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Research has shown that one-half to two-thirds of managers or leaders will experience career derailment. At some point, over half of us will get fired or demoted — or our careers will flatline and we won’t reach our innate potential. I can certainly relate to those stats when my career derailed 4 years ago.
At the time, I aspired to become Mr Big Deal in the Hospitality industry and had dreams of holding a C-suite title. I was on track to achieve my big audacious goals — I worked for respected companies, impressed my direct reports, I was told that I had a great potential and steadily climbed the management ladder. Things got even better when I got offered a Head of Department role at a well-known global Member’s club group.
I was cruising towards success and believe me “career derailment” was certainly not part of my vocabulary.
Six months into the new role and it was time to prepare for my first appraisal. Since my arrival, team morale appeared to have improved, the management team reached new levels of engagement and creativity, all projects were nicely coming along and KPI metrics were mostly in green. I was confident my performance review would go well and it did. A flurry of praises and here I was getting closer to my dreams.
Two weeks later, the team and I experienced our first set-back and fell short on producing some important deliverables. Unsurprisingly I was called for a meeting by the directors to explain. As I was expecting a big slap on the wrist, I had fully prepared my answers. I was also ready to take full accountability for the shortfall and had a list of learnings from this experience.
Unfortunately my preparation turned out to be futile. I was instantly told that I wasn’t the right fit for the role, that I lacked experience and I would be demoted to a less senior role within a smaller team. I was gobsmacked. How did I manage to go from being a “superstar” to being demoted in two weeks?
I felt the decision was totally unfair and had so much resentment towards the company that I turned down the alternative role and went on to look for a new job. My ego couldn’t take it.
And this is what we call a career derailment.
How did I get there?
Quickly, the anger that I felt turned into curiosity and I didn’t seem ready to turn this page of my life until I learn more about how I possibly managed to get myself into this undesirable position.
After reading countless books about career management and leadership, I started to realise that career derailment can almost always be traced to relationship problems. Additionally, it can also affect talented people who are either unaware of their weaknesses or interpersonal blindspots. In other words, success isn’t always about working hard, having a skill advantage or being industry-savvy. Even the most talented individuals display behavioural problems that can stall their careers.
Although I was a good team player with my peers, when I felt the heavy hand of authority upon me, I wasn’t. I would try to brush the heavy hand aside, to my own detriment. When feeling stepped on by “the man”, I either ignored him or became irreverent, passive-aggressively expressing myself through ill-timed barbs of humour.
Clearly I lacked some interpersonal skills and I had a tendency towards insubordination but based on the research done by Carter Cast in his book The Right And Wrong Stuff, my behaviour showed the same characteristics as some of the five archetypes that demonstrate how and why talented people experience career derailment.
Let’s look at those five archetypes.
1. Captain Fantastic
These are the folks whose sharp elbows bruise you on their quest for the Holy Grail in the corner office. They tend to suffer from interpersonal skills issues because of uncontrolled ego drive and terrible listening skills, resulting in poor working relationships with coworkers.
Their ego management usually leads to behaviour that showcases a combination of arrogance and defensiveness — especially for not being open to criticism.
The single biggest career derailer I see is lack of ego management — lack of humility, lack of willingness to shut up and listen and learn — Marshall Goldsmith
Research shows that the Captain Fantastic syndrome is in fact the number one reason why people run into career trouble. Early in my career, I struggled with being defensive when facing critical feedback — and lack self-awareness about this trait. Instead of looking for the pearl inside the comment, I would spend more time trying to come up with justifications. And the likelihood of my being defensive was directly proportional to the amount of time and effort I put into a project.
Defensiveness suppresses the ability to learn and develop. Self-understanding is a key component of career success and defensiveness reduces the ability to examine and adjust behaviour. It is common for defensive people to receive less feedback than open-minded people — why would I bother sharing my feedback with someone who’s going to dismiss it anyway?! As a result their perception become even more inaccurate and their blind spot multiply.
Captain Fantastic can often rise up through the organisation but always ends up alienating others with his mantra “I-me-mine” and more often than not, like Icarus, he flames out.
2. The Solo Flyer
Often these are strong individual contributors who are very good at executing their initiatives. They are self-starting, self-contained, multitalented achievement dynamos. But when they get promoted into managerial positions, they have difficulty building and leading teams. They tend to revert to either micromanaging or trying to do the work themselves.
