Hpw Bril­liant Ca­reers Are Made - And un­made

Every­one has blind spots and weak­nesses. By iden­ti­fy­ing and ad­dress­ing your own chal­lenges, you can ac­cel­er­ate your ca­reer.

Rotman Management Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Carter Cast

some ca­reers flour­ish, while oth­ers HAVE YOU EVER WON­DERED WHY stall? ‘Ca­reer de­rail­ment’ oc­curs when an in­di­vid­ual pre­vi­ously deemed to have strong po­ten­tial is fired, de­moted or plateaus be­low ex­pected lev­els of suc­cess. Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics, some­where be­tween 30 and 67 per cent of lead­ers in­vol­un­tar­ily de­rail at some point in their ca­reer.

Not sur­pris­ingly, ca­reer de­rail­ment car­ries high costs: The direct and in­di­rect cost to or­ga­ni­za­tions can be more than 20 times the de­railed em­ploy­ees’ salaries. Given the stakes in­volved for in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions alike, I re­cently set out to pin­point the ma­jor causes of ca­reer de­rail­ment. In this ar­ti­cle I will share key find­ings from the re­search, lay out the be­hav­iours that can stall a ca­reer and of­fer reme­dies to help peo­ple avoid de­rail­ment.

Ca­reer De­rail­ment 101

First and fore­most, ca­reer de­rail­ment does not in­di­cate a lack of man­age­rial tal­ent. In­stead, it of­ten af­flicts tal­ented man­agers who are ei­ther un­aware of a de­bil­i­tat­ing weak­ness or in­ter­per­sonal blind spot — or are ar­ro­gant enough to be­lieve that the rules don’t ap­ply to them.

As part of my re­search, I con­ducted ex­ten­sive in­ter­views with three lead­er­ship con­sult­ing firms: the Cen­tre for Cre­ative Lead­er­ship, the Korn Ferry In­sti­tute and the Hay Group. All three in­di­cated that or­ga­ni­za­tions pre­fer to fo­cus on the pos­i­tive and don’t even like to dis­cuss peo­ples’ neg­a­tive qual­i­ties. The prob­lem is, these per­sonal weak­nesses of­ten over­ride an in­di­vid­ual’s strengths. Fol­low­ing are five ma­jor ca­reer de­rail­ers that ev­ery leader should be aware of.

DERAILER 1: IN­TER­PER­SONAL IS­SUES. Re­searchers agree that this is the most preva­lent and dam­ag­ing derailer. Stu­art Ka­plan, the former global chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Korn Ferry’s lead­er­ship and tal­ent con­sult­ing prac­tice (now direc­tor of or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment at Google) put it this way:

“As you progress [in your ca­reer], your re­la­tion­ships with oth­ers are more im­por­tant than your knowl­edge of and re­la­tion­ship with data. This need kicks in as you move into mid­dle and up­per man­age­ment. It’s a mind­set change. You have to let go of hav­ing the answer and em­brace the re­la­tional world. It be­comes less about com­pe­ten­cies and more about trust.”

To ex­am­ine this derailer more closely, I broke it down into two cat­e­gories: re­la­tional is­sues and dark-side per­son­al­ity di­men­sions.

On the re­la­tional front, Korn Ferry an­a­lyzed a tremen­dous amount of data from its 360-de­gree feed­back in­stru­ment (VOICES®) and found a to­tal of 19 neg­a­tive be­havioural char­ac­ter­is­tics that re­li­ably cor­re­late to job per­for­mance flame-out. Ten of them are re­lated specif­i­cally to re­la­tional is­sues. The five most com­mon are, in de­scend­ing or­der: de­fen­sive­ness; lack of com­po­sure un­der stress; in­sen­si­tiv­ity to oth­ers’ feel­ings; ex­cess am­bi­tion; and ar­ro­gance. De­fen­sive­ness leads the way in terms of ca­reer dam­age be­cause it of­ten sup­presses one’s abil­ity to learn and de­velop.

