What C-Level Executives Do
C-Level executives, or those with titles such as CEO, COO, and CFO, hold the highest positions within organizations. They’re the strategic visionaries behind both for-profit and non-profit organizations, helping create new goals, establishing plans to reach objectives, and ensuring regulatory compliance.
Although C-Level executives sit at the top of their organizations, they cannot act with impunity, as they’re not only appointed by a board of directors who represent shareholders, but must also answer to them if their actions, methods, or results are called into question.
There is a variety of C-Level executive titles with numerous areas of concentration, each answering to the CEO, or Chief Executive Officer. However, even decisions made by the CEO can be overruled by the board. It’s also worth noting that C-Level execs can sit on the board of directors, though it’s more common for this to happen with smaller companies.
Traditionally, the executive team and the board are separate entities to ensure that personal loyalties don’t prevent either side from making decision in the best interest of the organization. Though there are dozens of c-suite titles, a few of the most common are outlined below.
Common C-Level Executive Titles
Chief Executive Officer (CEO): The CEO leads the other executives, manages operations and resources, makes all major decisions for the organization, and is the main point of contact between the board of directors and organization.
Chief Operating Officer (COO): The COO is second in command and often has duties which mirror some of what the CEO does, such as overseeing daily operations.
Chief Financial Officer (CFO): The CFO is responsible for financial reporting and creating financial forecasts as well as identifying how the organization can improve its financial outlook. The CFO may work alongside a Chief Accounting Officer (CAO) who is responsible for ensuring books stay balanced and processes are being followed.
Chief Marketing Officer (CMO): The CMO researches consumer behavior and identifies ways the organization can influence people to buy, donate, or take some other action. This typically goes beyond advertising methods and may overlap some with other areas of the organization, such as product development. Some organizations also have a Chief Branding Officer who is responsible for ensuring the company’s image is maintained across all channels and implementing plans to reframe a brand’ image as needed. Others may add on a Chief Customer Officer as well. This role is dedicated to keeping customers happy and loyal.
Chief Information Officer (CIO): The CIO identifies ways technology and information can be leveraged to benefit the organization, then creates and implements strategies to support the overall business goals. Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) may also be involved in leveraging technology.
Chief Development Officer (CDO): A chief development officer helps the company grow through adding new products or reaching new markets. Organizations may also employ a Chief Business Development Officer or Head of Corporate Development who designs and implements business plans related to growth, often including mergers and acquisitions.
Chief Risk Officer (CRO) or Chief Risk Management Officer (CRMO): A CRO monitors for potential regulatory, competitive, and technological threats to the organization and identifies ways to mitigate them.
Who would enjoy a career in C-Level Executive?
C-Level execs must possess a wide variety of skills, with tenacity and resilience being among the strongest because individuals who make it into these positions work at it their whole lives. People who do well in the positions are strategic thinkers, visionaries, and have the organizational skills as well as stamina to see their concepts through.
They’re naturally adept leaders, excellent communicators, and know how to present ideas in a way that gets buy-in from everyone from the board through other execs and employees. Now more than ever, organizations also look for leaders with integrity; those with great reputations and a track record for doing what’s right. Lastly, executives must be experts in the area they oversee, whether it be marketing, finance, or any other area.
Who mightn't like the career?
Being a C-Level executive often comes with many perks, such as a high salary, travel, and prestige, but it also comes with much responsibility and stress. If an organization is found to be engaging in unethical practices, the executives can face serious legal consequences, including imprisonment and fines.
For this reason, those who aim for this path must manage stress well, be wholly committed to ethical behavior, and be able to delegate tasks effectively, so as not to become overwhelmed.
An MBA is the most commonly held degree by C-Level executives, most often from an elite or Ivy League school. People with economics and accounting degrees help round out the top 60% of execs. Those with engineering, law, and science-related degrees also make it into C-Level executive positions, but other areas of study are incredibly rare.
According to research presented by Forbes, the best path for someone hoping to make CEO is to start with an engineering degree, then return to school for an MBA, work for prestigious consultancy, and find a pathway into a company one wishes to lead. Networking, such as through college networks and fraternities, also helps CEO hopefuls build contacts and reputation, which may improve job prospects later. While it’s technically possible for someone to get into a C-Level position without this type of background, few do so without forming their own companies and giving themselves the executive title.
Interviewees should be prepared to provide in-depth details about their area of expertise, including examples of strategies they’ve implemented, concepts they’ve developed, and results they’ve achieved. Performing research on the organization, its goals, and the interviewers will make it easier to present oneself as the ideal candidate as well. Because these roles are leadership-oriented, individuals should also be prepared to ask their own questions to ensure their personal philosophies and goals are a good fit for the organization.
- The 5 Questions C-Level Candidates Should Ask In An Interview
- Prepare to Ace & Brand Your C-Level Executive Job Interview
- Executive Interviews: Ten Questions You Will Be Asked
Moving into C-Level Executive from another career
Working as a consultant may be beneficial, as it gives individuals exposure to many organizations and their challenges as well as ample opportunity to strategize and overcome challenges. However, because there are many C-Level positions, each covering a different area of expertise, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of careers that could serve as a pathway to an executive role.
CEO / C-Level Career Path
There isn’t a single career path for C-Level executives. While Forbes suggests the path to CEO is through and MBA and consulting work, research presented by the New York Times also notes that working in four different corporate functions, such as sales or product management, could be as effective as having an MBA from a top school. Some individuals also work their way up within a niche, starting with entry-level roles, progressing into management, then taking a director role, and finally a VP position before landing an executive role in their chosen field. However, those who do work their way up in this manner are relatively rare.
Executives may travel frequently for business, depending on the nature of the organisation they are overseeing.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO): According to data from PayScale, CEOs have average salaries of USD $160,000 in the United States, £90,000 in the United Kingdom, CAD$147,000 in Canada, and AU$164,000 in Australia.
Chief Operating Officer (COO): USD $135,000, £82,000, CAD$130,000, and AU$161,000.
Chief Financial Officer (CFO): USD $197,000, £98,000, CAD$134,000, and AU$157,000.
Chief Marketing Officer (CMO): USD $160,000, £113,000, CAD$143,000, and AU$198,000.
Chief Information Officer (CIO): USD $152,000, £96,000, CAD$144,000, and AU$193,000.
Chief Development Officer (CDO): USD $73,000, £24,000, CAD$65,000, and AU$63,000.
Chief Risk Officer (CRO) or Chief Risk Management Officer (CRMO): USD $152,000, £128,000, and AU$178,000. (CA salary not available.)
Bonuses, profit sharing, and commission can each add six figures onto an executive’s salary.
Why C-Level Executives move on
Most executives only hold their positions for a few years, either by choice or because the board votes them out. Those who have a serious thirst for leading organizations tend to be highly sought after, with new organizations courting them before they’ve given any indication they’re considering leaving their post.
These individuals often shift from one company to the next, clearing out issues and moving onto the next big challenge before the position has a chance to become stale. However, those who are asked to leave and those who get burned out by the constant demands can move to the non-profit sector for the emotional rewards or take non-leadership positions in a field they genuinely enjoy, simply for the fun of it. For further reading, see: “Second Acts: Career Paths For Worn-Out Executives” and “Contemplating Life After Being CEO.”