs within the top 350 U.S. firms is somewhere between $14 million and $17.2 million annually, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). While a large portion of this yearly wage is stock options, the EPI indicates that compensation for individuals in this position has increased 940 percent since 1978.

CEOs at smaller companies don’t necessarily make these high wages as Glassdoor shares that the average base pay for CEOs in the U.S. today is closer to $151,828 per year. It should be noted that actual salary potential varies based on industry, company size, and a number of other factors.

By comparison, the Economic Research Institute reports that the average COO salary is $295,770 per year with an average bonus of roughly $116,947 annually. Glassdoor sets this c-suite salary closer to $143,541 but, again, varies based on qualifications, duties, and company size.

Educational Requirements for CEO vs. COO

When comparing CEO vs. COO, one area where both are relatively the same is in the education necessary to hold one of these roles.

According to the BLS, top company executives generally need to have earned at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify for one of these higher-level positions. This is in addition to having “considerable work experience” within the field. For those interested in working in large corporations, a master’s degree may be required.

At Saint Leo University, we offer access to both undergraduate and graduate business degrees. For instance, our Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Business Administration provides the education necessary to help a business obtain greater levels of success. Choose this degree path and you can specialize in logistics, management, marketing, project management, and technology management.

We also offer a Master of Business Administration. In this program, you will take classes to learn how to help a business or organization reach higher levels. A few class options include Management Essentials, Human Capital for Organizational Performance, Strategic Management, and Corporate Finance.

Whether your goal is to hold the position of CEO or COO, Saint Leo can provide the education and skills necessary to succeed in either c-suite role! Contact us today to learn more.

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