dr carl robinson

The Currency of Success - Interpersonal Intelligence™

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Preventing Executive Derailment

Derailment happens when a previously successful executive fails to do their job effectively, leading to demotion or replacement if their performance does not improve. Executive derailment is much more common than you might think and can be caused by either personal failures or changes within the organization. The process of replacing key employees who’ve “derailed” in this way is costly and time-consuming, which is why prevention is so critical. In some cases, executives may not be aware they are failing until it’s too late. How do you know if a key employee is headed for a crash? There are many key indicators and patterns to look out for which could point towards a career headed for derailment.

Learning to identify derailment before it happens can help prevent this type of failure by giving the executive an opportunity to course-correct. We’ll look at the similarities between successful and derailed careers, as well as key factors of derailment that are easy to spot regardless of industry or company size.

Success vs. Derailment

Drawing from my own professional experience as an executive coach, as well as interviews with recruiters and executive leadership groups, one startling fact became clear — the striking similarities between the careers of successful individuals versus careers that derail. Due to these similarities, it’s often hard to see a derailment coming before it’s too late. Both career paths can share the following traits:

  • Bright, personable and ambitious
  • Outstanding track record
  • Identified early as a high-potential employee
  • Excellent at motivating or directing subordinates
  • Made significant sacrifices for the organization
  • Moved up during reorganization or merger

In the case of derailment, key differences will begin to show up in certain aspects of an executive’s career. Areas to observe for change include:

  • Composure
  • Track record
  • Interpersonal style
  • Handling of mistakes
  • Problem solving
  • Performance under pressure

Key Indicators of Derailment

Some signs of derailment are apparent early in an executive’s career, while other indicators may only emerge after time or in high pressure situations. Derailed executives are generally unable to control their own emotions or work with the emotions of others. Executives who clash with their peers or have a habit of escalating small problems are most at risk of derailment.

Many signs of derailment are frequently overlooked due to the executive’s high potential or because their strengths are valued within the organization. Strengths can become weaknesses, however, if an executive is unable to adapt to changing business conditions. Some of the most common red flags are:

  • Declining business performance
  • Reduced engagement
  • Inability to adapt
  • Loss of leadership
  • Poor interpersonal communication

These warning signs point to decreased leadership effectiveness and a lack of motivation. It’s important to recognize and address these signs early to prevent total failure. Sometimes, an executive showing signs of derailment may just be having a bad day as opposed to a bad year. If you notice these behaviors becoming consistent over a period of time, however, it’s vital to address the red flags and help the executive get back on track before they completely derail.

Key Takeaways and Applications

The research is clear – successful executives are not hatched fully grown, they are carefully developed. The late CEO of PepsiCo, Wayne Calloway, said it best: “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.”

The following steps will help you clearly identify problem behaviors and make the desired corrections to avoid derailment:

  1. Assess: Determine who can provide meaningful feedback and analyze the results you receive for signs of derailment.
  2. Plan: Use your assessment to develop an action plan for correcting the derailing behavior.
  3. Take Action: Put the plan into action and actively encourage change. Executives should inform stakeholders that he or she is working to improve.
  4. Re-Assess: Review results and develop an ongoing follow-up and re-assessment process to prevent backsliding.
  5. Practice: Practice new behaviors repeatedly and often until learned.

Successful executives own their mistakes and learn from them. If you run through the list of derailment factors and see red flags, it’s not too late to take corrective developmental action and prevent the costly financial and personal consequences of derailment.


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