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How to Become an Executive: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become an executive. Learn about the job duties, job description, and the step-by-step process to start a career as a top executive. View article »

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  • 0:03 Should I Become an Executive?
  • 1:08 Career Requirements
  • 1:48 Step 1: Earn a…
  • 3:07 Step 2: Gain Experience
  • 4:19 Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree
  • 5:13 Step 4: Build a Career

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Video Transcript

Should I Become an Executive?

Executives serve as the decision-makers within corporations, non-profits, and government agencies. They help make decisions that determine the overall direction of the organization. Executives can oversee a particular area, such as the chief information officer or chief financial officer, or they can oversee the entire organization, such as the president or chief executive officer (CEO). Executives tend to be the face of an organization, representing them politically and socially.

The need to lead workers and guide a company's direction can be quite demanding and stressful. Executives must also frequently travel for important meetings and may need to transfer often to different company branches. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2012, about half of all executives worked over 40 hours a week. More often than not, CEOs retain hefty stock options in their company in addition to their annual salary, which can increase personal revenue exponentially.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; graduate degree may be preferred by some employers
Degree Field Business administration or field-specific management degree, like engineering management
Experience 5+ years
Certification Optional depending on field
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication skills, problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, leadership skills, delegation skills, patience, fortitude
Salary (2015) The median salary for top executives was $102,690 in 2015

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is usually required for any executive position. Although business degrees can provide a foundation for a variety of fields, a degree in any related field is acceptable. For example, college administrators will benefit from an undergraduate degree in education. A bachelor's in engineering can serve as a stepping stone for an individual pursuing a career as a CEO of an engineering firm, and an aspiring hospital administrator will benefit from an undergraduate degree in health care administration. With a bachelor's degree, potential executives can learn the fundamentals in the area they wish to pursue.

Success Tips:

  • First, get an internship. Experience is key to becoming an executive. Students can get a head start by obtaining an internship while pursuing a college degree. In addition to gaining experience, the internship can make graduates more marketable when looking for a job.

  • Second, build communication skills. Executives must communicate with various types of people. In addition to taking writing and public speaking courses, individuals can choose extracurricular activities such as the debate team or school newspaper to polish written and verbal communication skills.

Find schools that offer these popular programs

  • Actuarial Sciences
  • Business and Commerce, General
  • Business Statistics
  • Customer Service Management
  • eCommerce
  • Logistics, Distribution, and Materials Management
  • Management Science
  • Office Management
  • Operations Management
  • Public and Nonprofit Organizational Management
  • Purchases, Acquisitions, and Contracts Management
  • Transportation Management

Step 2: Gain Experience

Experience is a key part to becoming an executive. Upon completing their undergraduate studies, individuals can apply their education to real-world situations. Individuals must learn to solve industry-related problems relating to personnel, technology, and efficiency. As aspiring executives move up the ladder, they seek out positions with increasing levels of responsibility.

Success Tips:

  • Build leadership skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, top executives need managerial experience. They can earn managerial experience by volunteering to lead projects at work and delegating responsibility or by volunteering outside of work in leadership roles.

  • Become certified. In many fields certification is optional and serves as an industry standard of knowledge. Employers may look favorably on individuals who have become certified as a way to demonstrate vast knowledge of a particular area. Individuals can become certified in areas of finance and accounting, computer technology, asset management, and project management, among others.

Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree

After getting some real world experience, many executives return to school for a graduate degree. Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees are common. However, students can find graduate degree programs across many disciplines designed to give non-business employees business knowledge. For example, master's degree programs in health care administration and education may be designed for individuals in those respective fields seeking management positions. It is also possible to find graduate degrees that focus on leadership.

Success Tip:

  • Build a network. Aspiring executives will interact with one another when taking courses and attending program-sponsored events. They may take the opportunity to get to know classmates for networking and job opportunities. Students can create an organized networking plan to meet and keep track of contacts.

Step 4: Build a Career

Although one's first position after graduation will probably not be that of an executive, having a graduate degree allows for quicker ascension in rank. Patience is key, as an individual must built rapport and garner experience before being considered for a top managerial position.

Success Tip:

  • Display uncharacteristically good work ethic and dedication. The more focused, astute, determined, and disciplined an individual is, the more likely they will be entrusted with decision-making authority. Therefore, showing passion for the work and loyalty to the organization will pave the way for promotions, eventually leading to that of a top executive.

Earning a bachelor's degree, gaining work experience, earning a graduate degree, and building a rapport and garnering further experience are required to become a top executive.

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