How to Become a Chief Nursing Officer

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The nursing field is expansive, and it requires individuals from all backgrounds to use their education and experience to deliver the best patient care possible. The field is so broad, in fact, that some nurses do not directly interact with patients themselves, but instead prioritize offering support to other nurses. Business acumen and nursing expertise combine in the role of a chief nurse executive (CNE) or chief nursing officer (CNO). The CNO provides clinical leadership for nurses in a health care facility to ensure that care is delivered with the best quality and at the lowest cost.

Nurses interested in learning how to become a chief nursing officer and a leader in health care should consider pursuing an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Health Administration (MHA).

Steps to Becoming a Chief Nursing Officer

As an executive-level nurse administrator, a CNO’s purpose is to direct nursing activities to improve the quality of patient care while remaining operationally efficient. Organizations look for CNO candidates who have a strong business acumen, which can be developed by pursuing a Master of Health Administration or similar degree. The majority of nurses entering an MHA program will have previous clinical experience, which may accelerate their career growth following graduation. That said, because coursework is business-focused, some programs allow students to register without prior experience in a health care setting.

The online MHA program at Regis College prepares nurses and non-nurses alike to lead the following operational activities:

  • Recruiting new nurses and developing training materials for continued development
  • Contributing to and implementing new policies for improved patient care and safety
  • Creating and maintaining facility budgets
  • Collaborating with health care leadership to improve nursing standards

CNOs might opt to be certified in executive nursing practice and management and leadership by a credentialing center, such as the American Organization of Nurse Executives. With advanced education and additional certification, chief nurse officers are prepared to deliver on strategic goals in their organization.

Skills Needed to Become a Chief Nursing Officer

Professionals interested in learning how to become a chief nursing officer must be prepared to operate in the dynamic health care landscape. The delivery of health care has changed in recent years, and new laws, regulations, and technologies have impacted how nurses provide care to patients. A CNO who has developed competent management skills — through an MHA program, for example — will be better prepared to work in this evolving environment.


CNOs dedicate a significant portion of their time to financial management, including structuring budgets for support staffing, equipment, and supplies. Maintaining these budgets is particularly important as health care systems shift to pay-for-performance models. Facilities need to provide consistent, quality care across the health network and at the lowest possible cost.

Technical Skills

A CNO should continually leverage health care informatics and analytics to create strategic plans and budgets. By having the technical skills to compare data with other health care systems, a CNO can set achievable goals for patient care and operational efficiency.

Understanding of Information Technology

Fortunately, advancements in information technology (IT) systems have made it easier for a CNO to understand data connections and share results with staff. These systems also have standardized processes to maximize the amount of time a staff spends delivering patient care rather than completing administrative tasks. A CNO must continually look for opportunities to leverage IT systems and understand how to best apply them to current practices.


While they manage the administrative aspects of their departments, chief nurse officers must also provide adequate leadership to the nurses who work for them. To achieve strategic goals, a CNO needs to be available to effectively manage a workforce of nursing professionals by providing mentorship and establishing a model for professional development.

Development and Training

To prepare their staff for the increasingly complex issues that are developing in the medical industry, CNOs must also facilitate professional advancement among their subordinates by encouraging them to pursue continuing education and certification opportunities.

Career Growth for Chief Nursing Officers

Equipped with experience and education, such as that gained from an MHA program, a CNO can work in any setting where health care is provided — including hospitals, outpatient care centers, clinics, physician practices, health care system offices, insurance companies, and specialty care practices. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the demand for health services managers such as CNOs to grow by 71,600 jobs between 2018 and 2028.

Employers are prepared to pay handsomely for qualified individuals. Anyone considering how to become a chief nursing officer should be excited to learn that this career path also has very high earning potential. CNOs earn a median annual salary of about $128,000, according to PayScale data from May 2020.

Benefits of a Master of Health Administration

Professionals wondering how to become a chief nursing officer and looking to impact change in their work environment should start now. Pursuing an advanced degree, such as an MHA, can help them reduce the time it takes to reach a position of influence. Governments and patients are fervently demanding health care reforms, and facilities are in desperate need of educated and passionate professionals to lead the health care systems of the future.

While some medical facilities only require chief nursing officers to have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, an advanced degree is becoming the new standard. Registered nurses can complete an RN to MSN program, or if they already have a BSN, they can pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), a Master of Health Administration, or a Master of Business Administration dual program (MSN/MBA).

Earning a Master of Health Administration can have many benefits for nurses looking to become chief nursing officers. Individuals who already have five to 10 years of experience working in the nursing field can prepare for the role by learning how to recruit, train, and retain nurses. MHA programs can teach nurses how to manage human resources, create and oversee department budgets, and comply with health care laws. As a registered nurse, an individual may not have experience conducting performance reports or establishing department goals; completing MHA coursework prepares nurses to complete these tasks effectively.

Nurses often see firsthand the positive or negative impact of health care policies. When they enroll in an MHA program, they can learn how to establish policies that benefit nurses, staff, and patients alike. While CNOs are at the highest level of nursing, they are still responsible for reporting to the highest level of management, such as a chief executive officer. Since they manage a wide range of administrative duties, it is important that CNOs have extensive clinical experience as well as leadership skills.

Pursue an Advanced Degree

Health care administrators are nimble professionals who must manage their organizations’ budgetary, technological, ethical, and regulatory demands while ensuring that patients receive outstanding care. If you want to understand how to become a chief nursing officer, you might consider pursuing an online Master Health Administration such as the flexible and rigorous MHA program at Regis College.

Recommended Readings

Health Care Administration vs. Management

Health Care Inequality and the Healthcare Social Justice Movement

5 Skills Every Health Care Leader Needs


American Nurse, “High Reliability in Healthcare: The Chief Nursing Officer’s Critical Role”

American Organization for Nursing Leadership: Nurse Leaders

Health Leaders Media, “Chief Nursing Officers: 3 Tactics to Solve Healthcare Industry Challenges”

NCBI, “Chief Nursing Officers’ Views on Meeting the Needs of the Professional Nurse: How This Can Affect Patient Outcomes”

PayScale, Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Salary 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers