Is Becoming a Chief Nursing Officer Right for You?

If you’ve been a nurse or nurse practitioner for a while now, you might be considering healthcare opportunities outside of patient care.  It’s natural to look towards advancing your career or seeking a new role for a change.  Well, you’re in luck.  While directly working with patients makes up most NP jobs, there are leadership opportunities available to meet your need for a change and a challenge.  One of the most prestigious of these is that of a Chief Nursing Officer.

Chief Nursing Officers (CNO) are the big cheese, the top dogs of the nursing world.  They are the voice of nurses to hospital administration representing the entire nursing staff.  If you are leadership minded, becoming a CNO could be the perfect goal for your career.  So, put down those scrubs, dust off your power suit and let’s take a look at the role of a Chief Nursing Officer.

What exactly is a Chief Nursing Officer?

Nurses are at the core of every hospital system.  Most hospital administrators, however are non-clinical professionals.  They aren’t quite sure what nurses need to do their jobs.  They don’t understand what they day to day life of nurses is like.  Administrators may have trouble implementing the latest clinical guidelines because they lack medical knowledge.  Enter the Chief Nursing Officer.

CNO’s bring nursing issues from the hospital floor to the boardroom.  They ensure that the hospital system, nurses and patient’s needs align efficiently and smoothly.  Chief Nursing Officers weigh the business perspective of the hospital system with clinical guidelines and the needs of nursing staff combining them into a functional system.

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CNO Wihelmina Manzano of New York’s Presbyterian Hospital says the key things she focuses on in her role as a CNO are “maintaining a healthy, competent, robust nursing workforce, aligning nursing’s goals with the hospital’s so I can better support the organizational initiatives, improving the work environment of the nursing staff, leadership development, the role of technology in healthcare communications, efficiency and patient safety and of course how healthcare reform will impact healthcare organizations and hospitals, including nursing”.

How much does a Chief Nursing Officer make?

Chief Nursing Officers have a difficult job and are compensated well for their work.  The average salary of a CNO is about $148,000.  CNO’s working in larger hospitals (299 beds or more) earn an average income of $211,000.  Very large hospital systems pay CNO’s even more with some earning into the $300,000 range.

How do you become a Chief Nursing Officer?

With many nursing leaders projected to retire over the next few years, now is an excellent time to start moving up within the nursing leadership ranks.  If you want to become a Chief Nursing Officer, you will likely be required to slowly work your way up the nursing leadership ladder.  Working as a CNO requires not only healthcare but business savvy.  Intermediate nursing leadership roles will help you gain the experience you need to be successful in a more lofty position.

The first step you should take on your path to becoming a CNO is letting your employer know you are looking to advance your career.  Apply for nurse leader and nurse manager positions, especially within your current hospital system.  Hospitals tend to favor internal candidates over external so moving upward with your current employer will be easier than applying for a nurse manager position at an outside hospital.

While you take on more advanced roles at work, start getting your master’s degree.   Nearly all CNO’s hold an MSN and a doctorate degree is preferred.  Many MSN programs allow you to work while continuing your education so find a program that’s online or with flexible hours.  Additionally, some hospitals offer CNO or nurse leader training programs.  Ask your employer if they offer any leadership training opportunities and take advantage of these programs.  This signals to your employer that you are seeking advanced opportunities while offering specialized training so you can efficiently work your way up the nursing leadership ladder.

What advice do current CNO’s have for future Chief Nursing Officers?

Each year Professor of Nursing and Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute Dr. Rose O’Sherman asks her students to interview a CNO asking “Looking back on your career, if you were asked to give advice to a nurse just beginning his or her career in nursing leadership, what would that advice be?“.  Here are a few favorite responses she has received:

  • Seek graduate education because you will need the skill set
  • Develop strong business skills and don’t lose sight of the fact that healthcare is a business
  • Get feedback on your communication skills and work hard to correct any problems
  • Select a mentor in a leadership position who can provide you with support, insight and knowledge
  • Set short and long-term goals
  • Learn to be comfortable with conflict but strive to be collaborative

If you’re looking for opportunities outside clinical practice and a way to integrate leadership and business skills into your nursing background, becoming a Chief Nursing Officer just might be the right path for your career.


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