According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the economy is expected to produce six million new jobs from 2019 to 2029, with 60% of all new jobs related to health care.

“The global health care industry doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in 2020,” states the 2020 U.S. and Global Healthcare Industry Outlook from Deloitte. “Aging and growing populations, greater prevalence of chronic diseases, and exponential advances in innovative but costly digital technologies continue to increase health care demand and expenditures.”

Nurses account for a substantial part of this growth. The BLS reported the number of jobs for registered nurses is expected to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029—a higher growth rate than the average 4% for all jobs.

As the health care industry thrives, qualified nurse leaders must guide the next generation of nurses into the future. That’s where the role of chief nursing officer (CNO) comes in. One of the top specialty career choices for nurses, the CNO holds a critical executive role in health care.

Here is a guide on how to become a chief nursing officer—including information about meeting academic requirements; earning a Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN); and looking at the responsibilities, salary, and job outlook associated with the role.

What Is a Chief Nursing Officer?

The first step in learning how to become a CNO is understanding the role and the needed skills for success. The chief nursing officer is the top-ranking nursing management professional in a health care organization. With overall responsibilities for managing the nursing staff and relative operations, the CNO creates patient care strategies, budgets for equipment and resources, maintains standards and safety policies, and represents the team at conferences and meetings.

The CNO coordinates daily operations while setting a vision of the nursing operation. This professional serves as the link between other executives and the nursing staff, finding opportunities to improve productivity, quality of care, and the general work environment.

“You are that voice that is speaking on behalf of the nurses, on behalf of the patients, and bringing the physicians to the table,” CNO Erin LaCross told HealthLeaders, the industry publication. “You’re bringing everybody to the table who needs to be there and seeing the big picture. You’re asking the tough questions and ensuring accountability.”

Steps to Become a Chief Nursing Officer

For anyone interested in how to become a CNO, the job requires advanced education and extensive work experience. Here are the steps to getting there.

Step #1: Earn Your BSN Degree            

Prospective CNOs must earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited four-year college. This degree provides a foundation in the principles of nursing, anatomy, and patient care delivery. While earning their BSN, nursing students take courses in physical and social sciences, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, behavioral sciences, and communication, among other subjects. Nursing students also gain hands-on experience through clinicals. 

Step #2: Gain Experience in a Nursing Setting

In addition to educational preparation, future CNOs must have experience in a hospital or other health care organization. Working as a manager in nursing can prepare professionals for this executive-level position. For example, Rhonda Foster, former CNO of Children’s Hospital of Michigan, held a leadership position in an ambulatory care unit for five years. Based on her experience, she was selected as director of nursing, quality, research, and education.  Eventually, she was promoted to assistant vice president, beginning her ascent to CNO.

Step #3: Earn Your MSN Degree          

Aspiring CNOs typically earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, such as the one offered online through Norwich University. This degree program deepens knowledge and skills, providing training in advanced clinical concepts, nursing informatics, leadership, and health care management practices. The Nurse Practitioner concentration offers three track options for students to specialize in family medicine, adult gerontology acute care, or psychiatric mental health.

Step #4: Earn Certifications to Improve Your Skills       

CNOs can gain critical skills and credibility by receiving certifications such as the following.

  • Certified in Executive Nursing Practice (CENP) and Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) from the American Organization for Nursing Leadership: These certifications are awarded through exams that assess knowledge of the core principles of communication, health care, and strategic management.
  • Nurse Executive Certification (NE-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center: This certification is awarded through a competency-based exam that assesses clinical knowledge and skills needed to manage a nursing unit.

Becoming certified is an extra step that current or prospective medical professionals who are aspiring to be CNOs may want to consider.

Skills of a Chief Nursing Officer

Nurses who are interested in becoming a chief nursing officer need to develop certain essential skills. Chief nursing officers have many responsibilities, from advising hospital managers to creating policies and far beyond. CNOs work with nurses and other clinical staff members to ensure the productivity of multiple departments.

To accomplish these duties, CNOs should be able to exhibit management and leadership capabilities. They should also be able to demonstrate their knowledge of clinical practices, medical terminology, and new technology.

CNOs serve as mentors to their nursing staff and as critical thinkers who navigate constant change in their industry and practice. They set an example for the nurses they oversee. They display excellent interpersonal skills through the ways in which they communicate with and motivate nurses.

As they have a large amount of responsibility, CNOs should also demonstrate effective organizational, strategic planning, and decision-making competencies. Since they manage their organization’s budget, they should also be financially savvy and detail oriented.

Salaries of a Chief Nursing Officer

According to the compensation website PayScale, CNOs earn between $92,000 and $201,000 a year, with a median annual salary of around $129,200. To attain a salary in the upper end of this range, prospective and current CNOs typically possess advanced education in the nursing management field. Degrees may include a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, or a Master of Health Administration (MHA) degree. High-earning CNOs also may have years of experience in nurse leadership or management positions that demonstrate success in managing employees, budgeting, and coordinating resources.

Future Growth of Chief Nursing Officer Jobs

Global health care spending is expected to reach $10 trillion by 2022, up from $7.7 trillion in 2017, according to Deloitte. As the health care industry and the job outlook for nurses grow, CNOs are needed in different organizations to lead nurses through the evolving landscape.

“Nurses are really the experts in coordinating care and have always been that integral linchpin in the care coordination team, whether it was five years ago, 10 years ago, or 20 years ago,” CNO Ann Marie Leichman told the publication Modern Healthcare. “I think what's really changed, though, is the recognition by all disciplines that we need to work collaboratively in this changing health care world to produce better outcomes, and that's been a major shift in how people now see their roles on the health care team.”

Technology, in particular, will affect the health care industry and the CNO role. By implementing tools such as wearable tech and virtual reality (VR) equipment, nurses will remotely evaluate a patient’s health and deliver care. Technology also improves processes such as compliance, employee management, and data collection and analysis—creating a more connected future for CNOs, nurses, and patients.

Begin Your Chief Nursing Officer Career

Since 1819, Norwich University has maintained a leadership position in innovative education. Through its online programs, the university delivers relevant and applicable curricula that positions students to make a positive impact in their workplaces and communities.

Norwich University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program helps students hone knowledge and skills to assume leadership positions in nursing informatics, health care systems leadership, or nursing education. The online Master of Science in Nursing: Nurse Practitioner program gives students the opportunity to develop expertise in one of three NP tracks: Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, or Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner.

Students are trained to become nurse leaders who shape health policy, manage teams of clinicians, and provide high quality care. The program is based on guidelines from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Explore how the Norwich University online MSN degree program can help you learn how to become a chief nursing officer and prepare you for your future career.


Recommended Readings

What to Expect from the MSN Curriculum at Norwich University
6 Common Nurse Leadership Jobs for Master of Science in Nursing Graduates
5 Leadership Styles for Clinical Nurse Leaders


Employment Projections, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
2020 U.S. and Global Healthcare Industry Outlook, Deloitte
Registered Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
5 Strategies New CNOs Should Know, HealthLeaders
Leadership Insights, American Nurse Today
Chief Nursing Officers Need New Skill Sets, Healthcare Finance
Top Executives, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Certified in Executive Nursing Practice Certification, American Organization for Nursing Leadership
Certified Nurse Manager and Leader Certification, American Organization for Nursing Leadership
Nurse Executive Certification, American Nurses Credentialing Center
Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Salary, PayScale
Chief Nursing Officer Roundtable: Managing Technology and the Continuum of Care, Modern Healthcare

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