Master’s Degree in Public Administration as a Route to Becoming a CEO

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Public administration skills such as leadership and decision-making can lead to C-suite positions.

Professionals entering the field of public administration can expect many possible career outcomes, all the way up to the C-suite. The leadership and decision-making skills associated with this field can effectively translate into executive positions in government, the nonprofit sector or even the corporate world.

What role does education play in this process? The American Association of Association Executives (ASAE) Foundation conducted a survey of CEOs, “Pathways to CEO Success,” to find out. The survey revealed that 49% of respondents had a master’s degree when they landed their first C-suite job, and many of these people subsequently continued their education. Business and public administration degrees were the most popular choices among advanced degree holders, with 36% holding those degrees.

Such degrees can be earned through programs such as Ohio University’s online Master of Public Administration. Candidates who have their eye on the CEO track can find the education here that they need to reach the C-suite, whether they are interested in nonprofit executive education or government work. MPA holders can find satisfaction in a career that advances the benefits of public administration to society.

Duties of a Top Executive

A CEO’s ultimate goal varies markedly between the public and private sectors. The website Get Smarter explains the key difference: “Public management values public interest, public needs, and political compromise. As a public manager, your primary concern is the overall well-being of your society. You endeavor to balance the needs of businesses, interest groups, and individuals. Private management, on the other hand, values business profit. As a private or business manager, your first concern is the survival and economic success of your business.”

Despite this essential difference in focus, the roles of top executives have substantial common ground regardless of where they work. According to the website Stever Robbins, Inc., CEOs in both the public and private sector are expected to fulfill these duties:

  • Setting strategy and direction
  • Modeling and setting the organization’s culture, values and behavior
  • Building and leading the senior executive team
  • Allocating capital to the organization’s priorities

Steps to Become a CEO

With so much overlap in duties between public and private organizations, career paths to the top can be very similar. The website lists three essential steps for anyone hoping to become a CEO in either the public or the private sector:

  • Step 1: Meet Education Requirements. CEOs typically earn at least a bachelor’s degree, and many also hold a master’s degree. CEOs or aspiring CEOs may also pursue continuing education through additional courses relevant to their field of work.
  • Step 2: Get Work Experience. Most CEO positions require five years or more of related work experience, including extensive managerial experience.
  • Step 3: Earn Certification. Some CEOs need to hold professional certification in a particular area of management, depending on their job duties and their organization’s requirements.

Recommendations for Aspiring CEOs

Obtaining the requisite education, experience and certification gets CEO candidates to the starting line. But competition for the top spots is intense. To boost one’s resume and desirability, the ASAE Foundation offers these 10 recommendations for aspiring CEOs, regardless of their sector:

  1. Build a professional network. 90% of respondents on an ASAE survey found a professional network beneficial to obtaining their first CEO role.
  2. Keep learning. Whether it is an advanced degree, a professional credential, reading to stay up to date or other training, most respondents felt that the steps they took to advance their own knowledge were positively influential in getting that first CEO position.
  3. Volunteer. Serve on committees or boards to learn the ins and outs of governance and how different groups deal with leadership questions and issues.
  4. Familiarize yourself with a variety of functional areas. CEOs may not be experts on everything, but they are expected to know at least a little about many operational areas.
  5. Develop leadership skills. Cultivate the skills necessary to lead both a staff and a volunteer-driven organization, such as active listening and making actionable connections between things learned.
  6. Develop communication skills. Public speaking, discussion facilitation, professional relationship development and strong written communication skills are significant facets of the CEO role.
  7. Know your industry. Explore literature on industry trends to understand what you can bring to a role and whether the position is right for you.
  8. It’s all about the members. For association CEOs in particular, the goal is always to serve the industry or field of your association, so keep this goal at the forefront of your work.
  9. Be authentic. Make sure you want the job, not just the title. That passion will be evident not only to your network and mentors but to interview panelists, too.
  10. Be patient. The right fit will almost certainly be better than jumping at the first opportunity.

By following these steps, MPA holders can position themselves for top jobs in the public or private sector. Teaching these skills and others, an MPA degree can be an effective springboard to C-suite success.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students gain an overview of the scope of public administration work while building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management, and communications. The school occupies the No. 12 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2019 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

The program, which is 100% online, offers four concentrations: Crisis and Emergency Management, Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, or State and Local Government Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years. For more information, contact Ohio University now.

Recommended Reading:

Master of Public Administration vs. Master of Business Administration

4 MPA Skills that Will Help Your Career

5 Benefits of an MPA



Role of education – ASAE Foundation (free download)

CEO focus in public and private sector – Get Smarter

Duties of a top executive – Stever Robbins, Inc.

Steps to become a CEO –

Recommendations for aspiring CEOs – ASAE Foundation