How to Become a Nurse Executive

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By Rachel Schneider

Last Updated: February 2020

Nurse executives find employment on the administrative side of care services in hospitals and healthcare clinics. Our guide provides information on these professionals, including employment data, salary statistics, necessary education and credentials, and step-by-step instruction on how to become a nurse executive.

What Is a Nurse Executive?

Nurse executives, as leaders of patient care service management and administration, plan and develop different procedures and policies in hospitals, healthcare clinics, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities. These professionals collaborate with other interdisciplinary health professionals to provide the highest quality of care.

What Do Nurse Executives Do?

Responsible for performing leadership roles in the nursing field, nurse executives also promote creativity within nursing teams. Additionally, they demonstrate financial responsibility and provide employees with continuing education opportunities. Nurse executives design and manage patient care plans and cultivate networks for quality care and wellness.

They also create healthcare facility budgets, advocate for patients and staff members, and communicate diverse needs across settings. Nurse executives work alongside interdisciplinary health professionals to maintain financial accountability within healthcare organizations, manage the planning and development of procedures and policies for healthcare facilities, and create policies for health and nursing care.

Where Do Nurse Executives Work?

Nurse executives provide important responsibilities across healthcare settings and are essential to operations in the healthcare industry, making their work environment varied and expansive. Some of the most common places for these professionals to work include nursing homes, hospitals, nursing schools, and healthcare clinics.

These professionals sometimes work as consultants, although they primarily serve in leadership roles for their companies or organizations. They must possess strong communication skills to effectively convey staffing needs and areas for improvement, along with enhancing work environments and ensuring efficient workflow.

Steps to Becoming a Nurse Executive

In the steps below, professionals can review how to become a nurse executive. The following section details the educational, licensing, and certification requirements professionals must meet before exploring job opportunities in the field.

  • Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree

    An aspiring nurse executive can start by earning a BSN, which allows professionals to also pursue registered nurse (RN) licensure. Additionally, individuals who hold a BSN can pursue a master of science in nursing (MSN), which is required for licensing and certification programs.

  • Obtain Licensure as a Registered Nurse

    Before professionals can consider specialty nursing certifications and licensure, they must obtain RN licensure. RN licensing processes vary depending on the state, but all 50 states require the NCLEX-RN exam. RN licensure also stipulates that candidates must hold BSNs or associate degrees in nursing.

  • Pursue Specializations While Working up to a Nurse Leader or Nurse Manager Role

    After obtaining RN licensure, professionals can begin gaining professional experience in their chosen specialties. Many professionals in the field pursue the certified nurse manager and leader (CNML) certification. Nurse leaders pursuing the nurse manager role typically obtain this credential. With CNML certification, each candidate must complete a certification exam with 115 competency-based questions.

    The CNML certification exam tests candidates' knowledge and skills across four core principles, including financial management, performance improvement, human resource management, and strategic management and technology. Professionals must satisfy recertification requirements to develop their skills and knowledge.

    Nurse Leader Clinical Nurse Manager Clinical Nurse Leader Nurse Executive
    Role Directs nurses and nursing assistants for a single nursing unit or nursing shift. Reports directly to a clinical nurse leader or clinical nurse manager. Mentors nursing staff. Coordinates care by creating schedules, giving work assignments, setting unit priorities, assessing patient outcomes, and evaluating staff. Monitors unit-wide patient treatment plans and outcomes, modifying, improving, or replacing practices as needed. Keeps pace with the latest technologies and practices and trains staff how to use them. Chief executive of an organization’s nursing staff and practices. Manages finances and directs strategic planning, human resources, standards, and best practices. Sometimes referred to as a CNE (Chief Nurse Executive) or CNO (Chief Nursing Officer).
    Management Level First-line manager Middle manager Middle manager Senior manager
    Direct Patient Care? Yes Yes Minimal Little to none.
    Education Diploma, ADN, or BSN BSN or MSN MSN MSN, MSN/MBA, or DNP
    Certifications Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) Nurse Executive (NE-BC) and Nurse Executive, Advanced (NEA-BC)
  • Gain Admission to an Accredited Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Master of Business Administration (MBA) Program With a Specialty in Nursing Administration

    To become qualified for nurse executive licensure, individuals must gain admission to an accredited MSN or MBA and pursue a specialty in nursing administration. Depending on the college or university, candidates encounter different admissions requirements.

    Many MBA programs require applicants to complete the GRE to obtain admission. At the master's level, each candidate must hold a BSN and active RN licensure. At the doctoral level, each applicant must hold an MSN, along with a specific amount of clinical experience. Students can explore admission requirements for programs at all degree levels, researching specific requirements particular to certain colleges or universities before enrolling.

  • Earn an MSN or MBA Degree

    To qualify for nurse executive licensure, each professional must earn an MSN or MBA in nursing administration. MSN and MBA options feature different program focuses, with MSN concentrations diving into the clinical aspects of the profession and MBA programs focusing on business and leadership skills. Earning a master's degree typically takes students two years of full-time enrollment to complete. Throughout their curriculum, they build upon the knowledge they cultivated at the bachelor's level.

  • Obtain Certification

    After completing the educational and RN licensure requirements, professionals can obtain certification in many different areas, such as the clinical nurse leader certification, nurse executive certification, and the nurse executive, advanced certification. Professionals should review specific requirements for certification opportunities before beginning the certification process.

