Chief Nursing Officer vs. Director of Nursing

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A director of nursing leads a meeting of nurses.

Nurses play a vital role in administering patient care, promoting optimal outcomes, and supporting the work of other medical providers. For any nursing department to function at a peak level, strong leadership is essential. Nurse leadership can come in many forms, including the positions of chief nursing officer (CNO) and director of nursing.

While both roles are crucial to achieving the best possible health outcomes, they differ in many ways. Nurses or nursing students who are interested in a leadership trajectory should consider the roles of chief nursing officer vs. director of nursing. While exploring different ways to serve as a nurse leader, it’s important to seek the education and credentials that can open a path to leadership, such as an online MSN to DNP program.

Roles of Chief Nursing Officers and Directors of Nursing

Understanding the basic job descriptions of the two roles is key to identifying which career path is the best fit for an aspiring nurse leader.

What Is a Chief Nursing Officer?

Usually, the chief nursing officer is the highest-ranking nurse within a hospital or health care organization. As such, the CNO is ultimately responsible for the entire nursing practice across the organization. Nurse leaders in this position oversee and coordinate all activities related to nursing and patient care. Rising to this role requires a high level of education and considerable nursing experience.

What Is a Director of Nursing?

By contrast, director of nursing roles typically focus more on management and supervision of the nurses working for a health care organization. They manage the nursing staff and provide nurses with opportunities for professional development.

Individuals often need to have experience working as directors of nursing before they become chief nursing officers.

Responsibilities of Chief Nursing Officers and Directors of Nursing

Another way to compare the chief nursing officer vs. director of nursing roles is to investigate their respective duties and responsibilities.

Chief Nursing Officer Responsibilities

While a CNO’s duties vary from one organization to another, some common examples include:

  • Developing strategies to improve patient care and optimize clinical outcomes
  • Budgeting and managing resources for the organization’s entire nursing practice
  • Creating and implementing strategies to mentor and support nurses
  • Promoting quality, safety, and legal compliance throughout the nursing practice of the organization

Director of Nursing Responsibilities

Similarly, the duties associated with the director of nursing role vary from one organization to the next. Some common director of nursing duties and responsibilities include:

  • Supervising nurses and ensuring they meet the organization’s standards for care
  • Assessing nurse performance and providing opportunities for professional development
  • Fostering a healthy team environment, encouraging collaboration between different nurses and departments
  • Mentoring nurses one-on-one, encouraging them in their practice, and answering any questions they may have

Qualifications and Salaries for Chief Nursing Officers and Directors of Nursing

For nurses who are interested in any kind of leadership role, it’s important to understand the qualifications associated with both positions, as well as salary expectations.

Becoming a Chief Nursing Officer

Chief nursing officers must be registered nurses (RNs) or nurse practitioners (NPs) and have significant nursing experience. Educational requirements include a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and at least one advanced degree. This may be a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Some chief nursing officers have advanced degrees in health care administration or another nursing-adjacent field. Previous leadership experience, including work as a director of nursing, can also be beneficial.

Becoming a Director of Nursing

Becoming a director of nursing similarly requires an undergraduate nursing degree, plus licensure as an RN or NP. Directors of nursing must also have some nursing experience; the specific amount can vary by organization, but most directors of nursing will have at least two years of experience in clinical practice. Advanced degrees, such as an MSN or Master of Health Care Administration, are encouraged but not always required. Courses or certifications in management can also help.

Salaries for Chief Nursing Officers vs. Directors of Nursing

The median annual salary for chief nursing officers was approximately $134,400 as of July 2022, according to Payscale.

Meanwhile, the median annual salary for directors of nursing was around $93,900 as of July 2022, according to Payscale.

Find Your Place in Nurse Leadership

Nurse leadership plays a pivotal role in keeping health care organizations running smoothly and efficiently — and in promoting the best outcomes for patients. Both the chief nursing officer and director of nursing roles can be essential.

To hone the skills needed for successful nurse leadership, consider an online degree program, such as Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online Master of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice. Find out how HPU can help you challenge yourself and advance your career.

Recommended Reading:

DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: What Are the Differences?

Nursing Job Growth: Opportunities for Advancement

What Is the Role of the Nurse Executive as a Leader


American Association of Post-Acute Care Nursing, “The Qualities and Skills of a Successful Director of Nursing Services”

ANA Enterprise, Chief Nursing Officer/Chief Nurse Executive

ANA Enterprise, Director of Nursing

CIO Bulletin, “Chief Nursing Officer vs. Director of Nursing: What’s the Difference”

Experience Care, “The 5 Steps to Becoming a Director of Nursing”

Incredible Health, “What Is a Chief Nursing Officer?”

Indeed, “How to Become a Director of Nursing in 7 Steps”

Indeed, “What Does a Chief Nursing Officer Do?”

Payscale, Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Salary

Payscale, Average Director, Nursing Salary

ZipRecruiter, “What Is a Chief Nursing Officer and How to Become One”