Performance
May 7, 2012

From Hero to Zero: Why smart executives derail

CGE Vol.13 No.2 February 2007

The leadership literature is littered with pithy maxims that claim to guide executives to career success. However, it is sometimes instructive to study the flip side of success – leadership failure – to learn from the missteps and misfortune of others.

We all know at least one “high flyer” who has crashed and burned, gone from “hero” to “zero” and derailed. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) defines derailed executives as previously successful individuals who have not lived up to their full potential and who have prematurely reached a plateau and stalled, or been demoted, fired or retired.

How does this happen? There is a growing body of research on private sector derailment, from studies done by CCL since 1983 to a flurry of recent books. Integrating this data with my experience working with public sector executives and managers over the past 17 years, there seem to be Five Fatal Flaws.

1) over-promise and under-deliver
2) poor people skills
3) going it alone
4) resistance to change
5) breech of values and ethics.
     

1) OVER-PROMISE AND UNDER-DELIVER The most obvious and frequent derailer is the failure to deliver the goods. People get on the organization’s high-flyer radar screen when they start developing a track record – doing what it takes to bring in a project, a program or a policy on time and on budget. Once there, however, lack of follow-through on workplace commitments can mark you as belonging to the ranks of those “all talk, no walk” executives who are adept at self-promotion and little else. Most organizations have performance management systems to flush out those who don’t deliver on commitments.

2) POOR PEOPLE SKILLS Inadequate people skills is an umbrella covering individuals who are perceived as arrogant (often because of their previous successes), abrasive, insensitive, overly critical, perfectionist and/or interpersonally volatile. The intriguing thing here is that the career consequences of poor people skills are neither instantaneous nor automatic. While this behaviour may be overlooked initially, because good performance has been achieved, eventually it catches up with them – especially if they leave a trail of victims in their wake.

3) GOING IT ALONE Self-reliance is a leadership asset, but if overdone, can morph into the “Lone Wolf Syndrome” – an isolationist, self-centered management style. Failure to strategically build and lead a team, or an unwillingness to work collaboratively with peers, builds their resentment. Benjamin Zander’s metaphor for leadership is the symphony orchestra – making music together – where the conductor’s power depends on making others powerful. The chef d’orchestre is undeniably the group’s leader even without playing an instrument.

4) RESISTANCE TO CHANGE The higher you go in an organization, the more cross-functional your roles, responsibilities and challenges become. Over-reliance on a single strength or skill – often the very skill that led to your initial success – can actually set you up for failure. We’ve often heard that if all you have in your tool kit is a hammer, then you will treat everything as if it were a nail. If the problem you are facing is a nail, you succeed. Perhaps this should be called “resistance to growth” – when you grow into situations that require a bit more finesse, or a new set of skills, but still try to use the techniques of your past. This often happens when people move from heading a specialist technical unit to becoming managers of more functionally diverse units. The world of today’s executive is not for those who are risk-averse, growth-averse, and who prefer to stay with the familiar.

5) BREECH OF VALUES AND ETHICS There is a heightened sensitivity to the need to lead with integrity and be respectful. Early indicators of flawed ethics include displays of favoritism, abuse of power, attempts to cover up mistakes, mistreating subordinates, attempts to lay the blame on others, taking credit for others’ work, and outright lies. A leader who violates corporate values or breeches ethical standards, courts derailment and a long, if not impossible, climb back to respectability.

How do aspiring leaders avoid these fatal flaws, and how do those on top stay on top? The literature has a plethora of remedies and prevention strategies for how to stay on track. I have summarized them as the Seven Survival Strategies of Successful Leaders.

1. embrace continuous learning
2. seek to stretch
3. work with a net
4. take inventory
5. sniff the wind
6. participate in the community of leaders, and
7. strive for balance.

1) Embrace continuous learning: The most potent protector against derailment is openness to continuous learning in all its forms. Beyond formal courses, other opportunities to learn and grow abound – in the people, events and even the crises around you. Seeking formal and informal feedback from peers, subordinates and superiors (and pausing to reflect, absorb and adjust to this input) is a habit worth developing.

2) Seek to stretch: Be on the lookout for developmental opportunities that can broaden your horizons and help you overcome limitations. Research shows that “stretch assignments” or working on anything that allows you to venture outside your comfort zone contributes to your growth as a leader. A zigzag career path has been proven to be a richer precursor to career success than a stovepipe trajectory.

3) Work with a net: An executive is most vulnerable to going off-track during transitions (e.g., a promotion, a new boss, a new culture). Seeking support via a coach and/or a mentor is a wise investment in safety. Smart organizations provide access to such resources and smart executives take advantage of these opportunities.

4) Take inventory: New situations require new skills, behaviours and mental frameworks. Every time you face a change or a significant challenge in the workplace, conduct a skills inventory – assess what you have, what you need, and how to close the gap. Stephen Covey calls this “sharpening your saw.” You should continuously expand your management tool kit.

5) Sniff the wind: Being able to focus on the task at hand is an admirable skill. But an equally important strategy is to never lose sight of the greater context in which you operate. That requires acute peripheral vision – the ability to continuously scan the environment looking for the proverbial (and ever-changing) “big picture.” While we can’t control the winds, we can adjust our rudder and sails.

6) Participate in the community of leaders: Leadership can be lonely. Yet opportunities to connect abound; joining professional associations, functional communities or conferences where you can network with colleagues can reduce derailment.

7) Strive for balance: The most difficult derailment prevention strategy to achieve, and maintain, is life balance. Surveys have quantified the cumulative effect of the long hours, the heightened responsibility and the stress on a leader’s physical and emotional health. Unabated stress and fatigue are the breeding grounds from which derailing circumstances and behaviours can emerge.

We have all seen people who have derailed, struggled, and eventually, after a period in limbo, recovered. And others that never recover. It is far better to avoid derailment – it takes a human and operational

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