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.            


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:

Chief executive officers (CEOs), 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.

Companies may also have chief officers who lead various departments or focus on specific areas of work:

  • Chief financial officers (CFOs) 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 (CIOs) are responsible for the overall technological direction of an organization, which includes managing information technology and computer systems. They organize and supervise information-technology-related workers, projects, and policies.
  • 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.
  • Chief sustainability officers oversee a corporation’s environmental programs. For instance, they may manage programs and policies to ensure that the organization complies with environmental or other government regulations.

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. 

School superintendents and college oruniversity 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.

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.

Work Environment

Top executives held about 2.3 million jobs in 2012. About 86 percent of those jobs were held by general and operations managers and 14 percent were held by chief executives.

Top executives work in nearly every industry. They work for both large and small businesses, ranging from one-person companies 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.

Work Schedules

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

Top executives often work long hours, including evenings and weekends. In 2012, about half worked more than 40 hours per week.

Education and Training

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. 


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 of business administration (MBA). College presidents and school superintendents typically have a doctoral degree in the field in which they originally taught or in education administration.                   

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 that 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. Chief executive officers often become a member of the board of directors.  

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Top executives may complete a certification program through the Institute of Certified Professional Managers to earn the Certified Manager (CM) credential. To become a CM, candidates must meet education and experience requirements and pass three exams.

Although not mandatory, certification can show management competency and potential leadership skills. Certification can also help those seeking advancement or can give jobseekers a competitive edge.

Important Qualities

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.

Decision-making skills. Top executives 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.

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

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

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

Time-management skills. Top executives must be able to 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.


The median annual wage for chief executives was $168,140 in May 2012. 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 $76,220, and the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

The median annual wage for general and operations managers was $95,440 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,890, and the top 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 vary substantially, depending on executives’ responsibilities and lengths of service and the types, sizes, and locations of the firms, organizations, or government agencies for which they work. 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. Workers 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 benefits.

Top executives often work many hours, including evenings and weekends. However, some have the ability to set their own schedules. In 2012, about half worked more than 40 hours per week.

Job Outlook

Employment of top executives is projected to grow 11 percent from 2012 to 2022, 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.

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.

In addition, top executives are essential for running companies and organizations and their work is central to the success of a company.

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.

For More Information

For more information about top executives, including educational programs, visit

American Management Association

National Management Association (NMA)

For more information about executive financial management careers, visit

Financial Executives International

Financial Management Association International

For information about management skills development, including the Certified Manager (CM) credential, visit

Institute of Certified Professional Managers