The Number 1 Reason Executives Fail In New Jobs

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. copyright 2007

Jack Wilson, CEO of American Manufacturing Enterprises, was coming up on his 8-month mark in his new role and it was painfully apparent to everyone that he was not delivering on the great expectations the Board had placed in him. They couldn't understand how someone with a career of progressive successes beginning as a bright up and coming MBA and culminating with a successful five year run as CEO of Mega Industries could be failing so miserably at a company so similar to Mega. Jack's story is not that uncommon. In fact, between 40 - 50 % of executives fail during their careers, usually in new roles.

Can you guess what is the number one reason they fail? It's not because of technical incompetence, It's wrong executive - wrong job. In other words, the shoe did not fit yet they tried to wear it anyway. Jack didn't adequately take into account that Mega's culture was different than AME. How could that happen? Certainly, one would think that most companies and boards go to great lengths to screen and recruit candidates. It's been my experience that most companies try to recruit carefully. Let me illustrate with another example how the process goes awry inspite of companies' best attempts.

Alice Kay was a hard driving executive who worked her way up the ladder through several different fast growth hi-tech companies. She had been very successful working at the executive level in a mid-sized company (1000 employees) when it was acquired by a multi-national. She was one of the execs who lost their job due to the consolidation. She swore to herself that she didn't want to go through that again so she took a job as COO of an early stage subsidiary of a family owned business. The President of the company told her that they were interested in growing the company at a steady but safe rate. She sighed with relief. Unfortunately, however, within three months she grew impatient with both the cautious approach and the "lack of business acumen" of the President. She couldn't hide her impatience and disdain for the President. Staff, loyal to the President, began to complain about the COO's attitude. By year end, she was asked to go.

The fault primarily was hers, not theirs. She lacked sufficient self awareness to recognize that she was not cut out for life in the slower lane. With no ill intent, she sold them a bill of goods - all true. She definitely could grow the business. She was clearly competent to do the job. And, she thought she wanted to work in a different paced company. She simply lacked self awareness and self acceptance. It takes both. You have to know who you are - know your strengths and weaknesses - and then accept the facts with no self-deception.

In a similar fashion, I have seen successful entrepreneurs fail miserably when they tried to stay with their companies after they had grown to a much larger size, what was needed was someone well suited to institutionalize systems and processes that would create efficiencies allowing their company to compete in a mature market place. Most entrepreneurs are idea people - visionaries who love to promote their creations. I remember telling one CEO entrepreneur who sold his company to a Swiss multinational, "You'll die (emotionally) in this job if you think you can really survive working for a billionaire swiss who obsesses over every new hire." This executive, however, was self aware enough to strike a deal with the new owner that allowed him to work in a role that was congruent with his personality. As a result, he made it through the golden handcuff period successfully and left on good terms, on to his next new venture.

It seems obvious that the one significant way you can avoid becoming another member of the 50% failure club is to become sufficiently aware of yourself: your strengths, limitations and passions. Many executives, however, suffer from the delusion that they are multi-talented, versatile and highly adaptable. Which translates into the American mantra - I can do anything I put my mind to. Management gurus from Peter Drucker to Jim Collins to Marcus Buckingham will tell you otherwise. And, from my experience coaching and working with hundreds of executive, I agree.

At some point in your career, usually at the point when you are being asked to replicate your successes either in another role in your current company or being recruited into another company, you would be wise to conduct an objective third-party assessment of your self. I'm suggesting that you go through a developmental assessment. The top of the line assessment process would include going through a 360 degree feedback (multi-rator) process where you are rated by others on your leadership and management abilities. The research on 360s supports that the views of significant others about your competency on the job is highly predictive of how well you will do in that environment. In addition, you should take a leadership oriented personality assessment that will help you understand how your personality impacts your effectiveness.

For example, do you have a good handle on your thinking style (how you solve problems, make decisions, etc.)? People vary considerably in this regard. Some people tend to take an in-depth, thoughtful approach to evaluating information; others tend to make quick decisions. Some people are better suited to dealing with big-picture issues, while others like to focus on practical solutions to immediate problems.

Do you fully understand your work style (how you go about getting a job done) and the potential effects of various motivational influences on your performance? For example, some people are highly energetic, while others are methodical. The former is a prerequisite for leadership roles while the latter is critical in a technical role, e.g, accountant or researcher. Some people are most strongly motivated by recognition and praise, while others need personal freedom to do their best work.

Or, how well do you understand your approach to (and interest in) interacting with others which has implications about your interpersonal style and effectiveness (leadership acumen). For example, some people are very outgoing and are likely to be comfortable in situations where they must interact with many different kinds of people. Others have little need for this type of social contact and can be comfortable in solitary or individual contributor roles. Some people have high frustration tolerance; the sine qua non of entrepreneurs, scientists, managers and mothers. Others prefer a fast-paced, get it done environment where there is no time allowed for developing others - survival of the fittist rules.

Lastly, how well do you understand what gives you passion in your work? You might be very competent at analytics and manipulating numbers but if you don't love it, you'll suffer in a finance role. My college algebra professor told me that I had the talent to become a math professor. I hated math. I loved helping people learn and grow. I went into the field of psychology and become a psychologist/therapist. However, I hated sitting in an office all day listening and responding empathetically to clients even though I was very good at it. I was too opinionated to be a therapist. It was only after being in private practice for about five years that I found the profession that capitalized on both my strengths and passion. And, it took an objective third-part observer to identify for me what that profession was. Believe it or not, I'm in this role today because of a very successful venture capitalist friend of mine who told me: "Carl, you should be working with people like me. I might not have been fired twice as a CEO if I had worked with someone like you." If he had been my client, I hope I would have told him. "You're not cut out to be a CEO but you would make a heck of a VC."

If you want to be successful - "Know thyself." Socrates had it right!