As a manager responsible for a work group or business unit, do you ever do any of the following?

  • Move your top performers quickly through the ranks.  You are concerned that if you don’t promote them, they might leave the organization.
  • Test employees you think have potential to take on more by giving them a tough assignment and stepping back to see how they do.  You want to see if they sink or swim.
  • Bring key staff members with you when you move into a new position.  You want to hit the ground running with people you trust.
  • Ignore signs of interpersonal problems in a direct report who gets things done.  Your reasoning is that in the bigger picture the results are more important than a few ruffled feathers.
  • Strategize to keep high performers from moving to jobs elsewhere in the organization.  Maybe you have even offered them perks or incentives to stay on your team.

If any of these apply to you, then you are likely contributing to a phenomenon all too common in organizations: the derailment of high potential employees.

“Derailed” is a term that Morgan McCall and Mike Lombardo coined over 30 years ago to refer to the careers of high-performing employees identified as having potential to move up in the organization and take on higher levels of leadership responsibility, but who don’t  live up to that evaluation of their potential. They plateau below their expected level of achievement or they reach higher levels only to fail miserably, resulting in being demoted or fired. For these managers, their careers have derailed from the track that their organization had expected them to stay on.

By studying those who derailed and those who arrived and excelled at higher levels of the organization, researchers at CCL identified characteristics of derailers.  For example, derailers are more likely to have problems with interpersonal relationships and more difficulty adapting to new contexts.  We turned what we learned into advice to leaders for keeping their careers on track.

But a closer look at the dynamics of derailment points to the role that middle-level and senior managers play in this phenomenon:

  • Rewarding high potentials with frequent promotions. The danger here is that there is not enough time for these individuals to learn from their experience in any one position. They aren’t around long enough to see the consequences of their actions and decisions.  Nor do they have time to build deeper relationships with others. Quick upward movement also reinforces a bad habit often found in derailers:  focusing on obtaining the next job rather than mastering the current one.
  • Testing high potentials with tough assignments.  Certainly high potentials need stretch assignments to learn and grow.  But framing these as a “test” leads to unintended consequences. It reinforces the high potentials’ tendency to focus on demonstrating how well they can perform rather than on how they can grow from the assignment. And leaving them on their own to sink or swim denies them access to coaches and advisors who could support their development from the experience.
  • Bringing high potential direct reports with you to a new position.  On the one hand, the move could expose these individuals to new challenges. On the other hand, one of the factors contributing to derailment is staying with the same boss too long. High potentials can become over-dependent on a powerful boss, not developing their own perspectives or learning from exposure to different styles.
  • Focusing only on the achievements of high potentials. How a high potential is behaving toward those higher in the organization is not always the way they are interacting with others in the organization. Tolerating bad behavior in a person who is prized for delivering results is perhaps the most common way senior leaders contribute to future derailments.
  • Hoarding talent.  Keeping high potentials in a functional or business unit silo contributes to another derailment dynamic:  the high potential individual not developing a broad view on the organization or the ability to work with people with a diverse set of perspectives.  Seeing top talent as a shared organizational resource is a hallmark of organizations known for their ability to build robust pipelines of leaders.

Why care about derailment of high potentials in your organization?  First, there’s a financial cost to the organization: the lost investment in the leader who derails and the expenses related to someone being fired or demoted.  More importantly there are human costs, particularly the damage to the morale and motivation of individuals who work for someone with one or more of the derailing characteristics.  And there’s the cost of losing the talents of a person whose development did not keep pace with his or her rise in the organization.

Take a few minutes to think about your own actions and behaviors that could be adversely impacting the development of high potential leadership talent in your organization.  What are you doing right and what might need to change?

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