Who Gets the Corner Office and Why?

This week, I am responding to a question I received through LinkedIn: “What differentiates a great CEO from ordinary people? Why only a few people get promoted and become a senior executive?”


First of all, these are great questions and a good observation to make as you enter the workforce. It is true, not many people rise to the levels of senior management and even less to the top positions like CEO or Executive Director.  I think it is important for people in environmental careers to have an idea where they see themselves in the future and even toward the end of their careers. When we do the visioning exercise in coaching, people are often leery of writing anything specific for an end career goal which is understandable. However, you can easily set yourself up to be labeled a field person when you'd rather be progressing and gaining leadership experience, just as it is easy to be pulled in to management when you'd rather be working closely with your subjects in the field. Getting clear on this for yourself early will help steer your career.


There are many factors at play here. The first and obvious reason that few make it to the top is that there are not many of these positions to go around.  In a perfect world, advancement opportunity comes down to sheer planning, professional development, and experience. However, we're not operating in a perfect world and you must look at the reality. The reality is that not all workplaces operate equally and sometimes its all about who you know. Many businesses have added "diversity" or some other equivalent to their core values, but when you see who's in charge it tells a different story. If we're looking at why one person makes it over another, demographics aside, if that one person has had a high-level management career vision and they’ve been working on personal development and purposefully gaining leadership experience they will be more likely to climb higher and faster. 


Experience and learning are one thing but also being in the right place at the right time helps. Many people wait in the ranks for years waiting to take over a top position like CEO or Executive director or whatever the equivalent might be only to get passed by via politics, bureaucracy, or favoritism. Don’t let that happen to you, get good at reading the situation and having your career plan at your side. If executive leadership is what you’re after, ask yourself if you are in the right place and if it will it ever be the right time.


As far as what makes one CEO great versus ordinary, it comes down to many aspects but if I had to name a few differentiators I would list genuinely caring about people, trusting the people who help make the business vision happen, walking the talk, and self-awareness. When you advance to the top level you're exposed to public opinion, altered perceptions, and how you handle yourself plays a huge role in whether you're seen as great or ordinary. For example, a director was brought on as the executive director for a statewide environmental regulatory agency and her first act in office was to fire at least 25 people. To some, she did a strong brave thing that needed to be done as they now operate much more effectively. To others, it was an unforgivable act no matter what the outcome. Ultimately, as a great CEO you have to do what you think is right for the right people. 


To summarize, here are some key takeaways:

  • There are limited top-level positions in any one company. If that is what you ultimately strive for be sure your career plan has options.  
  • Only YOU hold the keys to your career vision and only YOU can find the doors that they will unlock. You will only advance so far if you sit around and wait for someone to lift you up.
  • Being the best boss/CEO/director isn’t about any one thing, its how you are a role model in all things that typically make a difference. Of course, there are always exceptions.
  • If becoming top brass in your field is important to you, investigate who the revered leaders are in your industry and learn what you can from their experiences and insights.
  • Behind every good leader, there is someone else who helped to lift them up; find your supporters.
  • Get very clear on what your values are so that as you move up the ladder no one ever makes you compromise them.


You may also enjoy the personal development webinar and the personal development worksheet for environmental professionals.


If you have an environmental career question you'd like to see answered in a future post, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.


Stay gold!



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