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?

16 thoughts on “Are You Guilty of Aiding Derailment?

  1. Dr.B. says:

    interesting article regarding the importance of rewarding and at the same time allowing the individual to grow. Question: How can we define high-potential or high-performance individuals? Is this based on project results? Number of contracts? or is it based on the level of influence within an environment?..Please advise…

    1. My experience and expertise is more in the realm of developing leaders rather than identifying those with high potential, although certainly qualities like ability to learn and motivation to take on higher levels of responsibility play into potential. There is a lot of good work out there on defining and identifying high potential by folks in the talent management field. See, for example, the “scorecard” for assessing potential in this post: http://www.greatleadershipbydan.com/2009/02/how-to-score-leadership-potential-when.html .

  2. Dr.B. says:

    interesting article regarding the importance of rewarding and at the same time allowing the individual to grow. Question: How can we define high-potential or high-performance individuals? Is this based on project results? Number of contracts? or is it based on the level of influence within an environment?..Please advise…

    1. My experience and expertise is more in the realm of developing leaders rather than identifying those with high potential, although certainly qualities like ability to learn and motivation to take on higher levels of responsibility play into potential. There is a lot of good work out there on defining and identifying high potential by folks in the talent management field. See, for example, the “scorecard” for assessing potential in this post: http://www.greatleadershipbydan.com/2009/02/how-to-score-leadership-potential-when.html .

  3. Useful considerations. I second the list provided.

    I would add one thing to “Bringing high potential direct reports with you to a new position.” I think that if it is properly done can have more positive effects rather than derailing effects. An high potential can benefit greatly from tackling new challenges and solving problems in peer-to-peer coaching context. That period can contribute to consolidate self-efficacy and acquire new learning in an efficient, energy-saving, effective manner.

    Regards.

    1. I agree that bringing along a direct report with you to a new position can have developmental benefits for the individual if, as you note, “it is properly done.” To me “properly” would include thinking through the new challenges the person would encounter that could stretch him or her, and having a discussion with the individual about the developmental opportunities you see in the move and being clear that the choice is his or hers (the individual could feel that not following the boss to the new job would be a sign of disloyalty that could have negative career implications). My caution is to not keep bringing along the same individuals with every job move. It can create a dependency (both ways) and make others question whether these individuals can stand on their own.

      1. I understand your concern, and i fully second it. I guess it much depends on organization design. (There are companies that leverage the working exceptionally well of mini teams and deploy them into different projects. Those are companies that have developed a cultural that supports cross-functional teams and have a strong focus on product development and improvement tightly related to customer service and care. They are structure are quite flat to start with and for management roles emphasize coordination and uplifting team from what hinders problem solving rather than solving directly the problems, which is taken care by the team.)

  4. Useful considerations. I second the list provided.

    I would add one thing to “Bringing high potential direct reports with you to a new position.” I think that if it is properly done can have more positive effects rather than derailing effects. An high potential can benefit greatly from tackling new challenges and solving problems in peer-to-peer coaching context. That period can contribute to consolidate self-efficacy and acquire new learning in an efficient, energy-saving, effective manner.

    Regards.

    1. I agree that bringing along a direct report with you to a new position can have developmental benefits for the individual if, as you note, “it is properly done.” To me “properly” would include thinking through the new challenges the person would encounter that could stretch him or her, and having a discussion with the individual about the developmental opportunities you see in the move and being clear that the choice is his or hers (the individual could feel that not following the boss to the new job would be a sign of disloyalty that could have negative career implications). My caution is to not keep bringing along the same individuals with every job move. It can create a dependency (both ways) and make others question whether these individuals can stand on their own.

      1. I understand your concern, and i fully second it. I guess it much depends on organization design. (There are companies that leverage the working exceptionally well of mini teams and deploy them into different projects. Those are companies that have developed a cultural that supports cross-functional teams and have a strong focus on product development and improvement tightly related to customer service and care. They are structure are quite flat to start with and for management roles emphasize coordination and uplifting team from what hinders problem solving rather than solving directly the problems, which is taken care by the team.)

  5. I have just open the link to check out the resource suggested “Keeping your career on track”. Although it might be good set of advices for self-help professional development, it sounds to me not useful for reducing, if not completely eliminating, the risk of (unintended) derailment, which is associated, as you pointed out in your article to practices in the workplace. Avoiding derailment should be a top talent management priority for the reasons that you have mentioned, and the responsibility of which should not be fully loaded on the high potentials, simply because they cannot fix the mistakes inherent to formal and informal practices that contribute to that phenomenon.

