Mary Barra made a move from engineering to HR — and avoided one of the biggest career mistakes leaders make.

Barra, now CEO of General Motors, broadened her view of the company and learned to lead a vastly different function when she became vice president of global human resources.

A too-narrow functional orientation is one of the top reasons people derail their careers, according to decades of CCL research. Derailment is when seemingly solid, on-the-right-track leaders plateau or flame out.

Barra credits the many mentors she had over her career with steering her in the right direction in a post this month on LinkedIn: “My Mentors Told Me to Take an HR Role Even Though I Was an Engineer. They Were Right.”

As you build your career and move into greater leadership roles, mentors, bosses and colleagues are all important sources of insight and feedback. And, as Barra says, different people see different things in you, in different contexts and in different stages of your life and career.

You may be cultivating a too-narrow functional perspective if you’ve stayed in an expertise role for years or been promoted within one function, or type of work. Even if you’ve moved across functions or organizations and gained diverse experience, if you aren’t thinking about the business as a whole, you could plateau. If this sounds like you, do what Barra did and find mentors to help you see what you are missing and figure out next steps.

Mentors or coaches can also help you spot other signs you are headed for derailment. The research shows you need to be alert to these problems:

  • Problems with Interpersonal Relationships. Have you been told you are authoritarian, cold, aloof, arrogant or insensitive? Do you make people feel stupid? Have trouble listening to others?
  • Difficulty Leading a Team. Do you have problems staffing effectively? What about trouble communicating with or engaging a team? Is conflict something you don’t handle well?
  • Difficulty Changing and Adapting. Are you set in your ways? Do you resist learning from mistakes? Are you unable (or unwilling) to adapt to a boss with a different managerial or interpersonal style?
  • Failure to Meet Business Objectives. Is your performance sliding? Are you seen as overly ambitious without the follow-through or results to match?

Of course, stuff happens. Everything is not in your control. Sometimes a career will go off the rails because of bad timing, bad fit or organizational shifts or quirks.

But, if you want to advance your career and grow as a leader, you need to know the warning signs. And, if you are at risk, it’s not too late. Derailment is not inevitable. You can repair the damage, even if it isn’t easy. Just find those mentors, coaches and advisors — and work to make the right changes.

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