I’ve been at the receiving end of some twenty-nine performance reviews. Some were good. Some were tepid. And one was really bad. Strange as that sounds, the truly awful one turned out to be the most valuable of them all. Let me explain why.
Back when Bill Clinton was president and I was a marketing manager within PepsiCo’s Frito Lay division, I found myself sitting in the boss’s office for my annual performance review. I worried as he started the preamble, which was along the lines of “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” Growing suspicious that this was not going to be a rave, I flipped to the back page of my review, the one known as the “money page” in PepsiCo’s review process. It gauged an employee’s future potential with the company and included a job seniority level in the top right-hand corner of the page. Unlike in past reviews, where I’d seen “L18+” (level 18 is a senior vice president; at that time, I was a level 13, a senior manager), there were the ominous words “Hold in Place.” My ears started to burn and felt a strange sense of displacement, as if I were outside of my own body, watching myself perform in a movie. I turned back to the first page of the review and tried to concentrate on what Mike, my boss, was saying to me.
Mike didn’t bury the lead—he came right out and told me that senior management considered me unpromotable which meant I was no longer on the fast track at Frito-Lay. He laid out a list of my offenses, littering his examples with words like “uncooperative,” “resistant,” and “unmanageable”. He described my behavior in various situations, such as the time he’d asked me to work alongside an outside consultant he’d hired for assistance on a marketplace analysis to determine the size and potential of the snack market for kids. Thinking it was part of my job to do this analysis, I ignored the consultant’s requests to meet with me—a big mistake, I began to realize as I tried to absorb the critical feedback.
Thirty painful minutes later, as he was wrapping up, Mike asked if I had anything to say for myself. I could tell he was frustrated, so I refrained from self-defense. I could have told him that his insistence that I work with the consultant made me feel he lacked confidence in my abilities. I could have vented about how frustrated I’d become working within a large, matrixed organization, where decision making was slow and the approval rights unclear, where and I spent more time running the internal gauntlet to get projects approved than I did facing outward and developing new products and services that would appeal to our customers. Instead, I simply asked if I was being fired. He said, “No, but since we’re going into the holiday break, I want you to take the next two weeks off and consider—really consider—if you want to be here. I’m not sure you do, to be honest. If you decide you want to stay here at Frito-Lay, I don’t want you to work in my group any longer. You’ll need to look for another marketing position within the company.”
Over the break, I gave a considerable amount of time thinking about my situation. At first, I was certain I did not want to return. Although Frito-Lay is an excellent company, it just didn’t feel like the right fit for me. During the past few years, as I’d moved into middle management, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the amount of time I spent on process management and the amount of effort I put into “greasing the skids”—trying to influence and cater to the various power players throughout the organization. I didn’t think I had the right disposition for it. I was visibly impatient with and almost constantly irked or annoyed by the corporate bureaucracy. Although I was a good team player with my peers, when I felt the heavy hand of authority upon me, I wasn’t. I tried to brush that heavy hand aside, to my own detriment. Two of my signature strengths—my self-starting nature and my sense of humor—had a destructive flip side. When feeling trod upon by the boss, I either ignored him or became irreverent, passive aggressively expressing myself through ill-timed and inappropriate barbs of humor.
But then there was the other side of the equation. Although I felt it was time to leave the company, I didn’t want to depart on such a bad note. After talking to my parents and several friends and mentors and spending time on self-reflection, I decided to return to Frito-Lay. I wanted to redeem myself and as well as avoid a black mark on my resume. As Mike had instructed, I needed to find work in another group within the company. It wasn’t easy. As I peddled my wares, I found out I’d developed a reputation with senior management for being difficult to manage. Finally, I found a spot with Stephen Quinn, who had just moved to the United States from our Canadian division and wasn’t fully aware of my problem child reputation. I was thankful that he took me on as part of his team.
After rereading my performance review, reflecting on what my now former boss Mike had told me, I realized the need for change and that I was responsible for fixing the problem. I needed to understand the circumstances that triggered my bad behavior and to develop practical methods to better self-regulate and curb my tendency toward insubordination. First, I looked back on all the core activities I performed in my last assignment and wrote down the situations where I became frustrated and my rebellious tendency was activated. It surfaced most often in ponderous process-oriented meetings, especially when the conversation turned to discussions of turf and power – such things as departmental approval rights or mind-numbing internal procedural steps needed to green light a project. It also reared its ugly head when I was told what to do by an authority figure for whom I lacked professional respect. Case in point was the vice president of packaging, who, in an effort to reduce the level of complexity for his team, lobbied hard for me to cut the “hot salsa” item from our Tostitos lineup, not understanding that it would reduce our retail shelf space in the grocery aisle and cut sales across our entire product line.
