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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

December 19, 2019


Business degrees and pathways to the C-suite.

A group of business people meet within a boardroom.

Business roles at the executive level can feel far removed from the entry-level positions you occupy when you're first starting out. If you're not an entrepreneur fortunate enough to found the next big tech giant, it can take decades to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the C-suite.

To understand the path to the top, let's examine a few executive roles in a typical corporation.

Who's in the C-suite?

A company's top tier is its board of directors. They typically invest in a business and have a say in the organization's strategy. The C-suite reports to the board and drives the success of the business. Who makes up a company's C-suite depends on the industry, the size of the organization, and the strategic needs of the business. But most companies typically employ a chief executive officer (CEO), a chief operating officer (COO), and a chief marketing officer (CMO), and each of these roles is responsible for a sector of the business.

Chief executive officer.

The highest-ranking role in a company or organization is the chief executive officer. In addition to being the public face of the company, the CEO serves as a liaison between corporate operations and the board of directors and other shareholders. In some cases, the CEO will also chair the board, leading meetings and organizing board membership. Depending on a company's size, the CEO might also handle operations, marketing, or finances, as well. The CEO develops strategies to increase their business's success and raise the value of its shares.

Chief operating officer.

Second to the CEO is the chief operating officer, who handles day-to-day operations and manages a company's long-term goals. Because of the expansive responsibilities associated with the job, the COO needs to fully understand the functions of every department and every area of the business, including sales, marketing, and customer service.

Chief marketing officer.

The chief marketing officer (CMO) manages the advertising, public relations, and marketing activities and commitments of a company's divisions. CMOs use financial planning and data-reporting skills to drive the marketing strategy and attract new business. They're also responsible for communicating the organization's value to customers and clients, so they often work hand-in-hand with leaders from the product development team to fully understand their company's product or service.

Chief financial officer

The chief financial officer (CFO) manages the financial position of an organization. They determine how to fund a company’s growth, how to structure debt, and how to manage the organization’s assets and equity. They keep a close eye on cash flow and, in the cases of publicly traded companies, play a big role in decisions related to the issuance of stock, the payment of dividends, and other questions related to securities. They are regularly consulted on strategic decisions and frequently advise on the ability of a company to expand, make acquisitions and/or restructure. 

Pathways to the C-suite.

While there is no one path to an executive career, people in C-suite positions usually share several of the same steps on their journeys to power and responsibility.

1. They earned a bachelor's degree.

Getting a bachelor's degree in business administration or a related field such as accounting or finance isn't necessarily a prerequisite to start a path to the C-suite, but it usually helps. Completing business school coursework can give you a firm grasp of business fundamentals—such as operations management, finance, and economics—and prepare you for the wide-ranging demands of an executive role.

2. They got firsthand experience - a lot of it.

Starting at the bottom of the business ladder might not be as exciting as enjoying a high-ranking executive position, but it's absolutely essential. Entry-level jobs teach you the ins and outs of a business, including the financial, operational, and strategic skills it takes to succeed.

Plus, there's no way to go but up! Over time, you'll move on to supervisory roles and get the management experience you need to continue up the ladder. You'll learn new facets of the business as you advance by interacting with other departments and staying up to date on emerging technologies. Gaining on-the-job experience is the best way to earn and learn your way to the C-suite.

3. They enrolled in graduate school.

A third of CEOs in the 100 top-earning Fortune 500 companies hold a master's in business administration, the U.S. News & World Report notes. Forbes states that 21 percent of Fortune 100 CEOs hold non-MBA master's degrees, and 5 percent have earned higher degrees, such as a Ph.D.

As the business world turns, holding an MBA or some other advanced degree can give you a leg up on the competition. A master's program encourages you to combine your experience and your education to real-world business situations you might encounter as an executive. A degree program can help you develop the essential skills needed for the C-suite, such as


  • Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills for making big decisions.
  • Leadership and management skills for coordinating staff and direct resources.
  • Strategic skills for prioritizing long-term goals while completing urgent tasks.
  • Financial acumen for making sound budgetary decisions.
  • Communication and interpersonal skills for working effectively with board members, management, and other staff.

Making it to the C-suite.

When you're just starting out, the C-suite seems light-years away, but everything you do in your career can help you build toward that top spot. By learning as much as you can on the job, moving steadily up the business ladder, and earning higher degrees to round out your business knowledge, you could set yourself up for one of these coveted roles.

Now that you know more about the business degrees that can lead to CEO, CMO, and COO positions and what it takes to succeed in them, it's time to pursue your dream executive career.

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