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Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Career Guide

What is a chief executive officer?

The chief executive officer, often abbreviated as CEO, serves as an organization’s ultimate decision-maker and strategist. The role carries a high degree of responsibility as they establish the company’s vision, ethos, and long-term goals. Often reporting to a board of directors, their purpose is to steer the organization toward sustainable growth, value creation, and societal impact.

A CEO is more than an administrator; they embody the identity and direction of an organization. Their effectiveness can significantly influence an organization’s culture, financial health, market standing, and relationships with all stakeholders, including investors, employees, and the community. Essentially, they orchestrate a cohesive and focused strategy while adhering to legal and ethical guidelines to maximize stakeholder value.

Duties and responsibilities

CEOs have a wide range of responsibilities that contribute to the organization’s overall performance and trajectory. They are involved in strategic planning, which includes setting long-term objectives and identifying opportunities for expansion or improvement. These executives also make high-level decisions about resource allocation, including talent recruitment, capital investments, and business partnerships.

They are responsible for building and maintaining relationships with external stakeholders such as investors, regulators, and other industry players. While these responsibilities are strategically significant, they also carry a great deal of day-to-day operational influence.

Work environment

The work environment for a CEO is typically high-pressure and demands a wide array of technical and interpersonal skills. They usually work in corporate settings, whether in a busy city office or a remote digital workspace. While the ambiance may vary by industry and company size, the constant factors are the level of intensity and the need for quick yet thoughtful decision-making.

Internal and external meetings, frequent travel, and high-level negotiations are common elements in their work life. Adaptability to different cultures and business practices is often required, especially when the company operates globally.

Typical work hours

The work hours for a CEO are anything but typical. Given the overarching responsibilities and high stakes associated with the role, they often find themselves working far beyond the standard 40-hour workweek. Nights, weekends, and even holidays are not off-limits when urgent matters arise or crucial deadlines approach.

Additionally, the need for availability across multiple time zones can further extend their working hours. Despite the lack of a conventional schedule, effective time management and delegation are essential skills for maintaining some form of work-life balance.

How to become a chief executive officer

Becoming a CEO involves acquiring the necessary education, experience, and leadership skills. This career guide section covers the steps you need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business administration, finance, economics, or a related field. A solid educational background in these areas will provide the foundational knowledge to understand business operations, financial management, and strategic planning.

Step 2: Gain relevant work experience

Experience in various aspects of business, such as sales, marketing, finance, or operations, is essential for becoming a chief executive. Work your way up through different positions within a company, taking on roles with increasing levels of responsibility. This experience will help you develop a well-rounded understanding of the company and leadership skills.

Step 3: Develop strong leadership and management skills

CEOs must be skilled at leading and managing people, setting strategic direction, and making critical decisions. Developing strong leadership and management skills is vital for success in this role. Seek opportunities to lead teams, manage projects, and make decisions that affect the company’s direction.

Step 4: Obtain a master’s degree or MBA (optional)

While only sometimes required, some employers may prefer candidates with an advanced degree in business administration or a related field. A master of business administration (MBA) or similar degree can provide advanced knowledge in areas such as strategy, finance, marketing, and operations, enhancing career prospects.

Step 5: Develop strong communication and interpersonal skills

These executives must communicate effectively with employees, shareholders, board members, and other stakeholders. Strong verbal and written communication skills, active listening, and empathy are essential for success.

Here are some options available for developing these skills:

Step 6: Build a strong professional network

Building a robust professional network is crucial. Establish connections with industry leaders, colleagues, and mentors who can provide valuable advice, support, and opportunities for career advancement. Attend industry conferences, networking events, and join professional organizations to expand your network and stay informed about new developments in the field.

Step 7: Gain experience in executive roles

Before becoming a CEO, gaining experience in executive roles, such as chief operating officer (COO), chief financial officer (CFO), or other C-suite positions, is critical. These roles allow you to develop the necessary skills and experience to lead an organization effectively.

