Avoid Leader Derailment


The Center for Creative leadership’s (CCL) research on executive success and failure identified the significance of “derailers”, and how they differ from just mere weaknesses. They studied leaders who made it to at least the General Manager level, but then their careers had involuntarily stalled, or they had been demoted, dismissed, or asked to take early retirement.

A derailer is not just a weakness. We all have many weaknesses that we may never choose to improve, and some weaknesses do not impact our career success in a major way. A derailer is a weakness that requires improvement if employees wish to realize their full potential in their careers and especially as leaders.

Why do leaders fail?

Leaders most often fail due to unaddressed weaknesses, derailers, and if left unaddressed for long enough these become habits that start to shape a leader’s style of interacting with others. The steady number of reported incidents involving significant leadership behavior issues in companies of all sizes and across industries is a strong reminder not to think that it cannot happen in your company.

Most leadership derailers will not cause the fall of an entire organization. But they can certainly lead to a failed career. The question you need to ask yourself is: “What type of derailers would cause a leader in my organization to fail?” Or, as a leader, “Which derailers am I prone to and how can I address them?”

How do successful leaders avoid derailment?

  1. They seek feedback throughout their careers from people at various leadership levels and from various functions both within the organization and external to the organization (as appropriate).
  2. He or she seeks developmental opportunities that can help overcome flaws and ask for developmental advice from other trusted leaders, coaches, or confidants.
  3. They seek extra support and coaching during transitions and especially when a possible “trigger” event occurs, which they do not cope well with.
  4. They remain aware that new jobs require new approaches and behaviors and successful leaders not only recognize this but reach out to ensure they have the right support and advice to successfully navigate through a transition into a new role.

How can the organization help to avoid a leader from derailing?

Organizations can take actions to ensure that leaders are aware of weaknesses which could derail them in the future and the following cautions can help with that:

  • Consider career paths that include time spent in various different groups, business units, or functions instead of a career path that simply moves in a straight vertical line within the organization.
  • Encourage and promote feedback to employees that focuses on “how you did it” instead of “what you did” only.
  • Beware to not consider one failure by a leader as a sign that he or she is completely “off the track” and using it as a critical development need to address instead.
  • Avoid moving managers to new roles too fast and instead allow them to remain in a role long enough to experience the consequence of business decisions and learn from it. A strong culture of learning and “failing forward” is a great environment for leaders to address high-risk weaknesses at an early stage of their careers.

Identify possible derailers – Self Assessment for leaders

This self assessment can be done between a leader and his or her coach to open up conversations about “what can stop me from reaching my leadership goals and ambitions?”

An honest look at the listed factors can help a leader identify perhaps the one or two behavioral traits that could possibly derail him or her in the future. Working with a coach, a leader can explore different ways to handle some of the situations which they had not handled well in the past.

Both organizations and leaders within the organization need to take responsibility for identifying signs of weaknesses that could derail a leader in future and then commit to addressing the issue before it becomes a derailer. The costs of failure in this area is not only public humiliation for the leader and a public relations challenge for companies, but also has tangible costs when one considers for example costs associated with a high staff turnover, which often accompanies groups where the derailed leader has worked over the years.  

Steps to creating a life you love


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When someone wants to change something about his or her life or create new outcomes in key areas, they often need more than just someone telling them to create goals and then implement it. Most people seem to need the steps more clearly spelled out and a workbook or playbook is something they really appreciate.

The steps can be broken down in the steps shown below. The downloadable worksheets link is right here:

Step 1:

Understand the process:

Step 2:

What matters to you?

Being clear on what matters to you makes it easier to understand WHY you would want more of some things in your life and less of others things in your life. While most people think they know the answers to these questions, you will notice how much clearer it gets when you have to write it down and then read it back to yourself.

Step 3:

Do I have time for this?

Most of us would have more time to work on projects that matter to us if we simply started eliminating activities that do not add value to our lives – based on what is important to us. The next two sheets first of all help to highlight how you spend your weeks (typically) and then help you identify how much time you could potentially free up for working on meaningful activities to get you closer to the life that you want for yourself.

Step 4:

What would I like to achieve?