After listing a handful of these “charged” circumstances where my bad behavior popped out, I realized I needed some kind of reminder—a device to help me maintain self-awareness and to self-monitor in situations that played to my areas of vulnerability. So I did two things. First, I created a screen saver on my desktop computer that said “Roark.” Howard Roark, the unflappable protagonist in Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, handled the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with aplomb. Like Ronald Reagan, the arrows bounced off Roark. He had rhino hide. I, too, needed to learn to depersonalize business feedback that came my way. Second, I found a thick rubber band and wrote “B” on it in several places. When I found myself in a glacially slow process meeting, exasperated enough to let out a little verbal steam, I looked down at that rubber band and remembered to simply breathe. Breathe slowly, from my diaphragm and watch the urge to vent just pass, preventing me from saying something I might regret.
Over time, I was again considered to be a promotable employee and I was eventually moved up from a manager to a director role, in no small part due to the counsel and support of my new boss, Stephen Quinn. He counseled me on how to deal with senior management, and he took the time to work with me on my particular area of personal vulnerability – my difficulty in managing up, especially when I felt provoked by either corporate bureaucracy or heavy-handed authority figures.
That event at Frito-Lay was an “aha moment” for me. It made me begin to realize that success, wasn’t just about working hard and having a skill advantage, being industry-savvy and highly motivated. It meant understanding not only what I did well, but also fully grasping and managing my weaknesses. Many people have behavioral problems that end up stalling their careers. My humiliating performance review stayed with me, and, as I’ve watched others go through career jags, getting demoted or fired, I eventually felt compelled to conduct research to discover the answer to these questions: What really impedes the career progress of talented people? Why do some careers stall while others flourish?
What I discovered is that many of us are far closer to career derailment than we might think. Because bosses often provide little more than sporadic (at best) and nonspecific performance feedback (in hindsight I am thankful that Mike’s feedback to me that day was crystal clear), it’s common that we aren’t made aware of a performance issue until it’s too late. The fact is that one-half to two-thirds of the careers of managers and leaders will derail. At some point, over half of us will get fired or demoted—or our careers will flatline and we won’t reach our innate potential. And I found that there are five common reasons why it happens, which I’ve expressed through archetypes— characterizations that demonstrate, in a microcosm, how and why talented people experience career derailment. I’ve done this to humanize this uncomfortable topic. The five archetypes are:
These are the folks whose sharp elbows bruise you on their quest for the Holy Grail of the corner office. They suffer from interpersonal issues because of unbridled ego and dismal listening skills, resulting in poor working relationships with both their coworkers and those above them, including those who will be in a position to promote them – or not.
The Solo Flier
Often these are strong individual contributors who are very good at executing their initiatives—but when they get promoted into managerial positions, they have difficulty building and leading teams. They revert to either micromanaging or trying to do all the work themselves. Their teams become dissatisfied and eventually there’s a coup d’état.
These people, comfortable in their routines, are highly skeptical of change. They resist learning new skills that would help them adapt to the rapidly changing business environment. They may call themselves “traditionalists” but in reality they are overly cautious and rarely curious, both characteristics that impedes their career progress.
The One-Trick Pony
These workers become so reliant on what they’re good at—a signature skill—that, over time, unbeknownst to them, they become one-dimensional. They believe deeply that “we live in an age of specialization” but come to realize that rather than leading to advancement, their careers are actually now limited because of their narrowness. They are viewed as “non-strategic” and therefore, not promotable.
The Whirling Dervish
This group of individuals run around the office like their hair is afire, late for the next meeting and muttering to themselves about their workload. They lack planning and organizational skills. Known to overcommit and underdeliver, their boss and coworkers can’t count on them to complete their assigned tasks and eventually everyone, from coworkers to management, tries to avoid working with them.
If your first reaction is “none of these characters is like me,” you may want to look past their characterizations and into their specific behavioral tendencies. Chances are you will find a few gold nuggets that you can address to improve your performance. For example, although I’ve never been told I was “sharp-elbowed” or an “egomaniac” like the first archetype, Captain Fantastic, there are aspects of him in me. The truth is I derailed because I was dismissive of my boss’s input and too frequently acted with insolence.
Even though many years have passed since my Frito-Lay days, that poor performance review in the 90s was the most useful I’ve ever received—surely more helpful than a glowing one. My boss’s painfully honest assessment allowed me to better understand my own vulnerabilities and forced me to face and mitigate them in order to progress in my career.