CEO Spotlight

Interview with Laura Gassner Otting, Author, Catalyst, and Executive Coach

Laura Gassner Otting
Laura Gassner Otting (Image courtesy: Laura Gassner Otting/FILE PHOTO.)

Laura Gassner Otting inspires people to push past the doubt and indecision that keep great ideas in limbo by helping audiences think bigger and accept greater challenges that reach beyond their current, limited scope of belief. Her advice is undoubtedly precious to CEOs. 

Continue reading this interview to learn more about Laura Gassner Otting’s career, her path to success, and, of course, her new book Wonderhell: Why Success Doesn’t Feel Like It Should . . . and What to Do About It (Ideapress Publishing; 4 April 2023). Just one question for those reading the interview now: What else are you capable of doing?

Q: What would you say are the landmarks in your career so far?

Laura Gassner Otting: I’d say that I’ve had four distinct career phases. The first was in politics, as a presidential appointee in the Clinton White House, responsible for creating the AmeriCorps national service program in which more than 1M Americans have now served. 

The second was in executive search at one of the best firms in the country, learning from the best and the brightest how to do this work at the highest levels. 

The third was after I had a moment of rage about how we could do this work better, faster, with more authenticity and integrity, and with better profits for us and less cost for our clients, and I launched my own executive search firm; I was still doing search, but now I was an entrepreneur, a manager of people, a CEO. 

Finally, my fourth and current career has come after I successfully sold that firm after 15 years years to the people who helped me build it, and became an accidental keynote speaker (after a TEDx garnered me unexpected paid speaking gigs) and a bestselling author of two books, Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life and the upcoming Wonderhell: Why Success Doesn’t Feel Like It Should… and What to Do About It.

Q: What is the one and only piece of advice you would give to a newly appointed CEO?

Laura Gassner Otting: Not every CEO loves the spotlight. Our conventional idea of leadership demands that the more we succeed, the more we get pushed to center stage—even if we don’t like it there. We are thrust to the head of the table, when really the relationships and networking happen elsewhere. We are asked to speak more, so we end up listening less. 

This idealized, one-size-fits-all construct actually constructs worse leaders. It is exhausting to be someone else. It’s untenable. So, keep learning, keep listening, keep growing, but more than anything else, keep being you.

Finally, remember that you are in the spotlight, but your only role there is to shine light on others. The spotlight may be on you, but the people you love, the causes you serve, and the businesses you build are the true stars of the show. Keep them in the spotlight, and you will succeed.

Q: What does success mean for you?

Laura Gassner Otting: Success means having the freedom and flexibility to continue to do interesting things with interesting people because that’s always been the source of interesting opportunities. I’ve long felt that, as a CEO, you get to choose two of three things to maximize: freedom, impact, or profits. I’ve always made decisions first and foremost on freedom and impact, and the profit then always followed.

Q: Why do you think that your TedTalk resonated with so many people?

Laura Gassner Otting: My talk tapped into the emotion that people don’t ever discuss: that success can sometimes be worse than failure. In that moment when you success (it’s wonderful!), you see a version of yourself that you never knew existed and the pressure to fulfill this newfound potential can also be hell. 

We are always told that things will get easier as soon as we get through this one stomach churning, butt-clenching, fight or flight moment… but it never does. And we are left wondering why, and what to do next. I think my talk helps people feel not alone in this space between who they were yesterday and who they just realized they can become tomorrow, and also gives them a roadmap of what to do with this tsunami of emotions hurtling towards them.

Q: What was your inspiration for your new book, «Wonderhell»?

Laura Gassner Otting: When Limitless launched as a surprise bestseller, I found myself in Wonderhell myself. In the weeks leading up to launch day, I’d gone to sleep in ten different time zones and woken up in twenty new hotel beds. But at this moment, I was somewhere around 35,000 feet in the air with 1,200 miles behind me and 1,200 more to go. I knew only one thing for certain: somewhere between the blur that was «the past» and the blur that would be «the future» was the space I was in at present: upright and locked in a center seat on a red-eye flight, headed home at last— nine toes over the edge of incompetence, teetering precariously, with no safety net in sight. 

But all of the work had, well, worked and the book became a best seller.

Suddenly I asked myself, «Well, if I can do that… what else am I capable of doing?». And the pressure was on.

Q: What is your vision for this book?

Laura Gassner Otting: When I found myself in Wonderhell, I searched for answers. I attempted to crush it, to lean in, to 10x—and for what it’s worth, I also tried to wash my face, stop apologizing, and become a #girlboss. None of this worked for me. And, it certainly didn’t work for the thousands of leaders whom I steered through pivotal career and life shifts during my twenty-year career in executive search.

So I set about doing some homework. I spoke to nearly one hundred glass-ceiling breakers, Olympic medalists, start-up unicorns, and everyday people in search of a way through Wonderhell. Each one of these successful individuals talked about doing what they never thought possible. And each one of them also shared how, at each stage and at each phase, they experienced a crushing combination of doubt, vulnerability, envy, impostor syndrome, exhaustion, and burnout. But each one made it to the other side of Wonderhell—and was the better for it. In their stories are lessons for all of us, and with Wonderhell, I hope to spread those learnings.

And, in a perfect world, I’d do this with the book, and through podcasts, media, and through keynote speeches to companies, conferences, and communities.

Have you read?
How raising your emotional intelligence can make you the best salesperson in the room by Christopher Golis.
The Great Resignation is Over – Or Is It by Walt Brown.
How to (Really) Build Cross-Cultural Competence from Education Abroad Experiences by Dr. Paula Caligiuri.
To Achieve Top Performance, Growth Mindset is Not Enough by Brent Keltner.
Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man 3rd Edition – China’s EHM Strategy; Ways to Stop the Global Takeover, by John Perkins by Ladys Patino.

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Maria Gourtsilidou
Maria Gourtsilidou is Senior Editor of Research and Data Analytics at the CEOWORLD magazine. She is responsible for driving thought leadership, using data analytics to showcase the company’s products and services, and fostering knowledge sharing between CEOWORLD magazine and client organizations. She studied Public Administration (Economics Of The Public Sector) in Greece and holds a Bachelor’s in Public Administration from the Panteion University of Political & Social Studies. Follow Maria Gourtsilidou on Twitter. Write at