January 12, 2021
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How to become a CNO (Chief Nursing Officer)

The Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) is responsible for overseeing nursing operations in a hospital or clinic. You might have heard of this role before, but you might not know exactly what they do, or why they are so important.

CNOs are nurses with extensive experience in administrative work. They are, in many respects, at the top of the food chain when it comes to nursing. However, sometimes they do a thankless job. They don’t get as much recognition as other nurses, or APRNs.

In this blog post we’ll talk about the role of the CNO, how to get there, and what you should know about them. It is possible for a nurse practitioner to become a CNO? What are the requirements? Let’s dive in and answer some of these questions.

What exactly is a Chief Nursing Officer?

The CNO is sometimes called Director of Nursing, VP of Nursing, or head nurse. They are in charge of making sure everything works properly within the nursing unit. They don’t work with patients, but they do have a say on how patients receive treatment.

Some of their day to day responsibilities include:

  • Working with financing and budgeting: making sure everything is in order.
  • Hiring and monitoring nurses (and sometimes non-nursing staff).
  • Coming up with achievable goals to improve the nursing department.
  • Developing guidelines for best practices and improved patient outcomes.
  • Coordinating nursing operations and overseeing new projects.

As you can see, the job of the CNO has a lot to do with human resources, leadership, and administration. That is why you don’t see many NPs becoming CNOs. The education of a nurse practitioner focuses more on providing healthcare, while CNOs manage how that healthcare is ultimately provided.

Being a CNO is about making key decisions that will affect how patients in a hospital receive care from nurses. It’s important to highlight their role because they not only manage nurses but they also represent them. They are, in many respects, the voice of nurses inside the hospital setting.

Why should you become a CNO?

You should only become a Chief Nursing Officer if you have an interest in administrative and executive work. We’ll talk more about this below. Not every nurse needs to work their way up to CNO.

However, it would be good for you to consider the basic benefits, like the salary.

According to Salary.com, the median pay for a CNO (as of December 2020) is $236,140. This is definitely not bad as it’s quite above the median salary of a nurse practitioner.

Other websites like Glassdoor, however, put the CNO median salary at $126,880. This can be a little confusing, but it might be because they calculate their salaries based on their job postings. Indeed.com also reports a median salary of $125,531.

Payscale puts the average salary at $130,519, following this trend.

The difference between these salaries and the one reported on Salary.com is noticeable, to say the least. We can’t really tell you which one is correct, as there is no official data, but these are still interesting numbers to think about.

There are many variables that can affect your salary, such as the size of the hospital in which you’ll be working.

However, you should not become a CNO simply because of the higher earning potential. It’s a job that requires you to have a certain calling that can be very different from that of a nurse practitioner.

The potential workplace benefits of a Chief Nursing Officer include everything from health insurance, dental and vision insurance, to maternity leave, various reimbursements, and appealing retirement options. As an executive, you will enjoy some perks that other people don’t get.

Is it possible for an NP to work their way up to Chief Nursing Officer?

Yes! It might take you a long time and some additional education. However, if you are passionate about being a leader, you can totally pursue it.

The role of the Chief Nursing Officer is for nurses who are looking to make a difference at the executive level.

How do you know if becoming a CNO is right for you?

The first thing you should keep in mind is that being a CNO is a lot of work. Yes, it does come with a lot of benefits, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and accountability.

Chief Nursing Officers can work in one hospital or many, depending on the size of the hospital. You won’t do a lot of running around with patients, but you will do a lot of running around anyway. There’s a lot more meetings that you will have to attend.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’ve thought about this before. Your interest may lie outside of patient care, and that’s great! There’s so much work to do nowadays in healthcare administration. We need more people willing to work inside the system to change it for the better.

You might be a good fit for a CNO position if you are:

  • Passionate about leadership.
  • Looking to manage a team of nurses and see them improve over time.
  • Interested in the administrative and the business side of healthcare.
  • Interested in implementing and working with the latest technologies and procedures.

Does that sound like you? Great! Let’s look at the requirements for the job.

What you need to do to become a Chief Nursing Officer

The first requirement for the Chief Nursing Officer position, aside from relevant experience, is a Master’s Degree. As an NP, you already have one, but it won’t be the one you actually need.

Nurse Practitioners pursue Master’s Degrees in the clinical setting. Their education, your education, is about seeing patients. Nurses who want to become CNOs have to pursue a different kind of Master’s, one that’s focused on healthcare administration or nursing leadership.

You can totally go back to school and pursue an additional Master’s in this field to start making the career change.

Previous experience as an RN is also important. The best Chief Nursing Officers have worked for years at the bedside too. They know what it’s like to be a nurse, and now they want to make things better for other nurses (and their patients).

However, don’t get discouraged if you don’t have a lot of RN experience. If you work hard enough, you can achieve this goal too.

Types of degrees for you to consider

A DNP is also a great way of advancing your education if you want to get the biggest job in nursing. There are many reasons why you should get a DNP, and this is one of them.

If you choose to pursue a DNP, make sure it’s focused on executive administration. Also, remember that there is a difference between a DNP and a PhD. Both are terminal degrees for nurses, so you might get confused.

Another degree that can help you become a CNO is an MBA. There are also a lot of reasons why you should get one.

Last, but not least, you can choose to pursue a Master’s in Health Administration (MHA). There are also dual MBA/MHA degrees that can help your career.

Whatever you choose, it’s important to make sure that your preferred degree covers the following subjects:

  • Human Resources (HR) and management
  • Healthcare administration
  • Safety and quality in Healthcare
  • Nursing informatics
  • Economics
  • Leadership
  • How to translate research into practice
  • Financial management

Getting your first job and possible certifications

Nobody gets started right away as a Chief Nursing Officer, unless they have a pretty substantial resume. After obtaining the necessary education, you should look for a job as a nurse manager, department manager, clinical leader, etcetera.

The idea is to get your foot in the door. Make sure you let your superiors know that you are interested in pursuing this path. That can be helpful. They can help point you in the right direction.

It’s not easy to get those types of jobs if you don’t have the background. However, it’s never a waste of time to check if there’s something you can do to assist them. Talk to people in these positions (if you’re able).

Your next step (after you get the opportunity to work in this field) can be to try and get a certification. There are many options, and they all have different requirements. Here’s the list so you can check them out:

We invite you to look through these links to think about which one is better for your career goals. You definitely don’t need to get all of them.

Putting everything together

If you read this far, there’s a good chance that you have a great interest in becoming a CNO. That’s great!

Now that you know what it takes, it’s important that you make a plan with steps to achieve your goal. Think long term.

It’s just like how you became a nurse practitioner. Study, work experience, certification. Maybe not necessarily in that order, but following a distinct path with a clear endgame.

We wish you lots of success if you decide to join the ranks of the many Chief Nursing Officers around the country. It’s a very rewarding job, with astounding benefits and pay, and a great opportunity to change and improve the lives of patients, and the landscape of nursing.

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