Types of Pharmaceutical Executives and Leaders

New C-suite positions are emerging for inspired leaders with the strength to fully 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 a pharmaceutical executive should expect strong competition and equip themselves with a dynamic and effective health care education to improve their odds of success.

Types of Pharmaceutical Executives

Pharmaceutical and medical supply companies are creating new types of pharmaceutical executive positions to help guide their organizations through transformational change. They are seeking those who are, according to an analysis from Russell Reynolds Associates published in Pharmaceutical Executive, “patient-centric driven, have greater content and scientific expertise, and can understand insights from the vast amount of real-world data generated” in today’s market.

The average senior pharma leadership team among the top 50 pharmaceutical companies consists of 11 or 12 members, ranging from as few as 4 to as many as 28.

Some of the common pharmaceutical executive positions include the following.

Chief Medical Officer

The chief medical officer 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 research and development of new products and guiding the launch of those products to the public.

According to the compensation website PayScale, in April 2021 the median annual income for a chief medical officer was about $300,000. It’s a position that requires a medical degree, along with experience in areas such as research, medical affairs, and regulatory affairs.

Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer

Within many pharmaceutical companies, the chief ethics and compliance officer position directly reports to the CEO or the board of directors. This is in light of legal and public opinion developments that can have a negative effect on the industry. However, this position has several other responsibilities.

Chief ethics and compliance officers help maintain the 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.

A 2019 survey of chief compliance officers (CCOs) by Compliance Week found about 70% of respondents had a master’s, Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Juris Doctor (JD) degree. About 55% of respondents were women. PayScale reports the median annual salary for a CCO at about $120,000 as of April 2021.

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 2021 the median annual salary for a chief quality officer was about $116,000.

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, especially when considering the different types of pharmaceutical executives.

Transformational Leaders

These are executives with deep industry knowledge, social competency and a focus on innovation. They will 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. From mergers and acquisitions, to internal restructuring, to innovating cost-cutting measures and beyond, organizational changes have 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 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 in how to become a pharmaceutical executive, with different expectations required for different roles, there is some overlap between all of them. Chief among these expectations are a deep knowledge of the health care industry and a developed sense of leadership ability. Both of these are typically cultivated through earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business or health care-related fields. These degrees are most 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.

Pursue a Career in Pharmaceutical Leadership

An executive MHA program brings together mid-career professionals from across the health care industry to accelerate their executive futures. The Executive MHA online program at the USC Price School of Public Policy provides the resources to advance careers.

Among its robust offerings are theoretical and practical lessons; challenging coursework; the opportunity to gain real-world experiences; a collaborative learning environment; and a network of sophisticated, professional colleagues who provide support at every turn.

Recommended Readings

Health Care Economics in the United States: Key Insights for Upcoming Leaders

6 Examples of Health Disparities and Potential Solutions

7 Ways to Improve Patient Outcomes



Compliance Week, “CCO Compensation Data Represents Big Strides for Women”

HealthcareTransformers, “Transformational Leadership in Healthcare: What’s the Secret?”

PayScale, Average Chief Compliance Officer

PayScale, Average Chief Medical Officer

PayScale, Average Chief Quality Officer

Pharmaceutical Executive, “Navigating Through Disruption: A Pharma 50 View”