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 – Everywhere you turn, you hear conflicting news and predictions – the 2024 economy is going to soar or it’s going to tank. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the savior or the path to humanity’s ultimate demise. The list goes on and on.

If there is one certainty in the noise of everyday life as an executive, it’s that flexibility and change are constant. Let’s be direct – it’s no easy feat to be CEO. Many leaders who find themselves in the role after a lifetime of pursuing the opportunity realize that it comes with a kaleidoscope of challenges. Every decision carries a heavy burden of accountability that is monumentally greater than what most people experience on the rise to the position.

More than ever, the C-suite is a testing ground that requires strategic prowess and emotional resilience. The expectation of success across both areas amps up the pressure on leaders, no matter their experience level. For many aspiring executives, the magnitude and scope of joining the senior ranks leaves them at a crossroads. 

Since many people are in a reflective mood at the end of the year, let’s use this space to discuss strategies for successfully moving into executive leadership roles and then how to successfully wield that power to build workplace excellence. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson


When I am coaching executives early in their careers or aspiring toward the C-suite, I ask them to think deeply about the emotional temperament that it takes for that level of responsibility. Basically, the rising leader must consider if they have the mental strength to fill the role. C-suite executives have total accountability, which most people do not deal with in their day-to-day roles. 

Aspiring leaders often don’t realize that as a CEO, every word you utter becomes a potential misstep. Legitimate discontent is always a potential outcome, particularly when viewed through the lens of people’s power and influence or when arguing for limited resources. And, the emotional pull intensifies when you consider that you wake up each day with someone legitimately angry or upset with you because of a particular decision. 

Even the CEO’s alleged power is suspect. Actually, you’re just hoping that your top people come back to work each day.


The most common mistake I’ve seen C-suite leaders make, especially when managing new teams, is in how they give assignments. High-performing individuals yearn for a defined outcome, not a rigid set of instructions.

While functional expertise is vital, providing the space for creativity to flourish by outlining expectations – rather than micromanaging processes – ensures your talented teammates remain  engaged. As the senior executive, you need to set standards, offer support and allow brilliance to emerge organically. That is how you get your most talented people to stay with you and provide opportunities for the best ideas to emerge.

The added benefit is that team dynamics will improve, which your direct reports will then replicate with their teams. When people see that they are going to be rewarded – whether financially, in greater responsibilities or higher rank – they push harder toward the accomplishment. 


Linking aspirations with assignments also establishes a definition of excellence for both individuals and the organization as a whole. As an executive, if I create this culture, then I’m helping you create the path that fulfills your aspirations. In fact, we’re helping one another be great.

Drawing from personal experience, the impact of this type of leadership becomes apparent. My mentor Grant Willard motivated me by establishing the pathway to achievement. He aligned his coaching and instructions with my end goal of becoming a CEO. He pushed me hard, but I loved it. Grant created a path that allowed me to understand how I was progressing toward my aspiration, even when we hit rough patches along the way.

By understanding and leveraging the aspirations of team members, executives can pave the way for collective greatness. Your power as CEO is to understand how to inspire greatness for others, even if your personal success has been built on individual accomplishment. 

At The Diversity Movement, our focus has been on building better workplaces via a diversity lens that enables tens of thousands of employees to gain a greater sense of belonging and experience enhanced well-being. This is a collective effort that harnesses the skills of my leadership team and the entire company. 

The work we’ve done with our clients has shown that companies with strong employees who make up highly collaborative teams are ready to win in the marketplace. To achieve that end, they need to establish workplace excellence, and that’s our specialty. Whether it is from an ESG perspective or just creating better collaboration, innovation and profitability, we feel that businesses can benefit people and the planet, while also being profitable. 

At TDM, we’re convinced that we can change the world. As a leader, this is my aspiration, despite the high degree of difficulty. In 2024, we’ll continue to confront the challenge head on.

About the Author 

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 79 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. 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.