Look­ing at the sec­ond cat­e­gory, dark-side per­son­al­ity di­men­sions in­volve dys­func­tional dis­po­si­tions that are as­so­ci­ated with fail­ure as a man­ager. Psy­chol­o­gists Joyce and Robert Ho­gan have con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search on de­rail­ment re­sult­ing from per­sonal fac­tors and cre­ated an in­ven­tory as­sess­ment tool that man­agers can take to test for these di­men­sions. David Dotlich and Peter Cairo put the Ho­gans’ model into prac­tice with their own tool, the CDR In­ter­na­tional De­rail­ment Re­port, which they have ad­min­is­tered to thou­sands of man­agers and ex­ec­u­tives. In do­ing so they have con­firmed the ac­cu­racy of the Ho­gans’ di­men­sions. In Why CEOS Fail, they write:

“Many lead­ers sab­o­tage them­selves, al­beit un­con­sciously. We’ve found all lead­ers are vul­ner­a­ble to 11 de­rail­ers— deeply in­grained per­son­al­ity traits that af­fect their lead­er­ship style and ac­tions. Odds are that you pos­sess at least one of these traits.”

Dotlich and Cairo’s 11 de­rail­ers are as fol­lows:

You’re right and ev­ery­body else is wrong.


You al­ways grab the cen­tre of at­ten­tion.


Your mood swings drive busi­ness swings.


The next de­ci­sion you make may

• EX­CES­SIVE CAU­TION: be your first.

You fo­cus on the neg­a­tives.


You dis­en­gage and dis­con­nect.


Rules are made to be bro­ken.


It’s fun to be dif­fer­ent just for the sake of it.


Your si­lence is mis­in­ter­preted as

• PAS­SIVE RE­SIS­TANCE: agree­ment. Get the lit­tle things right even if the big

• PERFECTIONISM: things go wrong.

Win­ning the pop­u­lar­ity con­test

• EA­GER­NESS TO PLEASE: mat­ters most.

Ac­cord­ing to Dotlich and Cairo, most man­agers pos­sess at least two or three of these de­rail­ers. This statis­tic might seem alarm­ing, but it needn’t be. The un­known en­emy is the most fear­some. By un­der­stand­ing our own de­rail­ment propen­si­ties, we can ad­dress them and mit­i­gate their po­ten­tial to cause trou­ble.


Peo­ple who suf­fer from this derailer tend to do at least one — and some­times all — of the fol­low­ing:

Those who over-man­age don’t em­power • THEY OVER-MAN­AGE. their team mem­bers and are over-con­trol­ling and med­dling. As a re­sult, team mem­bers find their ef­forts thwarted and can lose their sense of au­ton­omy and their de­sire to take the ini­tia­tive. Those who over-man­age are also poor del­e­ga­tors. Be­cause they were of­ten ef­fec­tive in­di­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors, they tend to re­vert to that be­hav­iour and try to do the work them­selves.

These lead­ers don’t com• THEY FAIL TO BUILD AND LEAD THE TEAM. mu­ni­cate busi­ness pri­or­i­ties or pro­vide the nec­es­sary strate­gic con­text for as­sign­ments, so their team mem­bers fail to un­der­stand how their work fits within the over­all strat­egy of the team, the depart­ment or the or­ga­ni­za­tion. They also find it dif­fi­cult to re­solve in­ter­per­sonal, re­source-al­lo­ca­tion or work­flow/process-re­lated prob­lems within the team in a timely man­ner, re­duc­ing its ef­fec­tive­ness, and they do a poor job of de­vel­op­ing the func­tional and man­age­rial skills of their direct re­ports.

Manag­ing team mem• THEY DON’T MAN­AGE THE TEAM’S CON­TEXT. bers one-on-one isn’t the same as manag­ing a team. Manag­ing a team means also manag­ing the team’s con­text, which en­tails:

De­fen­sive­ness leads the way in terms of ca­reer dam­age be­cause it of­ten sup­presses one’s abil­ity to learn and de­velop.

