• Published February 16, 2020
  • 9 Minute Read

Keep a Promising Career on Track & Prevent Derailment

Published February 16, 2020
Keep a Promising Career on Track & Prevent Derailment

What’s Derailment & What Are the Causes of It?

Even leaders with impressive track records have weaknesses or knowledge gaps that, if left unaddressed, can truly wreck their careers.

Many high-performing executives manage to ignore their blind spots for awhile, as long as they continue to meet their business goals. Others rely heavily on a specific strength, but then find themselves lacking necessary leadership competencies when their work environment changes.

Several factors can play a role in derailing the careers of once-promising managers, but the story is the same: Their “minuses” begin to overshadow their “pluses,” and their organizations no longer see them as high-potential talent the way they once did. Suddenly, these managers discover their career is going off-track.

What happened? They experienced derailment.

Though often highly predictable by coworkers, career derailment sometimes comes as a surprise to derailing executives themselves, who are usually unaware of (or unwilling to address) the problems that caused them to derail.

What Is Derailment?

We’ve extensively studied career derailment since 1983. By comparing successful executives whose careers stay on track with those who derail, we’ve identified 5 problems that are most likely to stall a career.

But before we talk about how to avoid the most common causes of derailment, it’s important to answer “What is derailment?” and define what we mean by “derailing” vs. “successful” leaders.

Our research defines successful executives as those who’ve reached at least the general manager level and who, in the eyes of senior leaders in the organization, remain likely candidates for promotion.

We define derailing executives as those who, after reaching the general manager level, are fired, demoted, or held on a career plateau. Right up to the point of derailment, the superiors of the derailed executives saw them as having high potential for advancement, impressive track records, and solidly established leadership positions.

But then something went wrong, and an otherwise promising career went off-track.

These Are the 5 Most Common Career Derailers

If your organization’s leaders understand what derailment is, and the most common causes of it, preventing the derailment of promising talent becomes more predictable — and preventable.

Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching book coverAs outlined in our book Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching, a weakness in any one of these 5 areas can not only threaten a leader’s advancement, but also can bring their career to a screeching halt.

Research has found that the top 5 causes of career derailment are:

  1. Difficulty adapting to change (the most frequent cause of derailment);
  2. Difficulty building and leading a team;
  3. Failure to deliver business results;
  4. Lacking a broad, strategic orientation; and
  5. Problems with interpersonal relationships.

How to Prevent Derailment & Keep a Promising Career on Track

So what does a high-potential leader need to do? Preventing derailment starts with knowing what to watch out for. Here are 5 tips to keep a promising career on track.

5 Ways to Stay on Track

1. Roll with changes.

Because continuous change is an unavoidable part of any business today, organizations highly value adaptable, flexible leaders who can dependably adapt to, and embrace, change. Those who resist change are often seen as stuck in their ways and unaware of trends at play in the broader market. It’s often easier for others at the organization to respond positively to change if change-resistant leaders are sidelined or let go.

That’s why successful executives are flexible in the face of organizational change and take responsibility for their own development and improvement. They make mistakes like everyone else, but it’s their ability to learn from mistakes that distinguishes successful executives from those who derail.

Many executives who derail do so because they’re unable (or unwilling) to adapt. They may resist making changes because their past successes indicate to them that they don’t need to change, and they fear that making any changes might lead to failure. But becoming more adaptable is critical to keeping a career on track, and a leader’s resistance to change affects not just them, but their direct reports too, potentially hindering their ability to move up as well.

  • To keep a career on track and prevent derailment:
    • Adjust to, learn from, and embrace change as necessary for future success.
    • Increase capacity for accepting and adapting to change by taking more controlled risks, entering into unfamiliar situations or roles, and making an effort to bounce back from failures and extract lessons from hardships.
    • Remain optimistic and resilient in the face of change, uncertainty, and setbacks.
    • Focus on becoming more adaptable by learning how to transition through change better.

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. A team leader is responsible not only for their 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 poor people-managers, hindering their progress toward leading more senior-level teams.

