Are You On Your Way to Failure?


Executive coaches call it “derailment.”  Derailment happens when the organization has made an assessment of you that basically takes you off the planned (yours or the organization’s) trajectory of your career.  Derailment is usually talked about from the perspective of the organization–you’re not living up to expectations.  From your perspective, you feel that you’re stuck.  You are not moving up anymore.  The new jobs, promotions, or opportunities have dried up.  This might take a while to notice.  It usually is noticed by the organization much sooner than you notice it.

Evidence of Being “Stuck”

The evidence is easy to miss at first.  The  way most people notice it is that things are just not going the way they used to go.  It’s longer between promotions.  Someone else is asked to do the special project (or in some organizations, you are the ONLY one asked to do the special projects.)  Your boss doesn’t ask your opinion as much.  You feel shunted aside.

Being Able to See That You’re Stuck is a Lucky Break

Ironically, one of the things most likely to cause you to get off your career track is what has helped you succeed so far.  In other words, as you move up levels in organizations, your strengths become weaknesses.  Just like the things that worked for you in 5th grade, didn’t work for you in high school;  the things that make you an outstanding individual contributor don’t make you a great team leader. If you are highly technical or detail oriented, and you’ve been praised for your tactical implementations, the next level may require you to let go of some of the details and to see the big picture.  If you have been a heads down technology star and got promoted to be a manager, you need to pull your head up and learn how to deal with interpersonal issues.  If you have always been the smartest one in the room, but a little abrasive, and you suddenly are leading a team, that abrasiveness will cause you real problems.   If you are the boss’ favorite and suddenly that boss is gone, you’re in trouble.

The sooner you see that there is an issue, the sooner you can start working on it and the sooner you can get back on track.  It’s possible to re-energize your career, even at the same company.  The first step is to understand what it is that is in your way.

Most Common Causes of Derailment

Lois Frankel lists common reasons for derailment in her book, Overcoming Your Strengths, Harmony Books (New York 1997):

  • Poor People Skills
  • Inability to Work As Part of a Team
  • Inattention to Image and Communication Style
  • Insensitive to One’s Effect on Others
  • Difficulty Working with Others
  • Too Broad or Too Narrow a Vision
  • Lack of Concern for Customer or Client  Needs
  • Works in Isolation.

The Center for Creative Leadership includes others based on their research:

  • Too loyal to a boss or organization
  • Too personable–relies on relationships to get things done
  • Inability to adapt
  • Failure to deliver results

But None of Those Are True of Me

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to admit any of those are true of me.  The easiest way to be able to see the “off-ness” of your behavior is to frame your observations as if you just started this job, instead of finishing up your 15th year with the organization.  When you are new to an organization, you are MUCH more open to reading the signs that people are putting out.  You are much more able to assess your performance in the eyes of the people who matter.

If you feel “stuck,” start paying attention to how you interact with the organization.  Ask someone you trust to tell you the truth.  (Remember telling the truth in this situation is very hard).  Listen, and thank the person.  Then leave.  Don’t get defensive.  Don’t debate.  Leave.  Think about it.  The person might not be right, but s/he is giving you important information–a perception about you.  You know they say perception is reality.  You can’t deal with it if you don’t know it.  You need to spend some time thinking about it.  And maybe getting some more feedback.  And maybe observing yourself in the organization as if you were a new employee.

Expect Emotions

This is not easy.  Expect to be unhappy about it.  That’s ok.  Give it some time.  It’s better to feel it now than when they fire you.  You’ll get over it.  Once you can be more rational about it, figure out what you are going to do about it.

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Filed under Career Development, Derailment, Executive Development, Personal Change

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