Preventing Executive Derailment

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2009

Research on executive effectiveness has found that 33% of executives selected for senior positions fail. Some estimates run as high as 50%. How do you know if a key employee is headed for a crash? With the cost of replacing key employees reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars preventing derailment is critical. Drawing from several sources (executive leadership literature review, my professional experience as an executive coach, interviews with recruiters, etc.,) clear indicators and patterns emerge that point toward careers headed for derailment. One startling fact emerges: there are amazing similarities between the careers of successful individuals and derailers so it’s often hard to see a derailment coming before it’s too late.

Below is a list of similarities, differences and the key derailment indicators and patterns to look out for regardless of industry or stage of company growth. If any of the derailment indicators are emerging then watch out! It’s time to take corrective developmental action before a potentially successful career goes South.
Similarities between the careers of individuals on track for success vs. derailment:

  • Incredibly bright
  • Outstanding track records
  • Identified early as a high potential employees
  • Personable (not perfect)
  • Ambitious
  • Made significant sacrifices for the organization
  • Moved up during reorganization or merger
  • Excellent at motivating or directing subordinates

Difference show up however in the following areas:

  • Track record
  • Interpersonal style
  • Composure
  • Handling of mistakes
  • Solving Problems

Reasons for derailment – major factors:

  • Decline in business performance
  • Insensitive, abrasive, intimidating style
  • Poor criticism tolerance
  • Poor frustration tolerance
  • Cold, aloof, arrogant
  • Betrayed trust
  • Over managing – failing to delegate, build team
  • Overly ambitious
  • Poor staffing ability
  • Unable to think strategically
  • Unable to adapt to boss, culture of company
  • Conflict adverse
  • Poor interpersonal communication
  • Overly dependent on others to advocate for them
  • Specific skill deficiencies

How these flaws are usually discovered – a few examples:

  • Loss of a boss who covered the weakness
  • Inept handling of a performance problem of a subordinate
  • Clash with boss or other employees
  • Trail of little problems that reach a critical mass
  • Trail of bruised people
  • Strengths became weaknesses – did not adapt to changing business conditions
  • Success went to his/her head and became arrogant

Key take a-ways and applications:

The research on executive success is clear - successful executives are developed not hatched full grown. Wayne Calloway the late CEO of PepsiCo said, “I’ll bet most of the companies that are in life-or-death battles got into that kind of trouble because they didn’t pay enough attention to developing their leaders.” Successful executive are active learners. They make mistakes but learn from their mistakes. So, run through the list of derailment factors on your key managers and if you see any red flags (similarities) – take corrective developmental action to prevent derailment and the costly financial and personal consequences.

The following guidelines for behavioral change can help people change –
Assess > Plan > Take Action > Re-Assess > Practice more:

  1. Clearly identify the desired changes – identify the problem behavior(s) clearly?
      - Determine who can provide meaningful feedback
      - Collect feedback
      - Analyze results
  2. Develop an action plan
  3. Have the “candidate” respond to key stakeholder
      - The candidate must inform stakeholders that he/she is working to improve
  4. Develop an ongoing follow-up and re-assessment process
  5. Review results
  6. Practice new behaviors over and over until learned