Keep Your Career On Track & Prevent Derailment

Even leaders with impressive track records have blind spots or weaknesses 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, 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?

Before we talk about how to the most common causes of derailment, it’s important to define “derailment” and “success.”

Our research defines successful executives as those who have reached at least the general manager level and who, in the eyes of senior executives 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.

Avoid The 5 Most Common Career Derailers

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.

The most common causes of career derailment are predictable — and preventable.

As 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 your advancement, but also can bring your career to a screeching halt. 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 Keep Your Career On Track

So what can you do to keep your career on track? Steering clear of derailment starts with knowing what to watch for. Take these actions to avoid derailing your career.

1. Roll with changes.

Because continuous change is an unavoidable part of any business today, organizations 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.

Remember, change will happen with or without your resistance — but it’s easier for others at the organization to respond positively to change if the 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 is their ability to learn from mistakes that distinguishes successful executives from those who derail.

Many executives who derail do so because they are 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 your career on track, and resistance to change doesn’t just affect you — it can hamper how your direct reports respond to changing circumstances too, hindering their ability to move up as well.

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 keep your career on track and avoid derailing:
    • Develop your ability to build and lead a collaborative team. Seek opportunities to lead a work group 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. 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 keep your career on track and avoid derailing:
    • Consider to what extent you drive, versus facilitate, results. Coordinate more actions among other groups and people. Make sure you’re adept 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 your ambition so that you aren’t seen as someone who overpromises and 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 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 keep your career on track and avoid derailing:

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, your 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 derailing. The ability to work well with others clearly separates the managers who succeed from those who don’t.

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 do you know if you might need to work on your interpersonal skills to keep your 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 you’re concerned that your colleagues might use any of these adjectives to describe you, take action today to keep your career on track.

  • How to keep your career on track and avoid derailing:
    • Strengthen your current relationships and develop your ability to build new ones. Look for chances to collaborate across boundaries and work with groups outside of your own. Try your hardest to get along with and show respect to others.
    • Listen, don’t just hear, others. If you’re holding a conversation with someone, turn away from your email and other distractions. When someone else is speaking, don’t just wait for your turn to talk — stay in the moment. Deliberately and actively listen to understand, absorbing what’s being said, and allowing that to influence what you have to say.
    • Check out our other tips for boosting your interpersonal savvy. 

In closing, to keep your career on track, you need a healthy dose of self-awareness. Honestly assess your own behaviors. 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 avert avoid derailing, prevent career failure, and keep your career on track.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Prevent derailment among your organization’s high-potential leaders by helping them to keep their careers on track. Partner with us for talent development that builds critical leadership skills and competencies needed in your organization’s unique context and culture.

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