Step 8: Pursue CEO positions

With the necessary education, experience, and skills, it is time to apply for chief executive positions. Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight relevant qualifications and accomplishments in executive roles and other leadership positions. During interviews, be prepared to discuss your strategic vision, leadership style, and ability to drive business success.

Step 9: Pursue professional development opportunities (optional)

Participating in professional development opportunities, such as workshops, seminars, or online courses, can help enhance skills and stay up-to-date with industry trends and best practices. Additionally, consider joining professional organizations or executive leadership groups to expand your network and stay informed about new developments in the field.

How much do chief executive officers make?

The compensation of a CEO can vary greatly depending on many factors. Larger organizations generally pay significantly more than smaller firms. Similarly, the industry in which the company operates can substantially influence salary. Top technology, finance, and healthcare executives typically earn more due to these industries’ complexity and high profitability.

Additionally, the financial performance of the organization and its market capitalization can impact compensation, with bonuses and stock options often tied to company performance metrics.

Geographical location can also play a role. For example, jobs in major metropolitan areas with a high cost of living and increased business activity, such as New York or San Francisco, often earn pay than those in smaller markets.

Highest paying industries

  • Finance: $235,070
  • Computer Manufacturing: $208,000
  • Aerospace Manufacturing: $208,000
  • Monetary Authorities: $208,000
  • Advertising: $208,000

Highest paying states

  • District of Columbia: $231,525
  • South Dakota: $227,720
  • New York: $220,040
  • Florida: $219,210
  • New Jersey: $217,640

Browse CEO salary data by market

Types of chief executive officers

Depending on the industry, the size of the company, and the nature of its business, the role can vary significantly. This career guide section will explore the different types and specializations of CEOs.

Startup CEO

Startup CEOs lead new businesses still in the early stages of their development. They often deal with challenges such as raising capital, building a team, defining a market strategy, and steering the company toward growth. The role includes wearing many hats and getting involved in different aspects of the business.

Nonprofit CEO

Nonprofits aim to impact society rather than focusing solely on profits. CEOs must often balance the organization’s mission and fiscal responsibility while maintaining solid relationships with donors, volunteers, and the communities they serve.

Corporate CEO

Corporate CEOs manage large, often multinational, corporations. Their role includes significant communication with stakeholders, such as working closely with other top executives and the board of directors to set the corporation’s strategic direction and ensure its financial performance. 

Small business CEO

Small businesses typically have few employees and a relatively low sales volume. These businesses are usually beyond the startup phase but require a hands-on approach. Chief executives for small companies focus on sales growth, team management, and business stability.

Healthcare CEO

Healthcare CEOs oversee hospitals, health systems, or other healthcare organizations. They must navigate a complex industry with significant regulation, rapid technological change, and critical patient care and safety issues.

Tech industry CEO

The tech industry is fast-paced, changes often, and includes unique challenges such as managing intellectual property. The role involves fostering innovation, managing rapid growth, and navigating the competitive tech landscape. 

Top skills for chief executive officers

The chief executive role involves making major corporate decisions and setting strategic direction. They must embody strategic visioning, leadership and management skills, decision-making abilities, and exceptional communication skills to lead effectively. Successful CEOs can navigate the company through changing business environments, inspire their teams, make sound decisions, and maintain robust relationships with various stakeholders.

A strategic mindset is needed to envision the company’s future and chart a course toward it, which requires understanding market trends, identifying opportunities and threats, and aligning the company’s operations and resources with its strategic goals. 

CEOs lead the organization and set its culture, values, and behavior. Their leadership skills and style can significantly influence employee motivation, productivity, and retention. Solid leadership skills are needed to manage resources effectively, balance different stakeholders’ needs, and ensure the company’s financial health.

Chief executives often face complex decisions that can significantly affect their company. They must be able to evaluate different options, consider potential impacts, and make informed decisions even in uncertain conditions. Strong decision-making abilities can help these professionals steer the company through challenges, seize opportunities, and mitigate risks.