Scan­ning the com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment and mak­ing ad­just1) ments to strat­egy based on an on­go­ing as­sess­ment; Lob­by­ing for and se­cur­ing re­sources for the team;


En­sur­ing strate­gic and project align­ment with other in­ter­nal 3) func­tions; and

En­sur­ing that team ob­jec­tives, goals and key per­for­mance 4) in­di­ca­tors (KPIS) are clear — and are met.

DERAILER 3: DIF­FI­CULTY ADAPT­ING TO CHANGE Al­most two-thirds of man­agers who have de­railed were de­scribed as be­ing ‘un­able to change or adapt’. As peo­ple rise through or­ga­ni­za­tions and busi­ness sit­u­a­tions be­come more com­plex, adapt­abil­ity be­comes in­creas­ingly im­por­tant. With ad­di­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity, more con­stituen­cies and po­lit­i­cal nu­ances must be man­aged. As my col­league, Kel­logg Pro­fes­sor Kevin Mur­nane puts it: “As you progress, you need to move from the tech­ni­cal to the in­ter­per­sonal and from cer­tainty to am­bi­gu­ity.”

This derailer can be trig­gered by three things:

The most com­mon rea­son for de­railCHANGING CIR­CUM­STANCES. ment here is that a per­son gets pro­moted into a new po­si­tion and doesn’t have the req­ui­site skills or hasn’t taken the time to un­der­stand the job re­quire­ments — and con­tin­ues to act and be­have in the same man­ner as be­fore be­ing pro­moted. A com­mon is­sue af­ter pro­mo­tion is the dif­fi­culty of mak­ing the men­tal tran­si­tion from be­ing a ‘tech­ni­cal man­ager’ to a ‘gen­eral man­ager’ and mov­ing from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Some peo­ple also have great dif­fi­culty un­der­stand­ing and ac­cept­ing fun­da­men­tal shifts in the macro en­vi­ron­ment and mak­ing the nec­es­sary ad­just­ments.

An­other com­mon rea­son for OVER-DE­PEN­DENCE ON AN AD­VO­CATE. de­rail­ment within this cat­e­gory is over-de­pen­dence on a pre­vi­ous boss or ad­vo­cate. Peo­ple fre­quently strug­gle when they lose their old boss and gain a new one who has a dif­fer­ent agenda and man­age­ment style.

These in­clude not seek­ing in­put or be­ing PER­SON­AL­ITY TRAITS. un­able to take di­rec­tion from oth­ers; be­ing fear­ful of change (es­pe­cially of ap­pear­ing in­ept); hav­ing nar­row in­ter­ests; lack­ing cu­rios­ity; and pre­fer­ring the sta­tus quo, even when faced with new chal­lenges that ne­ces­si­tate a change in ap­proach.

DERAILER 4: LACK OF STRATE­GIC ORI­EN­TA­TION This derailer can be bro­ken into three com­po­nents:

This means re­ly­ing on the same • OVER-DE­PEN­DENCE ON ONE SKILL. skill or small set of skills to get any job done and not rec­og­niz­ing the im­por­tance of a broad­ened skill set, and it of­ten comes with a bias for one’s func­tional area of ex­per­tise. The old adage, ‘If all you have is a ham­mer, ev­ery­thing looks like a nail’ comes to mind. For ex­am­ple, a chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer try­ing to pin a re­turn on in­vest­ment to all pro­jects, even those that are ex­ploratory or con­cep­tual; or an en­ter­prise sales man­ager say­ing, ‘Selling is selling; I don’t need to un­der­stand how our new client soft­ware por­tal works’.

In the book Po­ten­tial — For What?, the Hay Group lists such nar­row­ness as a crit­i­cal derailer: “A nar­row and short-sighted em­pha­sis on im­me­di­ate re­sults and/or tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise — this is the op­po­site of lat­eral think­ing and tak­ing a broader view.” All things change, and one of the re­quire­ments for higher-level man­age­ment and ca­reer ful­fil­ment is broad­ness and di­ver­sity.

This of­ten takes three forms: BE­ING NON-STRATE­GIC.

