Picture this: You’re a motivated employee who’s been marked for the “high-potential” career track. As you gain leadership experience, you develop an impressive track record of results and earn an established leadership position.

But then something happens. Your “minuses” begin to overshadow your “pluses,” and your organization no longer appreciates your potential. You’re fired, demoted, or involuntarily plateaued. What happened?

CCL’s research shows that the most common causes of career derailment are predictable. A weakness in 1 of these 5 derailment factors, outlined in our recently published book, Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching, can not only threaten your advancement, but also can bring your career to a screeching halt:

  • Difficulty adapting to change (the most frequent cause of derailment)
  • Difficulty building and leading a team
  • Failure to deliver business results
  • Lacking a broad, strategic orientation
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships

So what can you do? Start by knowing what to watch for in order to steer clear of potential derailment and stay on course. Take these actions:


1. Roll with the Changes

Because change is an unavoidable part of any business, companies highly value those who can dependably adapt to and embrace change. Resist change, however, and you’ll be seen as stuck in your ways and unaware of the trends at play within your organization and in the broader market. Your resistance doesn’t just affect you; it can hamper how your direct reports and others respond to changing circumstances — hindering their ability to move up as well.

Remember, your organization recognizes that change will happen with or without your resistance — and it’s easier for others to respond positively if resistant leaders are sidelined or let go. The key to managing change is to remain resilient and optimistic. Adjust to, learn from, and embrace change as necessary for your future success.

How to avoid derailing: Develop your capacity for accepting and adapting to change by creating goals in areas that allow you to take controlled risks; that put you into unfamiliar situations or roles; that require you to bounce back from failures; or that otherwise force you to not rely only on your traditional strengths.


2. Build Better Teams

Managing teamwork is complicated; an effective team leader must select, develop, engage, and motivate groups of people to pursue a common goal — no easy task. You’re responsible not only for your own results, but others’ as well.

Leaders who have difficulty building teams can fail to deliver the results they’ve promised. Their team members may feel undervalued, leading to dysfunction and ultimately departures from the team. Additionally, these leaders can develop a reputation as a poor people-managers, hindering their progress toward leading more senior-level teams.

How to avoid derailing: To develop your ability to build and lead a team, create goals that put you in a position to lead a work group or large project requiring teamwork.


3. Deliver Results

Leaders who are results-driven are crucial to their organization’s performance. Your ability to decisively accomplish key objectives dramatically affects the way others view your performance as a leader — as well as your organization’s bottom line. But the best of intentions can fall flat when leaders fail to meet performance expectations because of a lack of follow-through on promises or being overly ambitious.

Failure to deliver results can create a breach of trust. Leaders in danger of derailing because they don’t deliver what they promise may have exceeded their current level of competence without realizing it. Even if you are great with people and loved by your superiors, peers, and direct reports, if you fail to drive results toward business objectives, you are in jeopardy of falling off the career ladder.

How to avoid derailing: To develop and maintain an urgency toward delivering results, create goals in areas that require you to coordinate action among other groups and people. Such goals should call for a vision of the future, challenge you to bolster team member engagement, and involve you in making changes that benefit the organization. Consider, for instance, to what extent you drive versus facilitate results.


4. Develop a Strategic Orientation

Strategic orientation can be described colloquially as simply “having your head in the game.” This means understanding the day-to-day demands of your role as a leader and the strategic context surrounding your job and team. Think beyond the needs of your department — what’s the big picture? When you recognize and accept the realities of your organization and see how all of its parts work together, you’ll deal more skillfully with the dilemmas of contemporary organizational life.

If you struggle to envision and navigate organizational ambiguity, politics, dilemmas, and trade-offs, you will find it extremely difficult to get things done, especially when competing for resources or when faced with a short deadline. Leaders more attuned to the workings and culture of the organization might outmaneuver your play for resources. As you move higher in the organization, the ability to deal with the informal organization (the added complexity beyond the org chart) is as important as following the formal policies, practices, and rules.

How to avoid derailing: To develop a broad, strategic orientation, create goals in areas outside your specific expertise or in areas that require you to sell new ideas to your organization. Try modeling the approach of a leader whom you respect for their ability to influence and get things done.


5. Work on Your Interpersonal Skills

Intelligence, acumen, and insight will take you pretty far. But without a keen sense of how to make and keep productive relationships, you could still derail your career. You don’t want to be seen as a poor team player, unable or unwilling to involve others. So rely on your strengths, and balance whatever weaknesses you have with your colleagues’ reservoir of skills and experiences. That’s the collaborative, cooperative field of goodwill fostered by great managers and leaders. An inability to form strong interpersonal relationships — built on trust and mutual understanding — threatens that goodwill.

If you struggle with interpersonal relationships, small misunderstandings can grow into big conflicts. Poor interpersonal relationships are a breeding ground for distrust and can undermine confidence in your leadership. If those problems persist, your organization might sideline you — or worse, dismiss you.

How to avoid derailing: To strengthen your current relationships and develop your ability to build new ones, create goals in areas that require you to work with groups outside of your own, that push you to build a leadership network, and that otherwise contain situations in which you must get along with and understand others in order to produce positive results.


Learn more about how to lead effectively and keep your career on track using our Compass tools.

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