The nurse executive role is key in healthcare. This executive leader is responsible for setting the organization's vision for nursing and patient care. Nurse executives focus on creating a healthy work environment and maintaining a workforce that supports quality outcomes. They work to influence change at a healthcare organization’s highest level. It’s a fast-paced and very visible role.
Nurse executives have typically spent their careers in nursing, working their way up from nurse to manager to director to nurse executive. They bring their real-world experience and passion for nursing to the executive suite and use a combination of nursing expertise, leadership skills, and business acumen to advocate for change. While nurse executives no longer work at the bedside with patients, quality patient care remains their priority.
A nurse executive is often called just that – or may also be known as a VP of Nursing, Chief Nursing Officer, Systems-Level Chief Nursing Officer, or Chief Nursing Executive. They work in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, and other healthcare organizations. According to Payscale, the average salary for a board-certified nursing executive is $131,000 – though this can vary by location and organization.
Over the past few years, the nurse executive role has evolved from primarily overseeing a nursing department to providing direction for several patient care services. By 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that roles for medical and health services managers will grow by 20 percent – much faster than the average job-growth rate.
What does a nurse executive do?
A nurse executive wears a lot of hats, which is why they must possess a variety of skills. According to the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), the core competencies for a nursing executive include communication and relationship management; healthcare knowledge; leadership; professionalism; and business skills and principles.
As mentioned above, the nurse executive role entails providing vision and direction for a nursing department. Nurse executives use a mix of systems knowledge and nursing experience; influence, interpersonal relationships and leadership skills; and business acumen to succeed in their role.
A nurse executive works to incorporate new and effective care models (to improve patient outcomes), and to do that, they have to get a hospital’s entire leadership team on board – that means being heavily involved in a healthcare organization’s key decision-making and strategic planning teams.
Every day, nurse executives are taking part in executive meetings, where they’re advocating for nurses and patients. Beyond that, they’re researching, developing and implementing care developing models, planning budgets, developing policies, and advocating for nurses and patients.
How do you become a nurse executive?
Nurse executives must have at least a master’s degree in nursing or healthcare administration, as well as extensive experience working in a nurse-leadership role. That said, many healthcare organizations prefer candidates with a doctorate degree.
Many professionals considering an executive-level role have found that a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree with a track that focuses on nurse executive leadership offers an ideal curriculum to prepare them for the role. These degrees (known as Nurse Executive DNPs for short) focus on preparing nursing leaders for C-level roles.
A Doctor of Nursing Practice – Executive Nurse Leadership (DNP-ENL) is the highest academic nursing credential a nurse executive can receive. Many programs – including the one offered through Baylor University’s Louise Herrington School of Nursing Online – focus on leadership, data-driven business strategy, and transformative care models.
Courses in a DNP-ENL program teach future nursing executives how to advocate for change, exhibit strong leadership behavior, negotiate and handle labor disputes, and maintain positive professional partnerships. (These are the skills needed to take a healthcare policy off the agenda and into action.) They’ll also learn how to look at data and use it to improve patient care, grow a competent workforce, change delivery models, and more. And finally, a heavy focus on transformative care includes learning how to create new models of care, make care model decisions, and understand patient safety science theory to develop new care strategies and improve risk outcomes.
Baylor University’s DNP-ENL program at the Louise Herrington School of Nursing is completely online, which gives nurse leaders the opportunity to pursue higher education while still working. Beyond those flexibility benefits, students will get to build an in-community network of mentors and partners and complete a residency program that lets them learn in a real-world setting. Best of all, through Baylor’s DNP-ENL program, students can complete doctoral projects and residencies in their local area.