1. Be­ing a whirl­wind of ex­e­cu­tion and not pulling back to ex­am­ine and un­der­stand the strate­gic con­text sur­round­ing the work. Given the propen­sity for this, when I worked at Wal­mart. com I fre­quently urged my team to re­mem­ber to ‘zoom in’ or ‘pull back’;

2. Be­ing too tech­ni­cally ori­ented, overly con­cerned with project de­tails, get­ting mired in the tac­tics of the busi­ness and los­ing touch with its over-arch­ing ob­jec­tive; and

3. Lack­ing a holis­tic un­der­stand­ing of how the pieces of the busi­ness fit to­gether — not grasp­ing the value chain, the process or ac­tiv­i­ties by which a com­pany adds con­sumer/cus­tomer value.

This is­sue con­cerns not hav­ing • HAV­ING A KEY SKILL DE­FI­CIENCY. a key skill nec­es­sary to be suc­cess­ful in a po­si­tion. Some of the

Those who over-man­age don’t em­power their team mem­bers and are over-con­trol­ling and med­dling.

causal fac­tors for this are: count­ing back­wards to re­tire­ment and not tak­ing on new chal­lenges or learn­ing new skills; younger man­agers suf­fer­ing from gen­eral in­ex­pe­ri­ence; lack­ing tech­ni­cal or func­tional skills; be­ing new to the job or func­tion and also not be­ing in­ter­ested in self-de­vel­op­ment.


This last derailer is an in­sid­i­ous one. When man­agers can­not be counted on to de­liver on com­mit­ments, they lose their per­sonal cred­i­bil­ity and co-workers slowly but surely back away and avoid work­ing with them. Fol­low­ing are five rea­sons for poor fol­low-through.

Peo­ple suf­fer­ing from • POOR PLAN­NING AND OR­GA­NI­ZA­TIONAL SKILLS. this derailer are of­ten dis­or­ga­nized and are not de­tail ori­ented, which can lead to un­met com­mit­ments.

Ef­fec­tive man­agers are able to dif• TROU­BLE PRI­OR­I­TIZ­ING WORK. fer­en­ti­ate high-im­pact work from busy work and pri­or­i­tize their time ac­cord­ingly. They use var­i­ous heuris­tics to pri­or­i­tize, plan and ex­e­cute their work. An af­flic­tion from which in­ef­fec­tive man­agers suf­fer is what I call ‘work­ing in re­sponse mode,’ wherein they al­low in­ter­rup­tion af­ter in­ter­rup­tion to im­pede their progress on im­por­tant pro­jects by re­spond­ing, like Pavlov’s dogs, ev­ery time a text or email mes­sage comes in over the tran­som.

Peo­ple who have trou­ble de­liv­er­ing on prom­ises • BE­ING A PLEASER. are of­ten pleasers who never say ‘no’ to a re­quest for fear of dis­ap­point­ing their co-workers. As a re­sult, they over-com­mit and un­der-de­liver.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, man­agers • NOT UN­DER­STAND­ING DUE PROCESS. who ex­e­cute poorly of­ten lack an un­der­stand­ing of the due process re­quired in­side their busi­ness unit or com­pany. They tend to have a naive or in­ad­e­quate un­der­stand­ing of the ac­tion steps, the work flow, the func­tional and cross-func­tional de­pen­den­cies, and the nec­es­sary stake­holder ap­provals re­quired to com­plete an ini­tia­tive in­side their com­pany. As a re­sult, they as­sume they can ac­com­plish ac­tiv­i­ties or pro­jects in an un­re­al­is­tic time frame.

Peo­ple who suf­fer from grandios• SUF­FER­ING FROM GRANDIOS­ITY. ity of­ten are cre­ative, cu­ri­ous, highly con­cep­tual peo­ple who are spir­ited and full of big ideas. When this trait goes into over­drive, how­ever, their strengths can be­come weak­nesses. They be­come en­am­oured of their game-chang­ing, high-con­cept ideas and are dis­tracted from fol­low­ing through on the mun­dane tasks or pro­jects for which they are ac­count­able.

