A lot of stuff written about careers is framed in the positive. How to become a great leader. Setting a clear future vision. Bringing staff with you on the journey and so on. But we know that some people are told to ‘walk the plank’ and this element of organization life is seldom discussed. So, what causes careers to derail? The ‘tripwires’ detailed below are based on real cases (names and organization details have been changed to ‘protect the guilty’). Here’s how it all goes wrong…
Tripwire # 1: Rules only apply to ‘Little People’
Ethical issues will get your fired quicker than anything else. Don’t sleep with your PA. Don’t accept favours from suppliers. Don’t seek personal gain on the company’s ticket – because you ‘deserve it’ (as some sort of payback for those extra hours or weekends you’ve been working or travelling). Do it and you are dead; it’s just a matter of time until someone arranges the funeral. Unethical and/or fraudulent behavior accounts for over 40% of the incidences when senior players derail (that why it’s number 1 on the list). Like golf, business is a game of ethics. The organization has to trust you to do the right thing. And ethics is as slippery slope. If it’s OK to misstate your expenses on a ‘small issue’, it soon becomes OK to misstate it on a BIG issue. People get fired for greed – sometimes on quite trivial amounts of money around stuff like RPM (“relentless pursuit of mileage”). The training unit in Mountjoy prison is not a holiday camp!
Tripwire # 2: Missing a Key Performance Target
There is an upper ceiling to the hours you can personally work. 50, 60 or 70, depending on the size of your batteries. During that time you are in charge of perhaps thousands of hours of outputs. So, you need to (a) know what you personally should be focused on & (b) spend a huge % of your time encouraging others to deliver their key outputs i.e. use your time to ‘leverage’ other peoples’ behaviour. Now, unless you’re an airline pilot, I’m guessing that ‘miles flown’ is not a strategic measure of your success. Stop telling people how busy you are and get focused on what you need to produce (telling people how busy you are is based on an underling need for approval: “Look at me. I’m important. Just saying, in case you don’t notice”). Don’t get caught up in the classic confusion between inputs and outputs. Focus on what you are trying to accomplish. Like Brazil, it’s not a defense to say we lost the game 7-1 to Germany, but we made a lot of excellent passes (anyway, I’ve seen better ‘passes’ made on Cococabana Beach).
Tripwire # 3: Failure to Build a Top-Class Team
You understand the need to be future focused, overcoming today’s problems while building for the future. You don’t just work in the business, but also on the business. Right? In some organizations, you may not get ‘called’ on this – because the culture is relatively short-term focused and the institutional memory is on par with a Hamster – every 20 seconds is a new day. But the best-managed organizations look to their Managers to build solid leadership teams, which represent future capacity and growth potential. An inability to build and lead a team is an important derailment factor, mentioned in about 1 out of 4 of the cases in the literature. One explanation for this may be that traits like assertiveness and personal initiative get managers onto the fast track in the early part of their careers. Those traits, which make you look like a hero when working as a solo contributor, later get in the way as executives face the challenge of employing a more participative approach. Some people fail to learn this ‘new’ stuff and it gets them into trouble later in their careers. You are not alone!
Tripwire # 4: Confusing Intelligence with Leadership
This one translates as follows: I’m Clever, Therefore I Lead. Usually, to get into senior roles, a person is smart, sometimes incredibly smart. They demonstrate competence in earlier roles and get promoted on the back of this. But ‘smartness’ (measured by a high IQ) is a very different characteristic than the ability to lead people (usually measured by a high IQ coupled with a high EQ). In short, being smart and leadership ability are two completely different competencies. Just because you are a world-class snooker player, doesn’t automatically mean that you can swim. Don’t forget the role that politics plays in all organizations. When things go wrong, you need ‘credits in the bank’ to tide you over. I’m not suggesting that you deliberately go out of your way to keep everyone happy as some sort of ‘insurance policy’ against future mistakes, but there is an element of personal marketing in all successful careers (unless you find oil in your back garden). People with poor interpersonal relationships, typically don’t have ‘credits’. “I don’t do politics” is often code for: “I don’t have the skills to understand how politics works”.
Example: Cultural Arrogance i.e. MY country is better than yours! Here’s a simple recipe for ‘screwing up’. Take a big, successful economy. Take an executive from this ‘1st world’ economy and send them to a developing country e.g. Indonesia. Then watch carefully as the new manager begins to compare (that’s code for ‘rate as inferior’) every single thing in the developing country versus her/his home country. People from some cultures ‘transplant’ better than others. Some are almost Chameleon like and take on the identity and the cultural mores of the place they move to. Others don’t. They rail against difference. They compare everything negatively. They play a stupid game called ‘I wish that it was more like home’. And they ultimately fail in their quest to ‘change the culture of the place where they live into the culture of the place where they have come from’. Sometimes highly intelligent people can be very stupid.
Tripwire # 5: Stopping Learning: Everything I need to know, I already know
You have a wall plastered with degrees and certificates, some from prestigious institutions. You have a track record of success. You’ve made a lot of money. People LISTEN when you speak. It’s all good. Until you encounter something new, something where you don’t fully understand the rules. For example, when an executive moves into a new industry there is a ton of learning and some of this information is ‘tacit’ and not easily picked up. It creates a high degree of discomfort.
Psychological Dissonance: There’s a concept in psychology called dissonance. Most people experience this when they come up against contradictory information or stuff they just don’t understand. It’s a form of confusion, even mental pain. One way to overcome dissonance is to make a quick decision which get rid of the confusion: Example: “Ok, things are a bit different, but it’s all surface stuff. Fundamentally, everything is the same. The best way to manage in the NEW environment is to continue to manage the way I did in the OLD environment”. Voila. The dissonance disappears. You have a strategy. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you might be headed 1800 in the wrong direction. Oops! You can only overcome this by staying open to learning – and learning to live with the discomfort of ‘not knowing everything’. When the only criteria you use is speed, be careful you don’t get to the wrong place faster.
Tripwire # 6: Inability to Change Despite Feedback
The final tripwire revolves around an executives’ ability to adapt to changes required during personal and organizational transitions. It can have several dimensions, including a failure to adapt to a new boss with a different style, overdependence on a single skill or an inability to adapt to the demands of a changing market. Stand still and die! Are you really hearing what your boss is saying? How does your 3600 results stack up against peer groups? Soon-to-become derailed managers are often unable or unwilling to learn from feedback.
They say: “Yes, that’s true but…” (then go on to show they don’t believe it’s true).
They say: “That’s really useful, the most direct feedback I’ve ever received” (but do absolutely nothing to respond, indicating that it wasn’t actually useful).
They say: “It’s a lot to take on board. Can you give me a bit of time” (as a way to end an uncomfortable session and then subsequently ignore the feedback).
Essentially, some people are immune to change. All senior executives have to be willing to work on tough personal developmental issues, taking an in-depth look at self-esteem, their ability to deal with new and ambiguous situations and letting go of personal achievement in favor of team-empowerment. The learning involved can be highly emotional and demands an elevated level of maturity.
Conclusions: Most organizations don’t take a benign view of managerial underperformance. Once a position is accepted, the executive is expected to perform. Very few transfer back to the starting line with the organization taking the ‘hit’ for a poor judgment call. Moving up in the organization is usually a 1-way ticket. Follow the simply rules outlined above and make sure that you’re ready for the journey.
PS Lighter Note:
Q: What did the Chicken say to the Duck?
A: Don’t ever cross the road. Jesus, you’ll never hear the end of it!
Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.