Exceptional communication skills are a must to articulate their vision clearly, motivate and inspire teams, and build strong relationships with various stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors, and the media. Effective communication can foster a shared understanding of the company’s goals, enhance collaboration, and boost morale. It also aids in managing change, addressing concerns, and preserving the company’s reputation.

Chief executive officer career path

The career path to becoming a CEO starts with a foundational role in a business-related field. Positions could be in sales, marketing, operations, finance, or even engineering, depending on the industry. This early career stage is crucial for understanding how different business functions operate and contributing to organizational success.

As they gain experience and demonstrate leadership skills, individuals might progress to managerial roles overseeing teams and contributing to strategic planning. Typical positions include a department manager, product manager, or even a regional manager, depending on the size and structure of the organization.

Progression to senior management or executive roles such as vice president (VP) or director is possible with solid performance and demonstrated business acumen. In these roles, individuals are usually responsible for the strategy and performance of significant portions of the organization.

Leadership and management skills are essential CEOs to motivate their teams, create a productive atmosphere, and achieve organizational objectives. They should be adept at managing resources such as budgets, personnel, and technology while creating an environment that encourages innovation. With strong interpersonal communication skills, they can foster collaboration among team members and build relationships with external stakeholders., or other executive roles. These positions involve overseeing large segments of the organization and directly contributing to overall corporate strategy.

Finally, with extensive leadership experience, proven success in previous roles, and a deep understanding of the business and its industry, an individual may be promoted or appointed to the chief executive position. Responsibilities include setting the strategic direction of the entire organization, making high-level decisions, and ensuring the company meets its goals.

One notable trend is the expectation to actively engage with broader stakeholders beyond the traditional focus on shareholders. This interaction includes employees, customers, communities, and society, reflecting a shift toward a more holistic understanding of corporate success.

Another critical trend is the growing importance of digital transformation. Today’s top executive needs to understand and leverage digital technologies to improve business operations, innovate product and service offerings, and enhance customer experiences. They must lead the organization through digital change management and foster a culture of continuous learning and innovation.

Additionally, as sustainability concerns become prevalent, CEOs are increasingly tasked with leading their organizations toward environmentally and socially responsible business practices.

Employment projections for CEOs

While specific employment projections for CEOs are unavailable from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics , they fall under the “Top Executives” category. This group is projected to see a 6% growth in employment through 2031. However, the CEO role is typically at the pinnacle of the corporate ladder, and competition for these positions is often robust. Individuals with a proven track record of effective leadership, including overseeing digital transformation and promoting DEI and sustainability, will likely have the best opportunities.

Chief executive officer career tips

Understand your business inside and out

A CEO needs a comprehensive understanding of all facets of the business, from its operations and financials to its customers and market environment. This broad knowledge base allows them to make informed decisions, drive strategic planning, and guide the organization toward its goals.

Foster a strong company culture

Culture plays a significant role in employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. They have the unique power to shape an organization’s culture. Foster a culture that aligns with the company’s values, encourages teamwork and innovation, and promotes employee growth and well-being.

Be an effective communicator

Communication is a critical skill for any chief executive. They must relay the vision, strategies, and expectations to the team, board of directors, shareholders, and other stakeholders. Effective communication can facilitate alignment, engagement, and collaboration.

Develop strong leadership skills

These professionals don’t just manage businesses; they lead teams. Success involves inspiring and motivating teams, making tough decisions, and leading by example. The best are humble and willing to listen and learn from others, including their employees.

