What do Top Executives Do

Top Executives

All organizations have specific goals and objectives that they strive to meet. Top executives devise strategies and formulate policies to ensure that these goals and objectives are met. Although they have a wide range of titles—such as chief executive officer, chief operating officer, general manager, president, vice president, school superintendent, county administrator, and mayor—all formulate policies and direct the overall operations of businesses and corporations, public-sector organizations, nonprofit institutions, and other organizations.

A corporation's goals and policies are established by the chief executive officer in collaboration with other top executives. All of these principals are closely monitored by a board of directors. In a large corporation, the chief executive officer meets frequently with the other top executives to ensure that the overall operation of the corporation is conducted in accordance with these goals and policies. In a governmental or nonprofit organization, top executives oversee budgets and ensure that resources are used properly and that programs are carried out as planned. Chief executive officers in government often nominate citizens to boards and commissions, encourage business investment, and promote economic development in their communities. To do all of these varied tasks effectively, top executives rely on a staff of highly skilled personnel.

Although the chief executive officer of a corporation retains overall accountability, a chief operating officer may be delegated several responsibilities, including the authority to oversee other executives who direct the activities of various departments and implement the organization's guidelines on a day-to-day basis. In publicly held and nonprofit corporations, the board of directors or a similar governing body ultimately is accountable for the success or failure of the enterprise and the chief executive officer reports to the board. In addition to being responsible for the operational success of a company, top executives, particularly chief financial officers, are accountable for the accuracy of their financial reporting, especially among publicly traded companies.

The nature of the responsibilities of other high-level executives depends on an organization’s size. In small organizations, such as independent retail stores or small manufacturers, a partner, an owner, or a general manager often is responsible for purchasing, hiring, training, quality control, and day-to-day supervisory duties. In large organizations, top executives not only direct the overall organization, but also may be responsible for implementing strategies and setting the overall direction of a certain area of the company or organization. For example, chief financial officers direct the organization's financial goals, objectives, and budgets. They oversee the investment of funds and manage associated risks, supervise cash management activities, execute capital-raising strategies to support a firm's expansion, and deal with mergers and acquisitions.

Chief information officers are responsible for the overall technological direction of their organizations. Today, these officers are playing a more important role in organizations and are increasingly becoming part of the executive team. To perform effectively, they need knowledge of the workings of the total organization. These managers propose budgets for projects and programs and make decisions about staff training and purchases of equipment. They hire and assign computer specialists, information technology workers, and support personnel to carry out information-technology-related projects. They manage the work of these employees, review their output, and establish administrative procedures and policies. Chief information officers also provide organizations with the vision to master information technology as a competitive tool.

General and operations managers plan, direct, or coordinate the operations of companies and other public- or private-sector organizations. Their duties and responsibilities include formulating policies, managing daily operations, and planning the use of materials and human resources that are too diverse and general in nature to be classified into any one area of management or administration, such as personnel, purchasing, or administrative services. In some organizations, the tasks of general and operations managers may overlap those of chief executive officers.

Work Environment

Chief executives held about 292,500 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of chief executives were as follows:

  • Self-employed workers - 25%
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services - 11%
  • Government - 8%
  • Healthcare and social assistance - 7%
  • Manufacturing - 5%

General and operations managers held about 2.4 million jobs in 2020. The largest employers of general and operations managers were as follows:

  • Retail trade - 12%
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services - 11%
  • Wholesale trade - 9%
  • Manufacturing - 9%
  • Construction - 7%

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

Because top executives often are held responsible for their organization’s success, their work may be stressful.

Top executives frequently travel to attend meetings and conferences or to visit local, regional, national, or international offices of interest.

Top executives often interact with other high-level executives, such as financial managers, human resource managers, or chief technology officers.

Work Schedules

Most top executives work full time, and many work more than 40 hours per week, including evenings and weekends.

Education & Training Required

Many top executives have a bachelor's or master’s degree in business administration, liberal arts, or a more specialized discipline. The specific type and level of education required often depends on the type of organization for which top executives work. College presidents and school superintendents, for example, typically have a doctoral degree in the field in which they originally taught or in education administration.

Some top executives in the public sector have a degree in public administration or liberal arts. Others might have a more specific educational background related to their jobs.

Many top executive positions are filled from within the organization by promoting experienced lower level managers when an opening arises. In industries such as retail trade or transportation, for example, individuals without a college degree may work their way up within the company and become executives or general managers. When hiring top executives from outside the organization, those doing the hiring often prefer managers with extensive managerial experience.

Other Skills Required

Top executives must have highly developed personal qualities and be able to communicate clearly and persuasively. An analytical mind, the ability to analyze large amounts of information and data quickly, and the ability to evaluate the relationships among numerous factors, also are important qualities. For managers to succeed, they need other important qualities as well, including leadership, self-confidence, motivation, decisiveness, flexibility, sound business judgment, and determination.

How to Advance

Advancement may be accelerated by participation in company training programs that impart a broader knowledge of company policy and operations. Participation in conferences and seminars can expand one's knowledge of national and international issues that influence the organization and can help the participants develop a network of useful contacts. To facilitate their promotion to an even higher level, managers who have experience in a particular field, such as accounting or engineering, may attend executive development programs geared toward their backgrounds.

Managers also can help their careers by becoming familiar with the latest trends in management and by attending national or local training programs sponsored by various executive training organizations. For example, the Institute of Certified Professional Managers offers the Certified Manager (CM) credential, which is earned by completing training and passing an exam. This certification is held by individuals at all experience levels, from those seeking to enter management careers to those who are already senior executives. Certification is not necessary for advancement, but may be helpful in developing and demonstrating valuable management skills.

General managers may advance to a top executive position, such as executive vice president, in their own firm, or they may take a corresponding position in another firm. They may even advance to peak corporate positions, such as chief operating officer or chief executive officer. Chief executive officers often become members of the board of directors of one or more firms, typically as a director of their own firm and often as chair of its board of directors. Some top executives establish their own firms or become independent consultants.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of top executives is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 247,100 openings for top executives are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.


Employment of general and operations managers is projected to grow 9 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Organizations will continue to rely on these workers to help them operate successfully.

Employment of chief executives is projected to decline 6 percent from 2020 to 2030. Improving office technology and changing organizational structures have increased the ability of these workers to perform tasks previously done by multiple chief executives. In addition, economic activity and employment have become increasingly concentrated in large, established companies, which may lead to fewer new jobs for these workers.


The median annual wage for chief executives was $179,520 in May 2021. 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 $60,300, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

The median annual wage for general and operations managers was $97,970 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $43,260, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for chief executives in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Professional, scientific, and technical services - $208,000 or more
  • Manufacturing - $208,000 or more
  • Healthcare and social assistance - $154,650
  • Government - $104,730

In May 2021, the median annual wages for general and operations managers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Professional, scientific, and technical services - $127,110
  • Manufacturing - $119,260
  • Wholesale trade - $100,750
  • Construction - $98,550
  • Retail trade - $66,050

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

Similarly, earnings for general and operations managers differ across industries because their responsibilities also vary by industry.

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

Top executives often work many hours and have irregular schedules, which may include evenings and weekends.