When new to management, we try to hold tight, control as much as possible and micromanage our way to a successful outcome. But what ends up happening is this: we’re exhausted and the people who work for us are annoyed or demotivated. People like the Solo Flyer suffer from team management issues and often create problems for themselves in three ways: over-managing, not building an effective team, and not leading the team.
Finding the balance between over- and under-managing a team can be challenging, but over-managing is the more common reason why people run into trouble. It’s common for overmanagers to meddle, swoop in, and fail to empower team members to have discretion over their work — Carter Cast
Being usually pretty poor delegators, Solo Flyers struggle to align their teams towards a sense of purpose or a common goal. Team members, then, don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and how their work fits within the overall strategy of the organisation. Not knowing the end goal is not only demotivating; it also fails to leverage the capabilities of the workers and doesn’t give them the freedom to explore other ways to solve the problem.
In short the way Solo Flyers operate can be summed up in one sentence: “Step aside, I’ve got this”
3. Version 1.0
These people, comfortable in their routines, are highly skeptical of change. They resist learning new skills that would help them adapt to the business environment. They resist using new technologies that could help them perform their jobs better and faster.
The second most career stopper behind poor interpersonal skills is difficulty adapting to change. Some research studies claim that it affects over half of managers who derailed. As we rise through organisations, adaptability becomes increasingly important, as business situations become more and more complex.
As you progress in your career, you need to move from the technical to the interpersonal and from the certainty to the ambiguity — Kevin Murnane
Fear of change and the willingness to maintain the status quo are common reasons for career trouble, even when people are faced with new challenges that require a change in approach or developing new skills. When new management comes into their company to shake things up, they often form part of a rear guard resisting change. They would call themselves “traditionalists, but in reality they are overly cautious. They are indecisive and reluctant to take risks for fear of making mistakes and being criticised. This approach isn’t viable in the long term and eventually their dinosaur-like tendencies may lead to their extinction.
4. The One-Trick Pony
These individuals are often good at doing a good job at what they’re good at. The issue is they become so reliant on what they’re good at (their signature skill) that overtime, they become one-dimensional and unpromotable. Unlike the previous archetype that resist change, One-Trick Ponies are unaware that they need to change — they overspecialise and become stuck into the same thing over and over again.
One-Trick Ponies who lack strategic orientation usually run into career trouble for a simple reason: they become overly dependent on a single skill and end up lacking skills in other areas of the business.
I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail — Abraham Maslow
Strengths can have undesired consequences when over-applied and a research by Hay Group, a global consulting and talent development firm, shows that the “narrowness” of skillset leads to career derailer. Workers suffer from taking a “short-sighted emphasis on immediate results and/or technical expertise” instead of taking extra assignments that will expand their perspectives.
One-Trick Ponies believe in the age of “specialisation” but on the flip side, they don’t understand how other departments work or grasp other activities that drive their company.
5. The Whirling Dervish
These people run around the office like their hair is on fire, late for the next meetings and muttering to themselves about their workload. They often struggle with planning and lack organisational skills. Although they have plenty of ideas spewing out of their brains, they have a hard time converting them into action.
Effective people are able to differentiate high-impact work from busywork and prioritise their time accordingly. They use various tools and heuristics to plan and execute their work. The Whirling Dervish, on the other hand, doesn’t pay attention to the details and fails to keep his promises. He prefers to do the “fun, sexy, creative stuff” over the mundane tasks. As result he lacks discipline and has poor follow-through skills.
People who have trouble delivering on promises are often pleasers who have difficulty saying “no” to requests for fear of disappointing their boss or co-workers — Carter Cast
Pleasers also have a tendency to overpromise in the effort to seek the approval of their superiors and/or co-workers. I can definitely relate to this archetype and I often need to maintain my awareness so that I resist from putting myself in situations that could hurt my ability to deliver on my core responsibilities. How many of us laid out unrealistic project timelines in order to stay in someone else’s good books?
Unfortunately the Whirling Dervish ends up losing his credibility and coworkers slowly but surely back away and avoid working with him.
Without having hard conversations around those toxic behaviours often found in the workplace, people suffer because they’re left unaware of a blind spot or area of vulnerability which they cannot resolve or mitigate. Many organisations would rather focus on competency development rather than addressing the interpersonal issues and as a result they cannot facilitate the ascension of their employees.
Unaddressed developmental needs limits the career progress for good people.
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