The following article is based on my new book, The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made – and Unmade.
As a young, ambitious manager, I received the shock of my professional life when I was summoned into my boss’s office and told I was considered “unpromotable” because I was “obstinate,” “resistant,” and “insubordinate.” While I recovered from that setback, the experience had a profound impact on me, leading to a deep study of derailers – the interpersonal blind spots and skill gaps that keep talented people from progressing in their careers.
After reading the academic research, surveying 100 managers who had been fired, demoted, or whose careers had flat-lined, and interviewing over 50 people, from managers to CEOs, I uncovered five major career derailers, which I have depicted through the following five archetypes.
Although a talented high-achiever, Captain Fantastic lacks sensitivity and empathy. Often skeptical or even distrustful of other’s intentions, the Captain’s unbridled ego and dismal listening skills shut out useful feedback, so he doesn’t improve. To make matters worse, Captain Fantastic is prone to overacts under stressful conditions. As a result, when the business numbers turn south (as they invariably do at some point) the Captain finds no one is interested in offering assistance and he finds himself alone, facing derailment.
One executive I interviewed was a Captain Fantastic with “sharp elbows” that bruised others on the way to the corner office. An engaging, smart and bold management consultant, he had a tremendous ability to bring in new clients. As a result, he was quickly promoted to become the youngest managing director in his firm and was put in charge of a large region. However, this role required him to spend a meaningful amount of time on administrative matters such as budget management, resource allocation, and employee training and development. But he didn’t like the administrative part of his job and was dismissive of the staff who helped him. Over a period of a year, this Captain Fantastic had alienated people to the point they moved off his team. Senior leaders realized that he was not the right person for the new job, but they loved his ability to generate revenue. So they moved him to a business development role, which was a soft demotion, and he knew it.
The Solo Flier
The Solo Flier is often a very strong individual contributor, a hotshot, hands-on performer who likes to see immediate business results. But when promoted to manage others, the Solo Flier encounters problems, often behaving as if she needs to be the one generating all the team’s ideas. In addition, the Solo Flier is not very good at communicating her business priorities to the team, so they don’t understand the overarching strategy and what success looks like.
The Solo Flier has a hard time realizing that moving from an individual contributor to a team leader is, essentially, a transformation of identity. Her job is no longer about doing the work herself – it is to motivate and develop her team members. This derailer is a common problem: One of the lowest-ranked skills among managers is developing direct reports and others, Korn Ferry/Lominger has found. As I discovered in my research, even when Solo Fliers can satisfactorily manage a team, they often fail to provide both context and resources to help team members do their jobs. They can derail by failing to realize the importance of being “bridge builders” to other departments.
Version 1.0 has trouble adapting to change. Perhaps a new boss comes in with a different agenda or management style. Or maybe there’s a change in business strategy or a new technology that disrupts an entire industry and necessitates developing new skills. Version 1.0’s resistance is often due to fear. He may call himself a traditionalist, but in truth his rigidity and lack of intellectual curiosity cause him to avoid learning new approaches or adopting new technologies. This runs counter to the advice of Mike Gamson, Senior Vice President of Global Solutions at LinkedIn, whom I interviewed. He said, “People with great careers are constantly refreshing themselves by reinvesting in their own development…. People must recognize that professional skills have a shelf life of maybe five years max, and if you don’t refresh inside that timeframe, you are going to find yourself in real trouble.”
The One-Trick Pony
The problem for this archetype is a narrow focus that doesn’t allow them to rise beyond a certain level in an organization. While the One-Trick Pony is known for possessing a signature skill, she has a lopsided management profile. Her typical attitude can be seen when she says: “I do sales; I don’t need to understand this digital marketing, social media mumbo-jumbo.” (But you do – for sales lead generation!) The One-Trick Pony is often deficient in a key skill that is crucial to the business. For example, when I worked for Frito-Lay, to move to higher levels in the company, you had to understand distribution and route sales, which were the engines that drove product sales.
With an over-reliance on one skill or aptitude, the One-Trick Pony eventually plateaus in her career and is unable to progress further. Brock Leach, former CEO of Frito Lay North America, told me about a One-Trick Pony – an ambitious sales and marketing director who constantly angled to advance his career trajectory. But this fellow did not devote sufficient time and energy to develop the skills he would need in a larger, general management role. Eventually, his ability to network and sell himself landed him a big generalist job. But within a year, it became obvious to senior management that he lacked knowledge and experience in critical areas, such as how to evaluate the best path in complex situations involving multiple constituencies. He was moved into a smaller job soon thereafter.
The Whirling Dervish
Intelligent and creative, with a fertile imagination, the Whirling Dervish overcommits and under-delivers because he says “yes” to too many things. The Whirling Dervish often has a real zeal for the work, but he takes on more than can be done and becomes overwhelmed by the work. Then, things start falling through the cracks on a regular basis; when that happens, people distance themselves from the Whirling Dervish.
As administrators, Whirling Dervishes are often disorganized and have difficulty planning and prioritizing their work. Co-workers begin to distrust the Whirling Dervish. No one trusts him to do what he says; his word is not his bond. Eventually the Whirling Dervish is demoted or left behind.
Self-Awareness: The Saving Grace
All of us have at least a trace of one of these archetypes. I developed an assessment with the Center for Creative Leadership to help people identify the behaviors or tendencies to be particularly aware of. Even those who are promoted and continue to progress in their careers have derailment propensities they should watch closely. Having a derailment propensity is not an indictment; it’s just something to be aware of, and managed.
The key is holding a mirror up to ourselves to see our blind spots, or to have someone else (e.g., a coach) help us recognize and work on these issues. With greater self-understanding, we can acknowledge our propensity toward certain derailers and actively work to develop compensatory strategies. We can make a commitment to learning how to become more effective and mitigate the likelihood of a derailer impeding our career progress.
As one executive coach told me, “We need to all stop blaming, and start claiming our derailers. By doing so, we can mitigate their impact on our careers.”