This sheet starts with jotting down new outcomes that one would like to see in some key areas and then it moves to the right planning needed – which activities would do you plan to do in each month? The overall objective is to avoid having competing priorities within the same time of the year. Spacing activities out over a year period helps to ensure you keep focused while making progress in the most important areas over a 12-month period. Note that is is almost always a good idea to pick only maybe two or three projects to work on every month to avoid feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. Those two can lead to feeling demotivated and abandoning all of your plans to create a life you can love.

Step 5:

How will I move forward?

This step gets into more detail regarding your plan. There is an area to select what the next step may be for each of the projects you want to work on. It could be that you may need to gather more information or maybe you need to reach out to more people to learn from them or get advice from them- but who? Perhaps you need to build a prototype or get others to give you feedback on your idea? Maybe you need to try to see how it works for you – trying a new way of doing something? The page continues on with identifying whom you know who could help you with advice or maybe introduce you to someone who could help you. And then finally identifying where (place or area of interest) you need to do some research to find out more about what you could explore next and which organizations in your area may be able to help you move forward.

Step 6:

What is my plan for the next few months?

Looking at what needs to be investigated or one over the next few months, this sheet provides a space to keep rack of the top 2 or 3 things you would like to achieve this month to move forward on the projects you have picked for the next few months. There is also a handy check-box which helps you keep track of completed activities versus ones that are still open.

Step 7:

How am I doing?

Sometimes we start on the path of working on life improvement projects and then we get stuck or we get so distracted that we lose our focus. There are many reasons why we might get stuck but getting unstuck is not always easy. This sheet helps you do that.

Taking you from your original objectives, this sheet helps you acknowledge how far you got and what you have completed. Then it helps you think through what the next steps would be. You may need to continue making progress and maybe you need to stop and ask for advice or get more information in order to move forward.

Step 8:

Go back to Step 2 and renew your plans

When you have worked through the sheets and some months have passed it is a good idea to go back and review the reasons you are working on the projects – which are captured in Step 2. Then follow through each of your completed sheets to consider what you might like to change or add to your planning to renew your approach. Some projects end up unfinished because they seem less important once yo have taken more time to do research and talk to people with more knowledge in a specific area. It is okay to decide to abandon these project if they do not matter to you anymore.

Other new projects may be started while a few may continue from your earlier efforts and enter new phases – maybe you are ready to finalize a website or start selling something you have been meaning to put on the market.

I hope these workbook/playbook pages have given you new enthusiasm to plan out and move forward on creating more outcomes in your life that matter to you resulting in having a life that you love!

Competence – getting to the top level


According to competence development, there are four levels that a learner goes through on their journey to being consciously competent at a skill they wish to be good at. Knowing which level you are at for the new skill or competency that you are trying to learn is important, but it is also true that until someone gains awareness almost nobody knows when they are at level 1.

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Level 4 is the goal that any learner wants to achieve, and it is that state of skillfulness that does not require effort to execute. Think for example of how you tie your shoelaces or drive your car. If you have been doing it for a few years you can probably have many other thoughts in your head and while you are doing it. This is possible because you have reached Level 4 in the skills required to tie your shoelaces or drive your car.

Going from Level 1 to Level 4

Level 1 means you are not skilled at something specific, but you do not know it. Until someone provides you with feedback in this area or until you are somehow confronted with the fact that you have no or limited skills in a specific area. We do not even think about that area as something we need to work on and we are often blissfully unaware of the potential development need in an area. The main way to move out of level 1 is to ask for feedback and to look for ways to understand how your behavior, actions, communications and way of working impact others.

From Level 1 to Level 2 – Get input. When was the last time you asked a friend, a co-worker or a family member “Tell me one thing that I would have to get better at if I would be a better friend/co-worker/member of this family or better at my job?”

Going from Level 2 to Level 3 – Learn and practice using new ways of doing or thinking. This is where the heavy-lifting comes into play. To make this transition of learning a new skill takes focus, dedicating time in your busy schedule to actively acquire a new skill. This requires a lot of discipline and you will not only need to schedule the time for this, but you will need to practice what you are learning on a regular basis and keep track of your own progress. It is important also in this stage to get input from others so that you can gauge the progress you are making towards acquiring and demonstrating skilfulness in new areas.

