Executive derailment: Death knell or development opportunity?


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New research has uncovered five key causes of executive derailment, as well as several ways to recover from it

Executive derailment is more common than you might expect, with as many as 50% of executives experiencing a plateau at some point in their careers. The trick is to spot the warning signs in time and to be aware of the causes. A new London Business School research project is delving deeper into the detail of the drivers of executive derailment, uncovering five key causes. The research has also uncovered three key skills to help avoid and also bounce back from a plateau. Essential to all of this will be developing and maintaining self-awareness through feedback, and dropping the idea that you either ‘have it’ or you don’t.

What’s new

You’re a successful executive: well-paid, well-liked, and pretty proud of what you’ve achieved. Then something goes awry. You don’t get the promotion you expected. Your resource bid is declined. You don’t get fired necessarily. You just plateau, and your potential starts to stagnate.

Sound familiar? This is executive derailment. And it’s more common than you might expect. Our current research suggests as many as 50% of executives experience this plateau at some point in their career.

Getting stuck doesn’t happen overnight though. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you often don’t know you’ve plateaued until it’s too late.

You probably didn’t see it coming because you have blind spots. You rarely get the feedback you need in real time and very few people are well-managed enough to be told ‘if you don’t make these changes there’s a possibility you might derail’. And that’s not the only pitfall that comes with success.

Most executives also have a strong sense of their own value. While that can be an asset, the risk is that when you achieve success you become closed and defensive to anything that challenges your sense of self. You realise too late that you don’t know everything and, even if you did, nobody’s listening any more.

The trick is to spot the warning signs in time. And if you’re looking closely there are three: you’re getting less feedback than you used to, changes in your firm come as a surprise, and you have less energy than you used to (see box-out opposite).

Over the past 17 years we have examined executive derailment with more than 5,000 managers. In a new research project we’re now delving deeper into the detail of derailment. Through quantitative analysis and qualitative interviews with executives we’re uncovering the biggest drivers of executive derailment.

Key findings

The picture that’s emerging suggests there are five main causes of executive derailment:

1. A lack of self-awareness

2. An inability to cope with change

3. A lack of 360-degree influence – you struggle to map out others’ needs and interests, and the interdependencies with your own

4. Poor communication across the hierarchy – you often think people understand you when they don’t

5. Insufficient social capital – you have little ability to get things done through other people and fail to influence key constituencies though you’re not sure why.

Maintaining momentum in your career is a challenge because the world of business has changed. Careers are no longer simply about climbing the ladder; they’re more complicated, particularly within a matrix organisation. In complex organisational structures, social capital (your ability to get things done through other people) is now much more valuable than human capital (your knowledge and expertise). You’re responsible for the reputation you create around you.

As you become more senior the job changes too. You might have been rewarded for certain qualities and actions, but what got you here isn’t what will propel you to the next role. So don’t imagine you’ll be promoted just because you’re doing a great job. You’re missing the point. You should be preparing for the next role.

From research to reality

What do you do though if you’ve already derailed? Can you bounce back? Yes, absolutely – a road block only requires a 90-degree turn after all.

The fundamental building block – the core skill you have to master to reach your greatest personal heights – is exactly the same as it was 40 years ago when academics first started talking about executive derailment. It’s essential you develop and maintain self-awareness through feedback. You need to know what your personal strengths and weaknesses are, and how other people see you.

Don’t waste time working on your worst weaknesses though; you’re better off avoiding situations where you’re not in your strong suit, and building a team around you that love the things you hate. There’s a big difference between time wasted working on weaknesses, as opposed to valuable time spent working on one or two development needs – focus on the middle ground. Focusing on what you’re brilliant at might be gratifying but there’s little growth in it.

We find there are three skills that separate executives who enjoy a successful career track, from those who start out on the same route but later grind to a premature halt. These are: learning how to deal with change to cope with today’s increasingly ambiguous and uncertain world; learning how to influence all stakeholders, internal and external, senior and junior; and communicating effectively with a wide range of people in a variety of ways (see box-out page 33).

Derailment is a development opportunity

Drop the idea that you either ‘have it’ or you don’t. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Do you believe that what you do matters? Moving forward in your career requires that continuing sense of agency. When that fails you’re in trouble. But it is possible to reframe, see the positives, and rebuild your path.

The real survivors treat their careers like a maze to be navigated. That takes persistence, but it also pays off.

Richard Jolly is adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. Randall Peterson is professor of organisational behaviour and academic director of the London Business School Leadership Institute

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