I had a dream job once. Great entry salary. Stock options. Living in a city that I loved. Stock options. Dressing in a suit every day. Did I mention stock options?
And I was being groomed to become the group’s next manager. It would have been my first managerial role ever, but I was ready. I was a shoe-in.
And then one day, it all came crashing down when I failed the supervisory test and didn’t get the promotion to leadership. I eventually had to leave the organization. I derailed.
For over a decade, I have studied derailment (i.e., when high-potentials and leaders who had all the makings of progressing to the tops of their organizations suddenly flamed out and did not live up to the high expectations others had of them). And looking back, I can clearly see why I derailed back then.
You see, as an individual contributor I continually went above-and-beyond what was asked, got work done, and became known for my attention to detail, ambition, take-charge attitude, technical skills, and ability. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! But as I mention in my book, Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders, the great reputations we have as individual contributors do not work well in our first leadership position, as first-time managers and new leaders.
So what can you learn from my derailment experience?
Pay attention to these warning signs. The 5 problem areas associated with derailed managers that CCL has identified include:
- Problems with interpersonal relationships – Working in isolation from coworkers; being “lone wolves” in the organization. Being described as authoritarian, cold, aloof, arrogant, and insensitive.
- Difficulty leading a team – Unable to form and lead teams successfully. Picked wrong people to be part of teams. No eye for talent. Unable to handle conflict within their teams.
- Difficulty changing or adapting – Could not easily adapt to a boss or superior with a different managerial, work, or interpersonal style than theirs. Could not grow, learn, develop, and think strategically in their new leadership positions.
- Failure to meet business objectives – Never met “the numbers” nor achieved goals. Overly ambitious; had great ideas and laid out ambitious plans, but lacked follow-through.
- Too narrow of a functional orientation – Could not supervise outside their current function. Can’t transition from technical expert to the broad aspects of management.
I personally showed all 5, which my boss and superiors shared with me (as I went out the door):
Yes, I clearly conveyed that I had the knowledge and skills to be a great worker. But I fell short in showing people that I can work well with others. I knew I could do the work by myself, and didn’t really feel the need to include others. I honestly didn’t want to include others. I wanted all the glory myself and wasn’t willing to share any of it (problems with interpersonal relationships).
I didn’t convey how I could lead teams effectively and explain how I can encourage, manage, and motivate others (difficulty leading a team). I just thought people would show up to work and do the work like they are supposed to because they are adults. I didn’t realize I had to set a clear direction for the team or that I had to help people understand what their roles and responsibilities were.
And handling conflict? Again, they’re adults. They will figure it out, right? Well, you know the answer to that.
I did not have the experience beyond my job to understand the politics; I didn’t get how things worked around there. I didn’t understand the broader scope of how our department strategically fit in with the rest of the organization (difficulty changing and adapting).
Most notably, I didn’t want to let go of the work that I loved doing, the work that made me who I was. I could not adopt a “managerial” mindset and presence to show that I could lead people. I just didn’t have enough experience being a supervisor, and all the things supervisors must do, to be a supervisor (failure to meet business objectives and too narrow functional orientation).
So, no matter if you are a new leader or an experienced one, learn from my mistakes. Become self-aware of your actions before it’s too late. In other words, check yourself before you wreck yourself…and your career.
And finally, know that if you do derail, your career is not completely over. You can make it somewhere else, like I have at CCL. There is hope if you find the organization that is the right fit for you (stock options or not), and learn from your (and my) mistakes.