Continuous learning

The business world is constantly evolving. Staying updated and continuously enhancing knowledge and skills is essential. Some ways to do this include:

  • Reading books and articles about leadership, management, and your industry
  • Attending executive education programs or leadership seminars
  • Networking with other top executives and business leaders to learn from their experiences and insights

Build a professional network

Professional networking can offer valuable opportunities for learning, collaboration, and business development. Some professional associations and networks include:

  • Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO)
  • Vistage
  • The Chief Executive Network (CEN)

Practice strategic thinking

CEOs are responsible for setting the strategic direction of the company. The role requires thinking long-term, analyzing market trends and business data, and identifying opportunities and threats. Strategic thinking can guide decision-making, ensure a company’s growth and sustainability, and help navigate uncertainties and challenges.

Prioritize corporate social responsibility

In today’s business environment, many companies focus on generating profits while contributing positively to society and the environment. As a chief executive, it’s crucial to prioritize corporate social responsibility. Initiatives can include implementing sustainable practices, promoting diversity and inclusion, or contributing to community development.

Where the CEO jobs are

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts

Top industries

  • Technology
  • Financial Services
  • Healthcare
  • Retail
  • Consulting

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • Indeed
  • ExecuNet
  • Ladders


What qualifications are typically required for a CEO role?

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a CEO, the journey typically includes a blend of education, substantial experience, and relevant skills. A solid foundation in business, finance, or a related field is common, often supplemented with a MBA or similar advanced degree. It’s not unusual for future executives to ascend through the ranks of an organization, accruing leadership experience and industry knowledge along the way. Additionally, mentorships, networking, and executive leadership programs can provide valuable stepping stones toward this top-tier role.

What are the essential skills for a chief executive officer?

The role of a chief executive officer requires a diverse set of skills, such as leadership, strategic thinking, decision-making, and effective communication. They must also possess financial acumen to understand and oversee the company’s financial health. People management, crisis management, and understanding of the industry in which the company operates are also crucial. Lastly, adaptability to change and resilience in the face of adversity are essential qualities for a successful chief executive.

What are the typical duties of a CEO?

As the highest-ranking executive, a CEO is responsible for making major corporate decisions and setting the company’s strategic direction. They often serve as the organization’s public face, representing it to employees, customers, investors, and the media. In many organizations, the role also involves overseeing other executives and working closely with the board of directors.

What is the role of a CEO in shaping corporate culture?

CEOs play a pivotal role in corporate culture, and their leadership style, values, and behavior set the tone for the rest of the organization. They can shape culture by communicating a clear vision and values, setting expectations for behavior, recognizing and rewarding desired behavior, and leading by example.

How does a CEO contribute to business strategy?

A CEO is typically the leading architect of business strategy. They work with other executives and the board of directors to set the organization’s strategic direction and make critical decisions about achieving its objectives. These decisions may include which markets to enter, what products or services to offer, and how to compete effectively.

What’s the difference between a chief executive officer and a president in a company?

The roles of the CEO and president vary depending on the organization’s structure. In some companies, they are the highest-ranking executive, while the president is second in command. The titles are interchangeable in other companies, or one person holds both. Usually, they set the strategy for operations, and the president handles day-to-day management.

What challenges might a CEO face?

CEOs deal with many challenges, from driving the company’s growth and maintaining its financial performance to creating a nurturing organizational culture. They must continually scan and adapt to market trends, manage crises, uphold ethical standards, and balance stakeholder interests. Simultaneously, maintaining a sustainable work-life balance can be a significant personal challenge.

How does a CEO collaborate with the board of directors?

Shareholders elect a board of directors to oversee the company’s management and protect its interests. CEOs report the company’s performance, strategic direction, and issues to the board. They also work with the board to develop the strategies they implement.   

What role does a chief executive officer play in stakeholder relations?

A CEO manages relations with various stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, and the community. They may engage directly with stakeholders, communicate the organization’s vision and strategy, and address concerns or issues. Responsibilities include ensuring the organization’s practices and policies reflect its commitment to stakeholders.

What opportunities for advancement are there for a CEO?

As the highest-ranking executive, vertical advancement may be limited. CEOs might pivot to lead larger organizations or take on additional roles such as board chairperson. Options also exist in public service or academia. Some leverage their expertise to become consultants or advisors.