So You Want to Be a Chief Nursing Officer?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


March 26, 2015

In This Article

Becoming a Nurse Executive

Peggy Gordin did not set out to be a nurse executive, but her path to senior management is likely familiar to many nurse executives. Gordin began her nursing career in the neonatal intensive care unit, first as a staff nurse, then as a clinical nurse specialist, and eventually she became the department director. She loved these roles, but when management vacancies opened up in various areas of the hospital, Gordin was tapped several times to serve as interim director, expanding her leadership skills and expertise in such areas as pediatric intensive care and the emergency department.

"I began to understand that to be an effective leader, it didn't matter what your clinical background was. It was more important to recognize what good patient care looked like. It was less about being a technical expert in any one area than it was about listening to people, especially frontline staff, and helping them solve problems and make their departments as good as they can be."

Gordin found administration to be rewarding and felt ready to take the step to senior management as a chief nursing officer. "Being a nurse executive wasn't my plan, but as each path opened up in front of me, I took the opportunity to stretch myself and grow. As I did that, I discovered that it was more fun than I had ever imagined. The ability to make real differences motivated me to keep going."

Polhemus describes the trajectory that might be followed by a hospital nurse executive to the level of systems CNO. "Typically the nurse will become the CNO for a large healthcare facility or organization first and be recognized as someone who is a strategic asset to the organization and who sets standards for quality in patient care. The CNO who moves from organization to systems will be someone who has the financial skills to understand budgets and appreciate the challenges inherent in today's economic environment."

What about the financial rewards of being a nurse executive? And are nurse executives, as a rule, happy with their leadership positions? To find out, the AONE conducted a salary survey of more than 4600 nurse leaders, capturing information from the year 2012. About half of the reported annual salaries fell between $80,000 and $130,000. When correlating years of leadership with salary level, the 10-year mark appears to be the tipping point in terms of higher salaries for nurse leaders. The survey found that 52% of those with 11-20 years of experience and 64% of those with more than 20 years of experience reported annual salaries of $120,000 or higher. Overall job satisfaction is high among nurse leaders, with 62% stating that they are very satisfied and another 29% responding that they are somewhat satisfied with their nurse executive positions.[8]


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