  • Obtain Nurse Practitioner State Licensure

    After satisfying certification requirements, professionals can take the necessary steps to obtain state licensure. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, typically requiring candidates to meet certain educational and experience requirements, along with holding an active, current RN license.

  • Find Employment

    Once a professional fulfills the educational, certification, and licensing requirements to become a nurse executive, they can explore career opportunities in their chosen area of interest. Aspiring nurse executives can take advantage of resources to help them explore job opportunities that fit their particular career goals.

Becoming a Nurse Executive FAQs

What Happens if I Don't Renew My APRN License?

To maintain APRN licensure, professionals must renew their licenses according to their state's parameters. Professionals who do not renew their licenses on time cannot practice as nurse executives until renewing.

Can I Get Licensed if My Degree Is From an Unaccredited Program?

To become a licensed nurse executive, each candidate must earn a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from a regionally accredited college or university, focusing on advanced programs that highlight specialized, programmatic nursing accreditation.

What is the Difference Between a Nurse Leader and a Nurse Executive?

Nurse executives focus on the professional growth of their staff members, maintaining team schedules, dealing with staff assignments, and handling the educational and career opportunities for staff members. Nurse leaders set policies, ensure regulatory compliance, oversee quality measure, and manage fiscal responsibilities.

Are Nurse Executives in Demand?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 26% growth for nurse practitioner positions from 2018-28, which is much faster than the average growth rate for all other occupations in the nation. In 2018, the field reported 240,700 nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives in the country.

How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Be a Nurse Executive?

To become a nurse executive, each individual must earn a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Students who enroll full time typically complete their bachelor's degrees in four years and their master's in two years. Some students choose to advance into doctoral programs, typically taking them 3-4 years to complete.

Nurse Executive Credentials

Professionals who want to explore nurse executive career opportunities must obtain the necessary credentials before they can search for employment. To qualify for nurse executive careers, professionals must hold certain types of nurse licensure along with national certification. In the sections below, readers can learn more about the necessary licensing components, including information about RN licensure and advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) licensure.

Additionally, professionals can learn more about the certification opportunities available to them in the nurse executive discipline, including the detailed requirements they must meet to obtain different types of certification.

Nurse Executive Licensing

Before professionals can pursue careers as nurse executives, they must obtain state licensure and national certification specific to their chosen nursing specialty. Aspiring nurse executives should start by earning their RN licenses. RN requirements are state-specific, so professionals should research their state's parameters before beginning the process.

Although licensing requirements can vary depending on the state, all 50 states require that candidates pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Across the nation, exams for RN licensure are delivered through a computerized format and graded on a pass-fail basis.

In addition to obtaining RN licensure, professionals must earn their APRN licenses. This license allows professionals to focus on becoming clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse practitioners, certified nurse anesthetists, or certified nurse midwives.

During their licensing programs, professionals must demonstrate their ability to determine the appropriate types of treatment, order the correct diagnostic tests, provide patient education, and manage preventive care through routine screenings. The American Nurses Association requires each candidate for APRN licensure to hold an MSN, along with active, current registered nurse licensure.

Nurse Executive Certification

Across the nurse executive discipline, professionals can explore many different certification opportunities. Nurse leaders pursuing nurse management roles can obtain the certified nurse manager and leader certification. This certification requires professionals to complete a 115-question exam, testing their knowledge of financial management, strategic management and technology, performance improvement, and human resource management.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies accredits the clinical nurse leader certification, which allows candidates to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in nurse leadership. Candidates can also pursue the nurse executive and nurse executive, advanced certifications by completing competency-based examinations, which allow them to demonstrate their skills and knowledge of the day-to-day operations and responsibilities of nurses working in management roles. Individuals who pass their respective exams then receive the Nurse Executive-Board Certified-credential, which remains valid for five years.

Nurse Executive Resources

  • The American Organization for Nursing Leadership AONL aims to shape healthcare across the nation through expert-level, innovative nursing leadership. The organization advocates for nurse leaders throughout the United States.
  • Job Search This search engine allows professionals to explore job opportunities across the nursing field by focusing on their particular nursing specialty. Additionally, users can input their desired location for employment.
  • American Nurses Association As the premier organization in the nursing field, the American Nurses Association represents the interests of the 4 million RNs in the U.S., across all specialties of nursing.
  • American College of Healthcare Executives ACHE provides career development resources for nurses of all specialties and helps them to advance their particular career needs.
  • Nurse Executive Review and Resource Manual Professionals in the nurse executive role can access the Nurse Executive Review and Resource Manual to help them improve their professional development through certification.

Learn More About Nurse Executives and Related Careers

Nurse executives exploring their career opportunities can refer to the resources below to learn more about the occupation, along with related programs and careers in the field.

Related Advanced Nursing Programs

Related FAQs

Clinical Nurse Leader vs. Executive Nurse Leader

Clinical nurse leaders are RNs who hold MSNs or DNPs, along with CNL certification. They coordinate patient care, conduct risk assessments and care transitions, and measure patient outcomes. Executive nurse leaders focus more on the business functions of healthcare and nursing organizations.

What Are the Different Types of DNP Degrees?

Students can explore different types of DNP programs, including an ADN-to-DNP option, an MSN-to-DNP program, clinical DNP programs, and many online opportunities.

Nurse Executive vs. Administrator vs. Manager

Nursing executives focus on creating patient care plans and managing work schedules for professionals in the nursing field, while nurse administrators and managers concentrate on the leadership and management aspects of nursing.

SEARCH FOR SCHOOLS is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.