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.  

Checklists for Stretch Assignments


Stretch assignments are useful for learning and personal growth and development, because they purposefully contain elements that are challenging in areas where the assignee needs to develop. Designed correctly, a stretch assignment confronts one with the necessity  to get out of your comfort zone in order to succeed.

The starting point for designing such an assignment can be multiple data sources:

  • the person’s own development needs compared to established leadership competencies,
  • key proven areas of mastery that a company requires from their leaders to advance to the next level,
  • a mindset or  mindset shift that is required to move the company and its leaders into a new way of operating; or
  • to build competency in specific important areas that are or will be important to the future of the company.

A stretch is not defined in a general way, but rather it is very specific to a person. While a stretch could mean that one requirement is for the person (plus family, if appropriate) to move to an international location, it inevitably would also include other job-related challenges. Examples include supervising more people, having financial performance targets (for someone who has only had functional roles in the past) or having more complexity such as multiple geographical areas to manage. The key balance to maintain when designing stretch assignments is to ensure that the assignee is put under a certain amount of pressure to learn and grow, but not so much pressure that he or she fails.

Mitigating failure risks

There are a few things you can implement to help monitor how things are going with each assignee and to provide a “safety net” for an assignee to get support from.

  1. Assign subject-matter experts as coaches – depending on the scope of the assignment.
  2. Assign a leadership development coach to help the assignee reflect on experiences, frame up challenges and cognitively choose best solutions and explore new ways of operating to be more successful in the assigned areas of responsibility.
  3. Set up internal-company networking events for the assignees to meet, have opportunities to mingle and share experiences and also include a pre-determined learning event tied to overall leadership development objectives within the company.
  4. Set up a structure of communication moments with the “home” organization supervisor and colleagues – this is especially important if you plan to return the assignee to the same organization at the end of the assignment. Maintaining ties would greatly improve a successful return and reintegration after an assignment. Communication moments like these can also greatly help colleagues NOT on assignment to learn from the experiences and best-in-class solutions their colleague on assignment is mastering.

New and challenging assignments often cause assignees to experience some stress. Supporting assignees to successfully navigate through the new challenges means you should pay attention to a change in behavior or performance which could indicate that he or she is stuck on the learning curve. Signs that things are going wrong are important to notice early-on to maximize chances of turning things around and avoiding an assignment disappointment and/or incurring an assignee retention risk. Pre-departure training should be provided to both assignees and their coaches to understand and recognize signs that things may not be going well and to understand ways to become unstuck in every situation.

Some warning signals:

stretch-assignments-signs-of-failure

Expectations for goal achievement by assignees must be specifically captured in a plan and communicated to an assignee along with available rewards for over-achievement of goals. The specific strategic importance of the assignment should also be highlighted as well as the developmental needs to be addressed during the assignment.

Tips for stretch-assignment coordinators:

  1. Ensure that there is a structure that enables assignees to succeed and always follow-through with the check-in points and feedback activities to ensure all is well.
  2. Ensure that all those involved in assignments are clear on the role of management, role and responsibilities of supporting coaches, the role and responsibilities of assignees and the role and responsibilities of assignment supervisors and “home office” supervisors.
  3. Adequately prepare assignees for their assignments: cultural awareness training (for international assignments), language skills (where needed) and if accompanied by family members – consider a session to discuss the practicalities of moving to a new location with those family members present.
  4. Ensure that the assignees get interim feedback on how their assignments are going -at least 3 times per year, but more often if this can be managed. This provides opportunities to refocus and apply new approaches as needed to ensure the assignment is successful.
  5. Provide assignees and stakeholders in assignments ample notification about the end date of an assignment. This assures minimum surprises and helps everyone to plan actions leading to a well-organized return upon assignment completion.

When assignments are successful in achieving or exceeding on all the objectives, assignees should return from their experiences with increased confidence, leadership skills, and maturity. The personal growth and development they experienced should enhance their ability to make better decisions and build stronger interpersonal relationships with those they lead and follow. Being mindful of how to setup and manage stretch assignments can make all of that a reality.