Rotman Management

How Brilliant Careers Are Made — And Unmade

HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHY some careers flourish, while others stall? ‘Career derailment’ occurs when an individual previously deemed to have strong potential is fired, demoted or plateaus below expected levels of success. According to statistics, somewhere between 30 and 67 per cent of leaders involuntarily derail at some point in their career.

Not surprisingly, career derailment carries high costs: The direct and indirect cost to organizations can be more than 20 times the derailed employees’ salaries. Given the stakes involved for individuals and organizations alike, I recently set out to pinpoint the major causes of career derailment. In this article I will share key findings from the research, lay out the behaviours that can stall a career and offer remedies to help people avoid derailment.

Career Derailment 101

First and foremost, career derailment does not indicate a lack of managerial talent. Instead, it often afflicts talented managers who are either unaware of a debilitating weakness or interpersonal blind spot — or are arrogant enough to believe that the rules don’t apply to them.

As part of my research, I conducted extensive interviews with three leadership consulting firms: the Centre for Creative Leadership, the Korn Ferry Institute and the Hay Group. All three indicated that organizations prefer to focus on the positive and don’t even like to discuss peoples’ negative qualities. The problem is, these personal weaknesses often override an individual’s strengths. Following are five major career derailers that every leader should be aware of.

DERAILER 1: INTERPERSONAL ISSUES. Researchers agree that this is the most prevalent and damaging derailer. Stuart Kaplan, the former global chief operating officer of Korn Ferry’s leadership and talent consulting practice (now director of organizational development at Google) put it this way:

“As you progress [in your career], your relationships with others are more important than your knowledge of and relationship with data. This need kicks in as you move into middle and upper management. It’s a mindset change. You have to let go of having the answer and embrace the relational.”

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