De­rail­ment Reme­dies

All pos­i­tive change — whether be­com­ing a bet­ter leader, learn­ing to be more adapt­able, think­ing less nar­rowly or im­prov­ing fol­low-through skills — be­gins with self-aware­ness. This trait is mis­sion crit­i­cal. A lack of self-aware­ness is the sin­gle best in­di­ca­tor of an in­di­vid­ual’s im­pend­ing de­rail­ment. For those who want to im­prove their self-aware­ness and proac­tively tend to their blind spots, I rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing.

A hand­ful of or­gaSEEK 360-DE­GREE FEED­BACK FROM CO-WORKERS. niza­tions do a fine job of ad­min­is­ter­ing, in­ter­pret­ing and coach­ing man­agers and ex­ec­u­tives through some type of multi-source as­sess­ment. I urge every­one — re­gard­less of level — to go through this type of as­sess­ment process.


Al­though none of us likes the prospect of DE­FEAT­ING BE­HAV­IOURS. hear­ing about, ex­am­in­ing and ad­dress­ing our ar­eas of per­sonal vul­ner­a­bil­ity, there is no bet­ter way to im­prove our per­for­mance. The Ho­gan Per­son­al­ity In­ven­tory and the Ho­gan De­vel­op­ment Sur­vey of­fer a rich set of tools to un­der­stand bright-side and dark­side per­son­al­ity traits.

GAIN A DEEPER UN­DER­STAND­ING OF YOUR ‘STRENGTHS IN OVER­DRIVE’. Do you know the cir­cum­stances in which you overuse your strengths? Let’s say one of your strengths is ‘de­ter­mi­na­tion’: You are widely known as a per­son who works hard and doesn’t stop un­til the job has been suc­cess­fully com­pleted. Think of what hap­pens when that strength goes into over­drive — when you of­fer too much of it. Per­haps your de­ter­mi­na­tion turns into pushi­ness. Then think about the chal­lenge be­hav­iour — the bal­anc­ing be­hav­iour you’re leav­ing out. So with ‘pushi­ness’ you might be miss­ing ‘pa­tience’ or ‘de­lib­er­a­tion’.

Given your de­ter­mi­na­tion, do you have a bias against peo­ple who demon­strate great pa­tience and are de­lib­er­ate? Per­haps you tend to as­so­ci­ate these traits with be­ing ‘lazy’ or ‘slow-mov­ing’.

The key here is to ex­am­ine the flip side of your big­gest strengths. By do­ing so, you can un­cover be­havioural ar­eas that may be hold­ing you back.


When I in­ter­viewed Sm­ruti Ra­jagopalan, an or­ga­ni­za­tional TION. de­sign and tal­ent man­age­ment con­sul­tant at the Hay Group, she stressed the im­por­tance of self-aware­ness and self-man­age­ment dur­ing times of change. Be­hav­iour is a func­tion of a per­son in a sit­u­a­tion, she ex­plained, and blind spots of­ten act as de­rail­ers be­cause they cause in­di­vid­u­als to mis­judge sit­u­a­tions and their ap­proach to emerg­ing chal­lenges.

This is par­tic­u­larly true dur­ing times of change: A new job or as­sign­ment, new boss or other wild­card thrown into the mix can heighten de­rail­ment risks. Dif­fi­culty adapt­ing to chang­ing cir­cum­stances — es­pe­cially a job change in­volv­ing a new as­sign­ment or a pro­mo­tion — can of­ten de­rail promis­ing ca­reers. Peo­ple per­form well when there is a match be­tween their ca­pa­bil­i­ties and the re­quire­ments of their job. When that match gets out of bal­ance, they strug­gle.

While work­ing with both mid­dle and se­nior level man­agers at­tend­ing the Kel­logg School’s con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, I have asked hun­dreds of pro­gram par­tic­i­pants, ‘When you were pro­moted or trans­ferred into a new as­sign­ment, how many of you had a clear un­der­stand­ing of the skills re­quired and the suc­cess fac­tors of your new job?’ Only 10 to 20 per cent of peo­ple raise their hands. Then I’ve called on peo­ple who did raise their hands, ask­ing them how they went about un­der­stand­ing the job re­quire­ments and suc­cess fac­tors of their new job and try­ing to cre­ate a smooth tran­si­tion into their new role.

