Business Administration

How to Become a Chief Administrative Officer (And How Much You’ll Earn When You’re There)

How to Become a Chief Administrative Officer (And How Much You’ll Earn When You’re There)
If you really have your heart set on becoming a chief administrative officer, you should focus your attention on demonstrating your expertise at managing large operations. Image from Unsplash
Alicia Betz profile
Alicia Betz March 8, 2023

Corporate operations don't run themselves. They need to be managed, and someone needs to manage the process of managing them. That someone is the Chief Administrative Officer, the head honcho of operations and processes. If the CEO is the vision executive, the CAO and the nuts-and-bolts exec. Every company needs one of each.

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Are you a detail-oriented person who likes to manage others? Does your ideal Saturday morning start with a big cup of coffee and the Wall Street Journal, followed by leading the family in reorganizing the garage? If so, you might be a natural-born Chief Administrative Officer (CAO).

A Chief Administrative Officer oversees day-to-day operations of a company or organization; that’s why the job title Chief Operations Officer (COO) is also used for this role. As CAO, you will report directly to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who is in charge of long-term planning, corporate vision, and appeasing investors; the CAO makes sure everything runs smoothly so that the CEO can accomplish those goals.

The CAO is arguably the number-two executive in a company (some might argue that that’s the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) because, well, money; regardless, CAO is pretty high up). When it comes to making things happen, though, the CAO is indisputably number one. When the CEO talks about taking things to the next level, the CAO is the one who makes sure the escalator gets built.

As CAO, you will interact regularly with the rest of the executive team, which includes:

Sound intriguing? This guide on how to become a chief administrative officer explains how to ascend to this role. It covers:

  • Pros and cons of becoming a chief administrative officer
  • Kinds of chief administrative officer careers
  • Educational commitment to become a chief administrative officer
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a chief administrative officer
  • Resources for becoming a chief administrative officer
  • Further accreditation or education for a chief administrative officer

Pros and cons of becoming a chief administrative officer

Pros of becoming a chief administrative officer

  • Top-level executives, such as CAOs, are extremely well-paid. Income ranges widely depending on the employer—the CAO of a university might not earn as much as the CAO of a large corporation, for example—but it’s always substantial. According to the job posting website, the middle 50 percent of CAOs earn CAO annual income between $289,000 and $475,000 (that’s including salary and incentives). According to Glassdoor, that figure is closer to $246,000. As we said, the figure varies widely, but the figure is usually a pretty big one.
  • You will have the satisfaction of knowing you have reached the (near) top of the corporate ladder. And if you’re aiming for the top, you’re in a good place; CAO is considered one of the key stepping stones to the CEO position.
  • As a corporate leader, your job duties will include lots of critical decision-making tasks. You’ll get to exercise your leadership skills, as every division of the company will look to you for guidance on budget, process, and operations management.

Cons of becoming a chief administrative officer

  • This is a high-pressure, 24/7 job, a classic “you snooze, you lose” role. Successful CAOs pretty much never stop working; even when they’re relaxing, they’re thinking about how to improve operations at work.
  • As in most such positions, burnout is typical. High turnover in the role is the norm. Shareholders calling you terrible names is typical. The good news in all this is that when CAOs leave, they usually depart with a very generous severance package. Failure is never fun, but a big pile of cash certainly cushions the fall.

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Kinds of chief administrative officer careers

Chief administrative officers are not only employed in private companies, but also by government, non-profit, and education institutions.

Regardless of the industry in which you work, the job description for a CAO typically includes the following:

  • Reporting to the Chief Executive Officer
  • Contributing to strategic planning
  • Supervising, leading, and managing management teams
  • Overseeing administrative operations
  • Problem-solving with division leadership
  • Setting goals for departments and employees
  • Contributing to budgetary planning
  • Evaluating and updating company policies as needed

Educational commitment to become a chief administrative officer

Every company runs differently and has different standards for its C-suite employees. If you’re running a tech startup out of your mom’s garage, you could probably become a CAO without a high school diploma. That said, almost all CAOs have at least a bachelor’s degree (generally in business), and most also have a master’s degree (usually an MBA or another management-related master’s).

A bachelor’s in business is a great way to start your career, but qualifying to become a CAO typically requires substantial work experience. Unless you are in some kind of “Succession” situation, it should take a while to work your way up the ladder. You would never become CEO right out of college—again, excluding the garage scenario—and the same is true for becoming Chief Information Officer, Chief Financial Officer, or Chief Administrative Officer. In some cases, you’ll start out at a company with a different position and be promoted to CAO, often after you’ve accrued multiple years of administrative and/or supervisory experience.

Once you have a few years of work experience under your belt, return to school to earn that master’s degree. A Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) is the most popular business master’s, but you might also consider a Master of Management, a Master of Science in Business Analytics, or a Master of Finance. A master’s in art history probably won’t serve you as well.

You don’t need a degree from a top business school for most business careers. If you’re aiming for the C-suite, however, an MBA from a highly ranked school will definitely help your cause. U.S. News and World Report‘s identifies the best business schools as:

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a chief administrative officer

Top executives and other c-level employees often move up in the company after years of experience. There is no additional license or certification requirement, but having one (or more) can’t hurt.

  • The Certified Manager Certification is a three-module program requiring 30 hours of classroom time for each module. Certification is awarded at three levels: Foundations of Management, Planning and Organizing, and Leading and Controlling.
  • The Certified Associate in Project Management is available to people at any point in their career (in fact, students get a discounted rate). The test is online and has 150 questions.

Any management certification is helpful even if you aren’t entirely sure you want to be a CAO but know you want to move up through a company; maybe you’ll decide you want to be a vice president or a CFO. No matter your aspirations, earning certifications is an excellent way to signal dedication and mastery of your skills.

Resources for becoming a chief administrative officer

The old saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is at least partially true, especially in the corporate world. Finding a mentor can make a huge difference in a person’s career trajectory. Look to develop contacts through:

  • Professional organizations
  • Networking events
  • Internships
  • Academics (professors, administrators)
  • Friends and family

These people can give you valuable insight into what it’s like to run a company that you won’t get anywhere else. An MBA teaches a lot, but you need to learn from someone in the trenches.

If you’re looking for professional organizations, you can find support and professional development from groups like the National Management Association or the American Management Association. These associations can be costly to join, but they provide a great way to meet people.

Further accreditation or education for a chief administrative officer

You can always get additional education and professional development from other institutions or associations. It might be worthwhile to take an executive training program, such as the one from New York University. These programs are designed for active executives who are continually trying to improve and learn.

So, now, let’s get real. There aren’t that many chairs (all of them extremely comfortable, by the way) in the C-suite. Most people, even those who spend their entire lives in the business world, never enter the C-suite, let alone work there. That doesn’t mean you can’t become a chief administrative officer; it just means you’re not a failure if you never get there. Statistically speaking, just about everyone never gets there.

If you really have your heart set on this position, you should focus your attention on demonstrating your expertise at managing large operations. An extraordinary capacity for processing and retaining details will also help. As CAO, you’ll be responsible for making sure everything in your company or organization runs smoothly. That means you’ll need big-picture mastery and a small-bore understanding of how each division in your operation works. You’ll also need killer interpersonal skills to coax top performances from your subordinates. If that sounds like how you want to spend your days, you may be CAO material: get out there and start impressing the hell out of everyone in the C-suite. Maybe they’ll invite you in.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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