How to Become a CEO

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With a good education, the right skill set, and years of working experience, you can become a chief executive officer (CEO) at a business or organization. CEOs exist in all industries, from healthcare and finance to technology, so your first step will be choosing which field is the best fit for you. Then, you can orient your education and work experience around that niche, picking up important skills and making professional connections along the way.

If you’re wondering how to become a CEO, start by understanding the common qualifications and responsibilities associated with the role, then look at the typical career paths individuals take to get there.

What is a CEO?

CEO is the highest ranking position at a business or organization. The role involves overseeing all operations and resources, developing growth strategies, and approving major decisions.
Responsibilities vary depending on the size of the organization. For instance, the CEO of a start-up could work on day-to-day operational tasks and projects. Conversely, the CEO of a large corporation might delegate such responsibilities to other managers so that they can focus on developing high-level strategies.

What skills does a CEO need?

As the highest-ranking and often highest-paid employee at a business, your decisions will have a direct impact on your company’s success or failure. Therefore, you have to handle pressure well.

Many of the necessary skills for effective management can be acquired through education. In undergraduate and master’s degree programs, you can focus on learning how to run a business. Courses can cover everything from raising capital and developing service offerings to managing teams.

Though, there are specific skills that you can only learn by working your way up the corporate ladder. Every CEO is savvy in the field they work in, whether it’s marketing, banking, or electrical engineering. But they didn’t start their careers as experts. Rather, they picked up those skills by gaining experience in their respective fields, working through problems, collaborating with others, and learning from failure.

Regardless of the industry you select, there are certain soft skills that every successful CEO possesses:

  • Communication: In order for operations to run smoothly, CEOs need to get their messages across clearly and confidently.
  • Problem solving: Cutting costs, increasing customer retention, and finding new talent are common challenges faced by CEOs.
  • Collaboration: All departments report to the CEO, so being able to work in teams is an important part of the job.
  • Transparency: CEOs increase productivity by being realistic and efficient with their directions.
  • Empathy: To be good leaders, CEOs must understanding the thoughts, struggles, and motivations of their employees.

How much do CEOs get paid?

The significant amount of pressure and responsibility associated with the CEO role does not come without significant rewards. CEOs are well compensated. While some earn more than others, depending on their industry, experience, and location, generally all CEOs earn large annual salaries. They also enjoy bonuses, commissions, and profit sharing.

According to CNBC, the average salary for a CEO is 271 times higher than the typical pay for workers across the U.S. Many of the world’s highest paid CEOs are in the technology space, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Looking at the averages, PayScale reported that most CEOs make around $100,000 in their first year. After ten years on the job, the average annual salary moves up to around $160,000. The highest paid CEOs in the country live in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago, earning salaries that are 25% more than the national average.

How to become a CEO

Your journey to the corner office will depend on a variety of factors, such as your education and work background. While some individuals become a CEO by simply starting their own company, like Zuckerberg, the more traditional route involves years of studying and working in a particular field.

Even though everyone’s career path is different, we can look at statistics to get a clearer picture of how one gets to being at the C-level. Put yourself on the path to becoming a CEO by working toward these milestones:

Get your bachelor’s degree

To start a career in business, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Many recruiters won’t even consider you for entry-level positions without one. You should choose a major that relates to the field you want to enter. If you know you want to work in technology, you could start picking up coding skills by majoring in computer science. If you see yourself going into finance, you could start learning about how markets work by studying economics.

According to Forbes, the most common majors among Fortune 100 CEOs were business and engineering. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, got his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering. Completing your bachelor’s degree will establish a foundation of knowledge, preparing you for jobs that will give you the experience necessary to become an expert in the field and gradually move up the ranks of an organization.

Start working

Once you receive your bachelor’s degree, it’s time to start applying for entry-level jobs and internships. There are many different approaches to consider, from reaching out to recruiters on LinkedIn and filling out applications on company websites to showing up at job fairs. It’s important to make sure your resume is strong, highlighting any technical skills and personal accomplishments. This includes your degree and any academic distinctions you may have earned.

When you find your first job post graduation, make the most out of the experience, even if you plan on switching jobs in the future. Work hard, ask questions, welcome constructive criticism, and build relationships with your coworkers. Establishing positive professional connections early on can turn out to be very beneficial later in your career. If you have a reputation for dedication, organization, professionalism, and kindness on the job, you will increase your chances of being hired or promoted when the opportunity comes up.

Consider these common entry-level jobs where current CEOs began their careers:

  • Software engineer
  • Consultant
  • Analyst
  • Project manager
  • Account manager

Get your master’s degree

After working for years in one or several different positions, many people decide to pursue a higher level of education. Gaining work experience will help you determine which specific career path you prefer, so you can focus your studies more efficiently. While it’s not a requirement for aspiring CEOs across all businesses and organizations, acquiring a master’s degree can help you increase your chances of securing promotions.

Perhaps you get your first job working in marketing, but after a few years decide that you are a better fit for technology. Or, perhaps you want to stick with marketing, but in order to get promoted beyond a certain point, you need a master’s degree. Either way, completing a graduate program will help qualify you for C-level positions in your desired field. Over half of the Fortune 100 CEOs have master’s degrees.

Northeastern University’s Online MBA Program

The D’Amore-McKim School of Business Online MBA program will help you develop the tools necessary to become a successful CEO. The program offers the flexibility to continue working while also completing coursework in as few as two years. Your courses will be determined by which concentration you select out of eight being offered, whether that’s finance, healthcare management, or innovation entrepreneurship.

For example, if you want to learn how to become a CEO in the supply chain space, Northeastern has the perfect program for you. The curriculum covers supply chain operation management, strategic sourcing, and the various transportation industries. Also, you will have the option of pursuing a degree with a dual concentration. If you are interested in finance, but also enjoy working in sustainability, you can customize your program to include classes from each.

No matter which concentration you choose, there will be a heavy focus on experience-based learning. Your classes will be taught by experts with a history of working in that particular field. They will help expand your fundamental knowledge of business and provide guidance about adding value to an organization.

You can learn more about Northeastern University’s Online MBA Program by speaking with an enrollment advisor.


Recommended Reading

5 Steps to a Career in Management Consulting

Learn How Much You Can Make with an MBA

Northeartern Online MBA Program



New CEO Study: The Undergraduate Degrees Of Fortune 100 CEOs – Forbes

The Highest Paid CEOs – Investopedia

Average CEO Salaries – PayScale

The 10 Most Common First Jobs Held By CEOs – CNBC