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What is a Chief Executive?

Also known as: President, Executive Director, Managing Director, Executive.

A chief executive is someone who devises strategies and policies to ensure that an organization meets its goals. They plan, direct, and coordinate operational activities of companies and public or private-sector organizations. Top executives work in nearly every industry. They work for both large and small organizations, ranging from one-person businesses to firms with thousands of employees. The job can be very stressful, and top executives often work long hours.

What does a Chief Executive do?

The responsibilities of a chief executive largely depend on an organization’s size. For example, an owner or manager of a small organization, such as an independent retail store, often is responsible for purchasing, hiring, training, quality control, and day-to-day supervisory duties. In large organizations, on the other hand, top executives typically focus more on formulating policies and strategic planning, while general and operations managers direct day-to-day operations.

A chief executive will typically do the following:

  • Establish and carry out departmental or organizational goals, policies, and procedures
  • Direct and oversee an organization’s financial and budgetary activities
  • Manage general activities related to making products and providing services
  • Consult with other executives, staff, and board members about general operations
  • Negotiate or approve contracts and agreements
  • Appoint department heads and managers
  • Analyze financial statements, sales reports, and other performance indicators
  • Identify places to cut costs and to improve performance, policies, and programs

The following are examples of common types of chief executives:

Chief Executive Officers (CEO) - who are also known by titles such as executive director, president, and vice president, provide overall direction for companies and organizations. CEOs manage company operations, formulate policies, and ensure goals are met. They collaborate with and direct the work of other top executives and typically report to a board of directors.

Chief Financial Officers (CFO) - are accountable for the accuracy of a company’s or organization’s financial reporting, especially among publicly traded companies. They direct the organization’s financial goals, objectives, and budgets. For example, they may oversee the investment of funds and manage associated risks.

Chief Information Officers (CIO)
- are responsible for the overall technological direction of an organization, which includes managing the information technology and computer systems. They organize and supervise information-technology-related workers, projects, and policies.

Chief Operating Officers (COO)
- oversee other executives who direct the activities of various departments, such as human resources and sales. They also carry out the organization’s guidelines on a day-to-day basis.

Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO)
- address sustainability issues by enacting or overseeing a corporate sustainability strategy. For instance, they may manage programs and policies relating to environmental issues and ensure that the organization complies with environmental or other government regulations.

- along with governors, city managers, and county administrators, are the chief executives of governments. They typically oversee budgets, programs, and uses of resources. Mayors and governors must be elected to office, and managers and administrators typically are appointed.

School Superintendents
- and college or university presidents are the chief executives of school districts and postsecondary schools. In addition to overseeing operations, they also manage issues, such as student achievement, budgets and resources, and relations with government agencies and other stakeholders.

What is the workplace of a Chief Executive like?

Chief executives work in nearly every industry. They work for both large and small businesses, ranging from one-person businesses to firms with thousands of employees. Chief executives of large organizations typically have large offices and numerous support staff. The work is often stressful, because they are under intense pressure to succeed.

Chief executives may travel a lot to attend meetings and conferences or to visit their company’s local, regional, national, and international offices. In large organizations, they may occasionally transfer jobs, moving between local offices or subsidiaries.

How can I become a Chief Executive?

Although education and training vary widely by position and industry, many chief executives have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in business administration or in an area related to their field of work, as well as a considerable amount of work experience. College presidents and school superintendents typically have a doctoral degree in the field in which they originally taught or in education administration. Chief executives in the public sector often have a degree in business administration, public administration, law, or the liberal arts. Chief executives of large corporations often have a Master of Business Administration (MBA degree).

A chief executive who is promoted from lower level managerial or supervisory positions within their own firm often can substitute experience for education. In industries such as retail trade or transportation, for example, people without a college degree may work their way up to higher levels within the company and become executives or general managers.

Chief executives must be able to communicate clearly and persuasively. They must effectively discuss issues and negotiate with others, direct subordinates, and explain their policies and decisions to those within and outside the organization. Chief executives also need decision-making skills when setting policies and managing an organization. They must assess different options and choose the best course of action, often daily. They must be able to lead a successful organization by coordinating policies, people, and resources.



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Further Reading

  • How Much Does The Average CEO Really Earn?

    Hint: it’s a lot less than what mainstream media reports imply.

  • A Day In The Life Of A CEO Who's Crushing It

    As a rule, there aren’t many of them: those fast-thinking, hyper-successful CEOs that have their companies on the move, setting strategy for the short term and the long haul, always ready with an all-important pivot, keeping investors happy in one room, developing radical new tactics with a visionary’s confidence in the next, all the while holding competition at bay.

  • How To Get To The Top

    New research reveals the most popular routes into the executive suite.

  • Stages To Becoming An Executive

    There is no single formula to follow to become an executive at small or large companies. People who become executives often go through similar stages that involve acquiring the education, training and experience needed to do their jobs. The positions that aspirants take as they pass through those stages can affect how long it takes them to reach the executive level.

  • What Kind Of Degree Do You Need To Be A Business Executive?

    Business executives need a wide variety of skills to perform their jobs, but the route to becoming an executive can take a wide variety of paths.

  • Are You Executive Level Material? 10 Tips To Be More Promotable

    Any successful executive will tell you that there's a game in business. If you're not willing to play the game, you can't win at it. So while many people aspire to reach the executive level in their company, they won't.

  • The Path To Becoming A CEO

    How does one become a chief executive officer (CEO)? Is there a certain blueprint to follow in order to attain this prestigious title? What professional and personal traits are necessary for the position?

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