  • To keep a career on track and prevent derailment:
    • Develop capacity to build and lead a collaborative team. Provide opportunities to lead a workgroup or manage a large project requiring teamwork.
    • Make a conscious effort to develop others. Help identify and retain top talent for your organization. Smart managers focus on employee talent development, particularly for their direct reports.

3. Deliver results.

Leaders who are results-driven are crucial to their organization’s performance. An executive’s ability to decisively accomplish key objectives dramatically affects the way others view their performance — as well as their 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 someone is great with people and loved by superiors, peers, and direct reports, if they fail to drive results toward business objectives, they’re still in jeopardy of falling off the career ladder.

  • To keep a career on track and prevent derailment:
    • Drive, don’t just facilitate, results. Coordinate more actions among other groups and people. Increase ability at communicating a vision for the future, building team member engagement, and working to help make changes that benefit the organization.
    • Be adept at managing ambition so as not to be seen as one who overpromises but underdelivers.

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 a leadership role and the strategic context surrounding the job and team. Those who keep their career on track can think beyond the needs of their department and understand the big picture, recognizing and accepting the realities of their organization and how all of its parts work together.

If a leader struggles to envision and navigate organizational ambiguity, politics, dilemmas, and trade-offs, they will find it extremely difficult to get things done, especially when competing for resources or when faced with short deadlines. Others who are more attuned to the workings and culture of the organization might outmaneuver them in plays for resources. As a leader moves 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.

  • To keep a career on track and prevent derailment:
    • Gain experiences outside of a specific expertise or area of the organization. Build strategic thinking capacity and work on building a broader perspective.
    • Try modeling the approach of another respected leader with strong influencing skills and ability to get things done.

5. Work on interpersonal skills.

Intelligence, acumen, and insight will take a leader pretty far. But without a keen sense of how to make and keep productive relationships, a promising career could still go off track.

Having problems with interpersonal relationships is one of the most common characteristics of leaders who experience what we define as career derailment. The ability to work well with others clearly separates the managers who succeed from those who don’t.

Often, those who derail are seen as poor team players, unable (or unwilling) to involve others. So, to stay on track, a leader should rely on their strengths, while balancing whatever weaknesses they have with their 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 an executive struggles with interpersonal relationships, small misunderstandings can grow into big conflicts. Poor interpersonal relationships are a breeding ground for distrust and can undermine confidence in their leadership. If those problems persist, their organization might sideline them — or worse, dismiss them entirely.

How do you know if a leader needs to work on their interpersonal skills to keep their career on track? In our research, we found that executives who are unable to establish strong interpersonal relationships are described by their bosses, peers, and direct reports as:

  • Insensitive
  • Overly competitive
  • Self-isolating
  • Dictatorial
  • Overly critical
  • Overdemanding
  • Easily angered
  • Arrogant
  • Emotionally explosive
  • Manipulative
  • Aloof

If colleagues are using these adjectives to describe a leader, help them take action today to keep their career on track.

In closing, to keep a career on track, a leader needs a healthy dose of self-awareness. So, help your team honestly assess their own behaviors. And take a look at your own, too. If you realize that you have weaknesses in any of these areas, commit to your own professional development by taking action now to make any needed adjustments.

That way, you’ll prevent derailment on your team and keep your own career on track.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Prevent derailment at your organization by helping promising leaders build self-awareness and keep their career on track. Partner with us for individualized leadership development for your high-potential employees that builds critical leadership skills and competencies needed in your organization’s unique context and culture.

  • Published February 16, 2020
  • 9 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

George Hallenbeck
George Hallenbeck, PhD
Global Content Lead

George oversees the creation of research-based content for our program and product solutions. He’s a recognized expert in the area of learning agility and has been engaged in research, product development, and client activities related to the topic for over 15 years. He has authored or co-authored 8 books, including Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching and Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience.

George oversees the creation of research-based content for our program and product solutions. He’s a recognized expert in the area of learning agility and has been engaged in research, product development, and client activities related to the topic for over 15 years. He has authored or co-authored 8 books, including Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching and Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience.

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At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.