Going from Level 3 to Level 4 – It just happens. There comes a day when someone mentions that you have been demonstrating your skills in a new area without you being aware of making the effort. At that time, you will have acquired an unconsciously skilled state whereby you no longer need to focus or concentrate very hard in order to demonstrate your skill in a particular area.

What is the value of using this model?

If you are a trainer, it is important to know at which stage your training participants are because it would drive the kinds of information you make available, the kinds of practice sessions you build into your training class and the kinds of tests you provide for them to measure their progress. A pre-test or exercise can often help determine the level of awareness and knowledge that training participants have in the skills area(s) that you will be focusing on during the class. For example, a trainer may use more assessments to increase awareness if the class is at level 1 or the trainer may use more practical exercises and instructional sessions if the person is at level 2 or 3.

As a mentor, it is important to understand not only the goals and development needs that a mentee would like to work on but also what his or her current level of competence is in that particular area. This knowledge helps you to provide helpful guidance to help him or her reach the next level of competence.

As a leader of a department or a function, you will likely have people within your group or team that are at different levels of competence. Situational Leadership will be required from you as you assign tasks, delegate or provide feedback to each person focusing on the level of competence that he or she is at for that particular skill set that is needed.

Having a framework and process for moving from unconscious incompetence to being consciously competent helps mentors and learners. It is easier to select the right developmental tool or resource for development when it is clear which level of being skilled the learner is at. And the starting point is most often the results from 360 reports for leaders or communication and collaboration style feedback tools and exercises.


Note 1:
In February 1969, management trainer Martin M. Broadwell called the model “the four levels of teaching”. Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned this model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching. In the late 1970s, this model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch. He called it the “four stages for learning any new skill”. Later the model was frequently (but incorrectly) attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.

Questions for Coaching


Many managers mistakenly think coaching is about “telling” others what they should be doing. While some very inexperienced people may need you to tell them what to do or how to do it, most others need to learn and explore topics and new skills or behaviors with their coaches instead. The hard part for many coaches is to listen and ask the right questions. And also to refrain from taking up most of the airtime during coaching sessions talking about their own lives and their own stories or just offering advice. While children happily accept new information simply because you tell them how things are, adults prefer to explore and learn by comparing and assimilating what you are sharing with what they already know and have learned in their pasts.

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Closed Questions

Coaching sessions is about asking open-ended questions which leads to learning and exploring. Asking the right questions is not an easy assignment to have as a coach. Some questions shut others down while limiting them to “yes” or “no” answers which does not allow for a rich conversation of exploration around the topic concerned. Closed questions are those that can be answered by a simple yes or no answer.

More useful questions to ask :

  • Open-ended questions help others expand on ideas and contribute to the conversation vs staying mostly in listening-mode. These kinds of questions can help you discover the other person’s thought processes, motivations and how they feel about a topic or an option.
  • Clarifying questions are helpful to ensure you understood your conversation partner correctly. When people get going on topics that they feel quite excited or passionate about they can sometimes lose sight of how familiar you are with that same topic. To ensure you (the coach) are able to follow along, you may need to pause, look back and clarify any comment made which you were unable to place within the context of the topic being discussed.
  • Paraphrasing. This is a useful technique to summarize what you heard so far and help move the conversation towards a decision or planning a specific path forward (action). It also helps ensure that your impressions of what was said are correct. It can be very validating for someone to hear their own words summarized correctly by another trusted person (in this case you, as the coach).

This list of questions for coaches (which you can download above) can help you to ask the right questions at your next coaching session. I recommend you read through this as you prepare for the session, but do not commit yourself to asking specific pre-determined questions regardless of how the conversation goes. The important part about asking questions at a coaching session is that you (the coach) show up with a mindset of curiosity. That opens up the exploration in the conversation and enables learning to take place which is vital for adults in their learning process.

Use the links to other content which I show below and also the resource I am sharing above as a way to prepare for and get into inquiry mode before the planned coaching session.

These are great questions to consider asking when you coach: Life Coaching Questions    Coaching questions for managers