Top Executives

Career, Salary and Education Information

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    Job Description Education

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What Top Executives Do[About this section] [To Top]

Top executives devise strategies and policies to ensure that an organization meets its goals. They plan, direct, and coordinate operational activities of companies and organizations.

Duties of Top Executives

Top executives 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 responsibilities of top executives 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, however, top executives typically focus more on formulating policies and strategic planning, while general and operations managers direct day-to-day operations.

The following are examples of types of top executives working in the private sector:

Chief executive officers (CEOs), who are also known by titles such as executive director, managing director, or president, provide overall direction for companies and organizations. CEOs manage company operations, formulate and implement 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 operating officers (COOs) 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.

General and operations managers oversee operations that are too diverse and general to be classified into one area of management or administration. Responsibilities may include formulating policies, managing daily operations, and planning the use of materials and human resources. They make staff schedules, assign work, and ensure that projects are completed. In some organizations, the tasks of chief executive officers may overlap with those of general and operations managers.

The following are examples of types of top executives working in the public sector:

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

Most educational systems, regardless of whether they are public or private school systems, also employ executive officers. The following are examples of top executives working in the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary educational school systems:

School superintendents and college or university presidents are chief executive officers of school districts and postsecondary schools. They manage issues such as student achievement, budgets and resources, general operations, and relations with government agencies and other stakeholders.

Work Environment for Top Executives[About this section] [To Top]

Top executives hold about 2.5 million jobs. General and operations managers hold about 2.1 million of these jobs while chief executives hold about 343,400 jobs.

Top executives work in nearly every industry. They work for both large and small businesses, ranging from companies in which they are the sole employee to firms with thousands of employees.

Top executives of large organizations typically have large offices and numerous support staff. However, the work of top executives is often stressful because they are under intense pressure to succeed. Executives in charge of poorly performing organizations or departments may find their jobs in jeopardy.

Top executives frequently travel to attend meetings and conferences or to visit their company’s local, regional, national, and international offices.

Top Executive Work Schedules

Top executives often work many hours, including evenings and weekends. About half work more than 40 hours per week.

How to Become a Top Executive[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Top Executives near you!

Although education and training requirements vary widely by position and industry, many top executives have at least a bachelor’s degree and a considerable amount of work experience.

Top Executive Education

Many top executives have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in business administration or in an area related to their field of work. Top executives in the public sector often have a degree in business administration, public administration, law, or the liberal arts. Top executives of large corporations often have a master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

College presidents and school superintendents are typically required to have a master’s degree, although a doctorate is often preferred.

Although many mayors, governors, or other public sector executives have at least a bachelor’s degree, these positions typically do not have any specific education requirements.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many top executives advance within their own firm, moving up from lower level managerial or supervisory positions. However, other companies may prefer to hire qualified candidates from outside their organization. Top executives who are promoted from lower level positions may be able to substitute experience for education to move up in the company. For example, in industries such as retail trade or transportation, workers without a college degree may work their way up to higher levels within the company to become executives or general managers.

Chief executives typically need extensive managerial experience. Executives are also expected to have experience in the organization’s area of specialty. Most general and operations managers hired from outside an organization need lower level supervisory or management experience in a related field.

Some general managers advance to higher level managerial or executive positions. Company training programs, executive development programs, and certification can often benefit managers or executives hoping to advance.

Important Qualities for Top Executives

Communication skills. Top 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.

Decisionmaking skills. Top executives need decisionmaking skills when setting policies and managing an organization. They must assess different options and choose the best course of action, often daily.

Leadership skills. Top executives must be able to lead an organization successfully by coordinating policies, people, and resources.

Management skills. Top executives must shape and direct the operations of an organization. For example, they must manage business plans, employees, and budgets.

Problem-solving skills. Top executives need to identify and resolve issues within an organization. They must be able to recognize shortcomings and effectively carry out solutions.

Time-management skills. Top executives do many tasks at the same time, typically under their own direction, to ensure that their work gets done and that they meet their goals.

Top Executive Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for chief executives is $175,110. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $68,600, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

The median annual wage for general and operations managers is $97,730. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,190, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

Because the responsibilities of general and operations managers vary significantly among industries, earnings also tend to vary considerably.

Top executives are among the highest paid workers in the United States. However, salary levels can vary substantially. For example, a top manager in a large corporation can earn significantly more than the mayor of a small town.

In addition to salaries, total compensation for corporate executives often includes stock options and other performance bonuses. They also may enjoy benefits, such as access to expense allowances, use of company-owned aircraft and cars, club memberships, and company-paid insurance premiums. Nonprofit and government executives usually receive fewer of these types of benefits.

Top executives often work many hours, including evenings and weekends. About half work more than 40 hours per week.

Job Outlook for Top Executives[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of top executives is projected to grow 6 percent over the next ten years, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment growth will vary widely by industry and is largely dependent on the rate of industry growth.

Top executives are essential for running companies and organizations and their work is central to the success of a company.

Generally, employment growth will be driven by the formation of new organizations and expansion of existing ones, which will require more managers and executives to direct these operations.

However, the rate of new firm creation has slowed over the past few years, with economic activity and employment becoming increasingly concentrated in larger, more mature companies. Younger Americans who came of age during the Great Recession are characterized by an aversion to financial risk. As they reach the peak age of entrepreneurship over the next decade, new firm creation may continue to slow. This may negatively affect the demand for chief executives.

Top Executives Job Prospects

Top executives are expected to face very strong competition for jobs. The high pay and prestige associated with these positions attract many qualified applicants.

For chief executives, those with an advanced degree and extensive managerial experience will have the best job prospects.

For general and operations managers, education requirements vary by industry, but candidates who can demonstrate strong leadership abilities and experience getting positive results will have better job opportunities.

Employment projections data for Top Executives, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Top executives 2,525,900 2,672,500 6 146,600
  Chief executives 343,400 339,400 -1 -4,100
  General and operations managers 2,124,100 2,275,200 7 151,100

*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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