    CCL is supposedly a center of innovation which can help organizations becoming aware of the cultural aspects, that inform practices, that in many cases lead to derailment. For example the practice of giving tough assignments as “tests” that results in “swing” or “sink”, is made on a traditional flawed cultural assumption according to which only who overcomes over and over adverse circumstances is worth keeping, and the ones who sink aren’t good enough. However, one of flaw of this let’s say developmental discipline lies in a lack of knowledge regarding human development with the result of giving the experience in the “wrong moment” and or with the wrong modality. About the “wrong moment” there would be too much to say, so I would avoid continuing; about the wrong modality I can just mention it can translate in the crafting of maliciously harder situations within the assignment (intentional sabotage and scheming as we have seen in many Hollywood movies!).

    1. I’m finding that I agree with you again: the responsibility for preventing career derailment should not be placed solely on the shoulders of high potential employees. Organizations and their managers do have a responsibility to provide straightforward performance and behavioral feedback, to provide challenging growth opportunities, to support development, and to avoid the practices I noted in my post. Here’s where we might disagree: I do think that individuals are also responsible for improving themselves in ways that make them more effective in leadership roles. That includes being able to establish strong relationships, build successful teams, demonstrate a track record of high performance, and adapt to changing situations (what my colleagues wrote about in Keeping Your Career on Track). And I have seen first-hand how motivated individuals equipped with useful knowledge can take charge of their own development (if that’s what you mean by “self-help”). At CCL, we feel responsible for providing knowledge and tools aimed at improving the practice of leadership to individuals who are focused on their own development AND to organizations who are working to craft more robust organizational systems and cultures for development.

      1. Thank you for the attention and replies, i have appreciated them. We do not disagree. The two should go in hand in hand. I think that the general culture pushes unequally the stress on the individuals, who find themselves loaded with more the half responsibilities, that the case of derailment that often occurs for system flaws. Rarely it is duly considered the energy spent and the personal investments that an high potential have injected in the company. The general business cultural tends to minimize the negative effects on individuals of such of occurrences by shifting the discourse on the positivity of failure. That create the conditions for examining superficially conventional processes and procedures that underpin the cases of derailment, maintaining room to play with people lives.

        I would like to thank you also for your article which i think it contributes to raise awareness.

  6. I have just open the link to check out the resource suggested “Keeping your career on track”. Although it might be good set of advices for self-help professional development, it sounds to me not useful for reducing, if not completely eliminating, the risk of (unintended) derailment, which is associated, as you pointed out in your article to practices in the workplace. Avoiding derailment should be a top talent management priority for the reasons that you have mentioned, and the responsibility of which should not be fully loaded on the high potentials, simply because they cannot fix the mistakes inherent to formal and informal practices that contribute to that phenomenon.

    CCL is supposedly a center of innovation which can help organizations becoming aware of the cultural aspects, that inform practices, that in many cases lead to derailment. For example the practice of giving tough assignments as “tests” that results in “swing” or “sink”, is made on a traditional flawed cultural assumption according to which only who overcomes over and over adverse circumstances is worth keeping, and the ones who sink aren’t good enough. However, one of flaw of this let’s say developmental discipline lies in a lack of knowledge regarding human development with the result of giving the experience in the “wrong moment” and or with the wrong modality. About the “wrong moment” there would be too much to say, so I would avoid continuing; about the wrong modality I can just mention it can translate in the crafting of maliciously harder situations within the assignment (intentional sabotage and scheming as we have seen in many Hollywood movies!).

    1. I’m finding that I agree with you again: the responsibility for preventing career derailment should not be placed solely on the shoulders of high potential employees. Organizations and their managers do have a responsibility to provide straightforward performance and behavioral feedback, to provide challenging growth opportunities, to support development, and to avoid the practices I noted in my post. Here’s where we might disagree: I do think that individuals are also responsible for improving themselves in ways that make them more effective in leadership roles. That includes being able to establish strong relationships, build successful teams, demonstrate a track record of high performance, and adapt to changing situations (what my colleagues wrote about in Keeping Your Career on Track). And I have seen first-hand how motivated individuals equipped with useful knowledge can take charge of their own development (if that’s what you mean by “self-help”). At CCL, we feel responsible for providing knowledge and tools aimed at improving the practice of leadership to individuals who are focused on their own development AND to organizations who are working to craft more robust organizational systems and cultures for development.

      1. Thank you for the attention and replies, i have appreciated them. We do not disagree. The two should go in hand in hand. I think that the general culture pushes unequally the stress on the individuals, who find themselves loaded with more the half responsibilities, that the case of derailment that often occurs for system flaws. Rarely it is duly considered the energy spent and the personal investments that an high potential have injected in the company. The general business cultural tends to minimize the negative effects on individuals of such of occurrences by shifting the discourse on the positivity of failure. That create the conditions for examining superficially conventional processes and procedures that underpin the cases of derailment, maintaining room to play with people lives.

        I would like to thank you also for your article which i think it contributes to raise awareness.

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