For ambitious professionals climbing the corporate ladder, the final rung at any business or organization is the role of chief executive officer, or CEO. Individuals in this role are responsible for overseeing a company’s operations and making major business decisions while also representing the company publicly. CEOs work in virtually every industry, for companies large and small.
No single path leads to the C-suite. However, making it to the top spot typically requires a strong educational background and several years of on-the-job training, along with the right blend of leadership and interpersonal skills. If you’re an aspiring business professional with ambition and determination, the journey to becoming a CEO can be a fulfilling one.
CEOs have a variety of responsibilities, and their decisions affect nearly every element of an organization. On any given day, a CEO’s duties may involve making critical financial decisions, appointing other executives and department heads, presiding over meetings, and negotiating contracts.
In addition to planning, directing, and coordinating day-to-day operations, CEOs determine company policies and set strategic goals, often in collaboration with a board of directors.
The overall role of a CEO requires exceptional commitment. Chief executives typically work long hours, far exceeding the standard 40-hour work week and often including nights and weekends. However, if you have the ability, training, and drive to lead an organization, the extra time you put in could be worth it.
High earning potential
Given the size and scope of their workload, CEOs also generally command a company’s highest salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for chief executives was $184,460 in May 2019, with the highest 10% earning more than $208,000. While salaries vary depending on the industry, CEOs in manufacturing and professional, scientific, and technical services are the highest earners, the BLS reports.
The vast majority of chief executives hold at least one college degree, with very few exceptions. Higher education can expose you to a variety of disciplines and provide you with an opportunity to fine-tune key skills such as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving.
Top executives typically have a bachelor’s and may also possess a graduate degree, often in an area related to their field. Degrees in business and computer science are common among CEOs, and roughly half of the chief executives on the Fortune 500 hold a Master of Business Administration (MBA), according to Investopedia. While not required, an MBA can help you hone your business instincts and cultivate your management and leadership skills. The CEOs of Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Apple, for example, have MBAs, while the CEOs of Amazon and CVS have bachelor’s degrees.
Whatever the industry, CEOs typically accrue many years of experience before they becoming a corporate leader. Chief executives usually have extensive management and leadership experience, often at the senior level and ideally within their company’s area of specialty.
While sometimes hired from the outside, many executives become CEOs within their organizations, moving up through a variety of positions over the course of many years. The journey to the C-suite can take decades. CEOs need to provide a vision and strategy for their companies, which is difficult to do without firsthand knowledge of its operations.
The path to becoming a CEO often involves detours. Many chief executives move laterally or even backward in order to broaden their experience before eventually getting ahead. This sometimes involves taking on a new role within the same company or moving to a smaller company with more responsibilities or opportunity for advancement. Some may even start their own businesses, gaining invaluable experience in high-stakes areas like strategic planning and budget management.
The common theme across these scenarios is that the route to become a CEO isn’t always direct and may involve taking a step backward or sideways. But every tough decision made and challenge accepted along the way makes your journey to the top that much more memorable.
In addition to a formal education and years of work experience, successful CEOs often possess a blend of managerial and interpersonal skills, such as the following:
CEOs should be able to convey information clearly, concisely, and persuasively, explaining policies and strategies to people within and outside their organizations. They must ensure that their employees understand company processes and procedures, as well as how those business practices impact their job responsibilities.
CEOs must know how to assess different business options and choose the best course of action. They should understand how to take calculated risks, be able to make decisions under pressure, and be willing to occasionally take a creative or unconventional approach.
CEOs must be able to lead a business and direct its people, policies, and resources. They should be approachable to their employees, building relationships with their team to motivate and inspire them.
Chief executives must recognize and resolve issues within their companies. Aspiring CEOs often make their mark by tackling a major problem, whether it’s a failed product or an underperforming department. A recent 10-year study by management consulting company ghSMART found that 30% of fast-rising CEOs got to the top of their organization by resolving a major crisis.
Character and disposition play a part as well. The most successful CEOs are excellent negotiators and tireless champions for their businesses, and they often have a fearless mindset.
No list of skills and qualities a CEO should possess can ever be complete, but many would agree on the following:
- Time management
- Big-picture thinking
Becoming a CEO isn’t easy — the journey to the top can be long and full of challenges. But with the right combination of education, work experience, and perseverance, you can prepare to attain the highest level of business success. Pearson Pathways is here to help you find the degree or certificate program that can bring you one step closer to achieving your professional goals.
Find your path
- Harvard Business Review, “The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study”
- Indeed, “What Skills Should a CEO Have?”
- Investopedia, “America’s Top CEOs and Their College Degrees”
- Investopedia, “Chief Executive Officer"
- Investopedia, “How to Become a CEO”
- O*Net Online, Summary Report for Chief Executives
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives