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Author Dr. Lucinda Jackson: “One of the myths about being a CEO is that you now call all the shots; Not true”

One of the myths is that you now call all the shots. Not true. Being an executive is a constant job of gaining consensus, obtaining by-in from all the stakeholders both external and internal. Another aspect of that is that what you say doesn’t necessarily happen! You need buy-in and must change people’s behavior to […]


One of the myths is that you now call all the shots. Not true. Being an executive is a constant job of gaining consensus, obtaining by-in from all the stakeholders both external and internal. Another aspect of that is that what you say doesn’t necessarily happen! You need buy-in and must change people’s behavior to make things happen. People need to believe in what you say in order to enact your visions, so much of the job is about gaining support.


As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lucinda Jackson, scientist and corporate executive. Dr. Jackson spent almost fifty years at three universities and four Fortune 500 companies where she experienced and witnessed the unequal treatment of women. This spurred her to write about how to change that dynamic and how to help women find their power in the workplace and in life. She has published peer-reviewed articles, patents, and book chapters and is working on a book series about female freedom and breaking old patterns. Her first book, Just a Girl: Growing Up Female and Ambitious, will be available everywhere in October 2019. Jackson grew up on America’s west coast, then received her PhD in science and continued speaking and serving on boards of academic, nonprofit, and industry organizations worldwide. She loves her fantastic women friends, reading, exercise (yoga, skiing, hiking, biking, swimming), and helping others. After Peace Corps volunteerism in Palau and teaching science in Mexico, Jackson and her husband returned recently to their home near San Francisco. They are immensely proud of their three liberated sons who are scattered around the globe.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Jackson! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

You can read about my backstory in my new book, Just a Girl: Growing Up Female and Ambitious. I explain in the book how I always loved science as a girl — setting out each day with my magnifying glass and jackknife in the back pocket of my jeans — to study ants and leaves in our neighborhood in southern California. That led me to a biology major in college, a PhD focusing on environmental and especially plants, and jobs in agriculture and the energy business — two industries with huge environmental issues. I also realized very young, at 8 or 9 years old, that my father had all the power and my mother had none. I didn’t want to ever be in her position, so it spurred me on to seek a challenging and important career path.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’m always interested in false assumptions that people make about others — generalizations or stereotypes that turn out not to be true. As a young woman, I sought an international assignment because I saw how that developed your global influence. But I was told women didn’t belong overseas. My managers rebuffed me with patronizing, illogical reasons such as the businessmen wouldn’t accept me, it’s not safe for women, and so on. Much later, as a leader, I was heading to Angola to meet with the Minister of Petroleum to discuss important environmental permits for our energy projects in that country. Many of my managers and colleagues fought it — proposing they should go instead, since the Minister might not like talking to a woman, he’d prefer to meet with a fellow petroleum engineer, and so on. I persevered and took the trip and the Minister turned out to be a woman — with a Botany background like mine, a PhD, and children of a similar age to mine. We really hit it off. I love breaking old paradigms and patterns!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The mistake I made landed me in a sink hole — literally, a huge hole in the ground filled with water and invisible from the surface — in the tropical forests of southern Nigeria. I guess it wasn’t funny, maybe funny as in strange and odd, since I would have drowned as my hip boots filled up with water and I sank — but it was a huge lesson. I was with a group of researchers and, as my first time in these beautiful forests, I wandered away from the pack as I gawked and marveled at the ecology of the place. Fortunately, just as only my head remained above-water, one of the men looked back, saw me, and formed a rescue team. I learned early on about safety as a critical part of being a leader, especially in active industries like mine. What I did — leave the group — is a story I used for years to role-model safe behaviors (and what not to do) to my employees. Safety sounds minor to some people, but my story helped others see it can save your life.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I wanted to save the world — I still do. I saw the great power big American corporations have in this world — politically, economically, environmentally — and I wanted to help make them the best that they could be. I investigated university professorships, government agencies, and non-profit organizations but I saw that as an executive of a large company, I could have access to people and resources and a seat at the table that you couldn’t get in those other venues.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As an executive, you can influence the vision and policies of a company. For example, “I had a dream” that my company look at ways to be more sustainable — save energy, water, land; reuse and recycle, and so on. When I first brought it up, I couldn’t get any backing for it. But, in the position I was in, I could form a grass-roots effort, make the business case — and today “Sustainability” is a key focus for the company. Another example is a vison I had that all our properties around the world would be monitored by satellite remote sensing — so we could see environmental impacts early. Again, initial support was weak, but today a whole section on Remote Sensing and the importance of it to environmental stewardship is in the latest corporate report. Both these examples would have been difficult to accomplish as an individual employee or manager.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Sorry — there are two things! First is the incredible people you get to work with at this level. Having a highly skilled staff and the resources to enable them is fantastic. Often companies are viewed as evil, but the Health, Environment, and Safety group are all passionate, focused scientists located around the world who want to do good. The second is the impact you can have. For example, the company has many remediated sites that are cleaned up after a project and closed, with a fence around them. We saw that these old sites could be used for other purposes and created a whole program of “Beneficial Reuse” such as a wind farm, a wetland, and other useful projects for society. Having visual examples of a better world has been very satisfying.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

You need to put in a constant, unrelenting effort. There really is no down time. Everyone knows where you are at every moment — you always must be available. Everything goes on your calendar, even your gym workouts, and your life is very transparent.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the myths is that you now call all the shots. Not true. Being an executive is a constant job of gaining consensus, obtaining by-in from all the stakeholders both external and internal. Another aspect of that is that what you say doesn’t necessarily happen! You need buy-in and must change people’s behavior to make things happen. People need to believe in what you say in order to enact your visions, so much of the job is about gaining support.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I cover this in detail in my book, Just a Girl: Growing Up Female and Ambitious, about the sexism that women leaders still face in our culture. Remember we are still a country that has never had a female president. A lot of it is very subtle and hard to get a handle on — like pay inequities, unequal opportunities, biases, etc. So, we must be diligent and ready to support other women for a long time to come.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

An executive position is much more political than I thought it would be. As a trained scientist, I thought “the truth will prevail” since I come from a fact-based discipline. It turns out that much of leadership is persuading people to follow your ideas and that involves charisma and the ability to conquer the crowd. As you reach higher levels, the environment becomes more competitive and aggressive with many big egos in the room. You will face people who put their whole lives into gaining power and think daily about how to do that. The job is more ruthless than I thought it would be, so you need to learn how to cope and some of the “tricks to the trade” to stay in the game.

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