They have all re­ported tak­ing one or all of the fol­low­ing ac­tions: First, tak­ing the time to be crys­tal clear on what their new boss wanted, ask­ing es­sen­tially, ‘What will I have ac­com­plished in two or three years to make you say I did a great job in this role?’ From that con­ver­sa­tion, they made a list of the three to five key de­liv­er­ables and then worked with their boss to es­tab­lish key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors for each. Their goal was to be crys­tal clear on what suc­cess looked like.

Sec­ond, if the new boss wasn’t able to pro­vide clear di­rec­tion, they de­vel­oped their own goals and ob­jec­tives, with clear suc­cess met­rics and then ran them by him/her to en­sure align­ment. Third, they sought ad­vice from other em­ploy­ees who had gone through the same or sim­i­lar tran­si­tions, ask­ing about chal­lenges in the tran­si­tion and what to watch out for. What did they learn? What caught them off-guard? Which other de­part­ments, func­tional groups and re­sources were crit­i­cal to their suc­cess? What three pieces of ad­vice would they of­fer?

Then, in the early stages of a job tran­si­tion, they checked in with the boss on a reg­u­lar ba­sis — weekly or bi-weekly — to make sure they were aligned on what was im­por­tant to ac­com­plish and make sure they re­ceived on­go­ing feed­back.

One of BE EM­PA­THETIC AND COM­PAS­SION­ATE — AND STAY HUM­BLE. the best ways to avoid de­rail­ment is to be ‘other ori­ented’ by prac­tis­ing em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion. When you find your­self in a charged sit­u­a­tion with a peer, ask your­self, ‘Why might this per­son be re­sist­ing my pro­posal?’ ‘What are her ob­jec­tives, and how might I help her achieve them while still ad­her­ing to my own goals?’ Above all, prac­tise hu­mil­ity. Stay­ing hum­ble is im­por­tant be­cause the lead­ing cause of in­ter­per­sonal is­sues is ar­ro­gance.

MakEMBRACE THE SHIFT FROM MANAG­ING SELF TO MANAG­ING OTH­ERS. ing the shift from be­ing a ‘doer’ to manag­ing through oth­ers is an enor­mous tran­si­tion that is not al­ways easy. When we’re good at some­thing, we like to keep do­ing it. We see the tan­gi­ble progress and re­ceive the re­wards, so we’re nat­u­rally re­luc­tant to change our ap­proach. In Be­com­ing a Man­ager, Linda Hill dis­cusses the im­por­tance of the mind­set shift that oc­curs in this tran­si­tion from be­ing a spe­cial­ist to an or­ches­tra­tor. She writes that this shift lit­er­ally in­volves a trans­for­ma­tion of iden­tity. To be suc­cess­ful, man­agers must not only learn their job re­quire­ments but also cul­ti­vate self-re­flec­tion in or­der to mo­ti­vate oth­ers.

In clos­ing

Your ca­reer is not a foot race. It is long. No one — you in­cluded — will re­mem­ber if you reached vice pres­i­dent by age 35 or age 39. So, take the time to get re­ally good at some­thing; that’s your bar­gain­ing chip, your ca­reer lever­age. And by all means, take a lat­eral move if it’s in a crit­i­cal path area that’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand.

Al­ways re­mem­ber: You will only go as far as your blind spots al­low. Do what­ever you can to in­crease your self-aware­ness and re­duce the ca­reer-lim­it­ing ef­fects of blind spots. The fact is, each and ev­ery one of us has de­rail­ment propen­si­ties. To un­der­stand them is to em­power our­selves to man­age past them. The best news of all: By iden­ti­fy­ing and ad­dress­ing your own is­sues and chal­lenges, you can ac­cel­er­ate your ca­reer.

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