Types of Pharmaceutical Executives: Salaries and Careers

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New C-suite positions are emerging for inspired leaders with the knowledge and skills to embrace change and lead disruptive transformation.

Pharmaceutical companies and medical device suppliers are searching for a new set of leaders to help them adapt to shifting landscapes and new business models. Those who aspire to reach the heights of pharmaceutical leadership as pharmaceutical executives should expect strong competition and equip themselves with a dynamic and effective health care education to improve their odds of success.

Pharmacists working in a lab

What Is a Pharmaceutical Executive?

Pharmaceutical executives oversee the operations of companies that research, develop and produce drugs and medications. They make key strategic decisions that lead to pharmaceuticals that can advance patient care and improve outcomes. They also manage product quality, financial stability and growth; ensure that their organizations are in compliance with the many laws and regulations that govern the industry; and work with health insurance organizations to ensure that new medications qualify for their coverage.

The goal of pharmaceutical executives is to maintain operational stability and growth within the industry while creating an environment that helps produce innovative medicines and devices that can have profound impacts on patient health.

Types of Pharmaceutical Executives and Salaries

Pharmaceutical and medical supply companies are creating new types of pharmaceutical executive positions to help guide their organizations through transformational change.

In addition to helping companies keep up in an evolving and complicated field, these new executive roles have improved opportunities for women seeking pharmaceutical executive jobs. According to a 2022 Pharmaceutical Executive study, the percentage of women leaders on pharmaceutical executive teams rose from 21% to 28% between 2018 and 2021.

Below are some common pharmaceutical executive positions.

Chief Medical Officer

The chief medical officer (CMO) takes the “voice of the patient” role internally, usually reports to the CEO and often handles many external responsibilities. The CMO helps manage a number of functions in a pharmaceutical or medical device company, including overseeing the research and development of new products and guiding the launch of those products to the public.

According to the compensation website Payscale, the median annual income for a chief medical officer was about $305,800 as of June 2023. The position requires a medical degree along with experience in areas such as research, medical affairs and administrative functions.

Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer

In many pharmaceutical companies, the chief ethics and compliance officer position directly reports to the CEO or the board of directors. Chief ethics and compliance officers help maintain operations within their organization as well as approve any new initiatives that require executive budget approval, giving them a measure of financial authority. They review and develop an organization’s ethical policies to maintain high compliance standards while serving as an informational resource for all areas of compliance risk.

Payscale reports that the median salary for chief compliance officers was $127,000 as of June 2023.

Chief Quality Officer

As part of a long-term transformation beyond simple industry compliance, medical supply and big pharma companies look to chief quality officers (CQOs) — typically with roots in the quality function — to lead quality assurance and continuous improvement efforts.

CQOs are responsible for the quality of products or services provided to a client company. The efforts of their data collection determine how products and services can be improved, and they work alongside a risk-management team to bring that to fruition. CQOs often report directly to the CEO. More than half of executive quality officers hold a master’s degree and more than half hold a doctorate.

According to Payscale, as of April 2023, the median salary for chief quality officers was about $142,200.

Chief Operating Officer

Pharmaceutical companies must run efficiently and safely. Chief operating officers (COOs) manage production facilities and supply chains and monitor the rollout of new medications. They also play a role in overseeing business planning, regulatory affairs and human resource management.

According to Payscale, the median salary for chief operating officers was approximately $147,000 as of June 2023.

Types of Leadership

No matter the setting, it’s important to consider the effect different types of leadership might have on a team. As such, great care must go into understanding and selecting the best leader to achieve the strongest results. This rings especially true when considering the complexity of the pharmaceutical industry and the numerous pharmaceutical executive jobs that exist.

Transformational Leaders

These are executives with deep industry knowledge, social competency and a focus on innovation. They excel in leading organizations by applying their strategic vision and management skills.

Some executive leadership roles for transformational leaders include chief transformation officer, chief digital officer and chief data officer.

Ecosystem Leaders

Hospitals and health systems rely on partner organizations and third-party service providers to help treat patients and manage the health of at-risk populations. Medical supply and pharmaceutical companies are no different.

To improve health outcomes and streamline operations, organizations are investing in upper-level managers who can identify valuable partnerships and manage relationships with their partner network.

For individuals with a knack for relationship-building and a drive to understand how the multitude of players in the health care industry work together to create lasting value for patients, a career as a chief patient officer, chief public affairs officer or chief external innovation officer might be the right fit.

Enabling Leaders

The health care industry changes daily. Factors like mergers and acquisitions, internal restructuring, innovating cost-cutting measures and beyond contribute to organizational change that has the potential to cause challenges in the workplace.

The pharmaceutical industry, recognizing the cost of internal disruptions, employs two types of “enabling leaders” to help support employees, sustain transformation and maintain healthy work environments: people and culture leaders and productivity leaders. People and culture leaders are exactly as they sound — dedicated to ensuring well-being in the workplace. Productivity leaders are responsible for centralizing responsibilities as the health care industry grows in complexity.

With the right professional experience and credentials, individuals interested in supporting employees in the pharmaceutical industry may assume a role as a chief inclusion officer, chief culture officer or chief administration officer.

How to Become a Pharmaceutical Executive

Though there are multiple paths to becoming a pharmaceutical executive, with each pharmaceutical executive job coming with its own set of responsibilities and expectations, there is some overlap between them.

Chief among these are a deep knowledge of the health care industry and a developed sense of leadership ability. Both of these can be cultivated through earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business or health care-related fields. These degrees are often required by employers, as are years of industry-related experience.

To accumulate the experience needed to become a pharmaceutical executive, one must typically first spend time as a compliance officer, physician, medical director or related position. In some cases, that experience can lead to a specific role in the C-suite. For example, working as a director of patient safety can help an individual gain the experience needed for a CQO role. Those interested in pursuing a COO position might consider gaining experience as a hospital administrator.

Pursue a Career as a Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical executives play a key role in the health care industry and can help bring about innovation that leads to better patient health and wellness.

The online EMHA program at the USC Price School of Public Policy provides the resources to help you advance your career. The program offers a holistic environment designed to help mid- to senior-level professionals accelerate their careers. In this program, you can be immersed in theoretical and practical lessons, participate in rigorous coursework, discover opportunities to gain real-world experience and benefit from a collaborative learning environment — with a network of professional colleagues to provide support.

Find out how USC can help you develop the tools for success at the highest levels.

Recommended Readings

Health Care Economics in the U.S.: Key Insights for Upcoming Leaders
7 Ways to Improve Patient Outcomes
6 Examples of Health Disparities and Potential Solutions


American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, “ASHP Statement on the Roles and Responsibilities of the Pharmacy Executive” 
California Association for Healthcare Quality, “Chief Quality Officer”
Healthcare Transformers, “Transformational Leadership in Healthcare: What’s the Secret?”
Indeed, “Chief Medical Officer Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications”
Investopedia, “Chief Operating Officer (COO): Definition, Types, Qualifications”
Investopedia, “Compliance Officer: Definition, Job Duties, and How to Become One”
Payscale, “Average Chief Compliance Officer Salary”
Payscale, “Average Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Salary”
Payscale, “Average Chief Operating Officer (COO) Salary”
Payscale, “Average Chief Quality Officer Salary”
Pharmaceutical Executive, “Women and Delivery in Industry C-Suites: New Scorecards Tell the Story”
Xtalks, “Valuable Leadership Styles for Pharmaceutical Executives”