Bureaucracies are configured differently to private sector and political organizations. Across a wide range of civil services entry is competitive, promotion is constrained by seniority, jobs are for life and retirement occurs at a fixed age. This implies that older entering officers, who are less likely to attain the glittering prize of reaching the top of the bureaucracy before they retire, may be less motivated to exert effort. Using a nationwide stakeholder survey and rich administrative data on elite civil servants in India we provide evidence that: (i) officers who cannot reach the senior-most positions before they retire are perceived to be less effective and are more likely to be suspended and (ii) this effect is weakened by a reform that extends the retirement age. Together these results suggest that the career incentive of reaching the top of a public organization is a powerful determinant of bureaucrat performance.