Today’s managers and leaders live in an era of unprecedented change, with rapid rates of technological innovation and in a culture that celebrates every win. Focusing on what we do well, rather than shoring up our shortcomings, is widely adopted across organizations large and small.
But organizational cultures that focus on worker strengths at the exclusion of identifying and addressing weaknesses have a dangerous downside. As candour disappears during performance feedback, people remain unaware of skill gaps or interpersonal tendencies that hold them back. What you don’t know can hurt you.
This lack of self-awareness is truly epidemic. One study shows that as many of 67% of today’s managers and leaders, from the c-suite to middle management, will be fired, demoted, or simply plateau below their expected level of achievement. This statistic is just one of many about career derailment that started me on a path to find out why so many talented people were going off track.
My motivation initially was self-interest. Twenty-five years ago, I was a young, rising (so I thought) manager at Pepsi Co when I received a poor performance review. While I was confident that I was poised to succeed, I was suddenly to learn otherwise. My boss told me I was ‘unpromotable’ because I was difficult to work with and didn’t follow his direction. He even called me ‘insubordinate’. It was quite the wakeup call. A 2x4 to the head.
I managed to course correct over the next few years; I moved to another assignment and gained an understanding of how I needed to manage by own behavior. Over time, as I worked across different organizations large and small, I became increasingly interested with this idea that it may be what we don’t know about ourselves that’s most likely to hurt us. Derailment often afflicts talented managers who are either unaware of a debilitating weakness or blind spot or are arrogant enough to believe that developmental feedback doesn’t apply to them.
Along with the academic research on the subject, I conducted another study of my own, surveying 100 people, aged 25-45, whose careers had derailed, and interviewing 60 people, from managers and leaders to executive coaches, recruiters, CEOs and C-suite executives.
I found that when capable people derail, they frequently fall into five major categories, which I depicted through the following characterizations or archetypes:
- Captain Fantastic: With sharp elbows that bruise you on their quest for the Holy Grail of the corner office, these people form interpersonal issues due to their unbridled ego and dismal listening skills. As a result, they have poor working relationships with coworkers.
- The Solo Flier: Often strong individual contributors, these folks are very good at executing their initiatives. But when promoted into managerial positions, they have difficulty building and leading teams. They tend to either micromanage or revert to trying to do the work themselves. Their teams become dissatisfied and eventually there’s a coup d’état.
- Version 1.0: Comfortable in their routines and highly skeptical of change, these people resist learning new skills that would help them adapt to the rapidly changing business environment. Their ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude will not serve them well over time and eventually their dinosaur-like tendencies may lead to extinction.
- The One-Trick Pony: This employee does a good job at some part of his or her job. But, that signature skill—over time, unbeknownst to them—makes them one-dimensional and unpromotable.
- The Whirling Dervish: Perhaps the most recognizable of all are those that run around the office like their hair is on fire, late for the next meeting and muttering to themselves about their workload. They lack planning and organizational skills and are known to overcommit and under deliver. Their boss and coworkers can’t count on them to complete their assigned tasks, and eventually people try to avoid working with them.
If you see bits of yourself in one or more of these archetypes, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a personal indictment. We all have strengths, weaknesses and areas of vulnerability. But digging in and having the courage to understand them, we can adjust our behavior and become even more effective. To paraphrase Carl Jung, ‘There’s gold in the dark.’ Our personal excavation leads to self-knowledge and increased performance.
Carter Cast is the former CEO of Walmart.com, a partner at The Pritzker Group, and an award-winning professor at the Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. His new book, The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade has just been released by Public Affairs.
To find out where your career might derail and how you can prevent it, Cast has developed an online assessment.
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