Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 Southeast Award winner

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – There are many aspects of being a senior business leader that I really enjoy, perhaps none more than engaging with students, young professionals and those on the cusp of joining the executive ranks. Speaking with MBA students, coaching individuals or teams and mentoring teammates at The Diversity Movement, I am frequently asked how a person flips the internal switch from managerial-level success and personal excellence in their current roles to thinking like an executive. 

As people grow and transition into more responsible leadership roles, an invisible – often formidable – obstacle stands in their way: accountability. This version of accountability is specific, because many star performers are used to or comfortable with general accountability. They are in the positions they have or feel they are ready for the next level precisely because they do their jobs really well. The difference in what I am describing is that executives must be willing to shoulder organizational accountability based on results. In my own journey to the C-suite, I have seen many leaders stumble at this crucial juncture. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

For example, most people have good ideas. Yet, few are willing to put their ideas up against a high degree of scrutiny. As a result, you have to be confident enough to make the resulting tough decisions when others won’t. Adding pressure to the process, most challenges that come to a leader’s desk are not straightforward or can be resolved with a simple “yes” or “no.” An executive is always living in that gray space, so confidence and accountability walk hand-in-hand. 


At a point in their leadership path, aspiring executives have to differentiate between reasons and excuses. The easy excuse is to attribute setbacks to external factors, such as turbulence in the market, economic challenges or even crises at the global level. These are undoubtedly reasons for adversity, but they should not be excuses for failing to meet and exceed your targets.

Let me illustrate this with a story from my early days as a CEO. In 2007 the world faced a serious financial crisis that even the most astute economists didn’t see coming. The mortgage crisis was wreaking havoc on the global economy. Businesses across many sectors were feeling the pinch. Our company, focused on selling into the manufacturing industry, was no exception.

There weren’t many signs of hope. As CEO, I could have used the recession as a rationale for giving in. Instead, we didn’t allow external events to define our capabilities. We adopted a mindset of adaptability, resilience and creative problem-solving. We navigated by negotiating intelligently. We adjusted our margins in the short term and worked to secure a greater market share of the market, even amid adversity. Our competitors may have suffered, but we thrived.

This experience taught me a vital lesson: accountability shouldn’t waver when there are obstacles in the path. What could have been an excuse turned into a reason to reorient the entire organization. At a moment when it seemed like the odds were against us, we ensured security and growth by using the down economy as a rallying point, while simultaneously being smartly aggressive. 


Along with accountability, the move into an executive role necessitates the willingness to lead others with a winning mentality. The best leaders understand that creating a culture-centric organization prepared to win takes determination to lead from the front so that the entire company benefits. That standard of excellence enables teams to consistently deliver exceptional results. 

How does this work on a day-to-day basis? With a mindset focused on personal accountability, you are looking at what works best overall, not pointing fingers. For example, if there’s friction between teams or individuals, it’s not about blaming the other side. Instead, a winning mentality enables you to create a culture where teams communicate and collaborate. Rather than blaming someone or something for shortcomings or so-so results, you ask, “What can I do to make this more effective?” 

We live in a snap decision society with social media driving a “thumb’s up, thumb’s down” mentality. This might work online but not in building an executive mindset. Rather than assigning blame, find solutions collaboratively. Inserting yourself into conflict and assuming accountability is not easy, but it demonstrates the type of culture you want as an executive.


A significant misstep emerging leaders take is believing that someone else is responsible for their growth and success. This fallacy inhibits progress. Leaders who want to become executives step forward and say, “I can do more.” They understand that to be paid differently, to take on additional leadership, they must work differently. These leaders strike a balance between work and life, yet their approach to work sets them apart.

This mentality translates into action when an aspiring leader creates a strategy for success. For example, instead of waiting for mentors to seek you out, take the initiative to approach those who are in the type of role you hope to earn. Express your willingness to contribute more, to take on additional responsibilities and to learn from the challenges that come your way.

The transition to the executive level hinges on a fundamental shift from letting forces direct you to being an active player doing everything possible to learn and grow. A leader’s mindset is built on personal accountability and creating a winning mentality that thrives when the wind is at your back, as well as when you face obstacles. Remember: reasons aren’t excuses. 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. 

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.