Your Upcoming Leadership Train Wreck

Leadership Train Wreck

We have heard “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

We have heard this for many years in and around the halls of many organizations.  That statement, in fact, holds some truth… for years many organizational scholars have known it’s not how much you know, rather how well you relate to people within the organization that really matters.

Keep in mind the word “organization” refers to nothing more than a group of people organized for a purpose — thus an organization can be a small business of 2 people, or a large corporation of thousands.

Pioneering Research

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) pioneered research on executive derailment in the 1980’s and they continue to study the process and causes of derailment.

Executive derailment is involuntary, likened to a train coming off the track.

As with the derailment of a train, it’s not intentional. It’s almost always a surprise. And it causes much damage to both the individual and the organization.

Essentially, executive derailment reflects the inability to live up to expectations.

Keeping It On Track

CCL’s early research indicated five common characteristics that successful executives obtain:

  1. They have career path diversity
  2. They have an ability to maintain composure under stress
  3. They are able to manage mistakes with poise
  4. They are focused problem solvers
  5. They related to and got along with all types of people

Jumping the Rails

Conversely, the characteristics that may lead to derailment include:

  1. Difficulty in adapting to change
  2. Struggles with interpersonal relationships
  3. Failure to build and lead a team / failure to develop other leaders
  4. Fails to meet business objectives
  5. Having a narrow functional orientation

Preventing Derailment

Here are some key thoughts for managers

Many scholars and experts agree the first step to prevent derailment is to understand that leadership is something to be continually developed.  Leadership development is a key competency in today’s organizations.  Additionally, managers should:

  • Seek formal and informal feedback
  • Seek developmental opportunities
  • Seek coaching and mentoring, especially when growth and adaptability are most needed
  • Take responsibility for their own development

How Organizations can Help

  • Provide developmental assignments and challenges
  • Don’t limit leadership development to traditional “training” (e.g. seminars, classes, workshops)
  • Allow your employees access to “feedback intensive programs” which include a comprehensive assessment for development and gives managers a good look in the mirror as to where they are as leaders and how they impact others
  • Create a culture where failure doesn’t mean firing — allow people to learn from their mistakes
  • Build feedback into every level of the organization
  • Provide coaching for managers and executives and not just for those in danger of derailing.  Coaching should be seen as a positive developmental process.
  • Proactively manage leadership development

Ninth House, Inc conducted a 2006 Leadership Development Practices of Top-Performing Organizations study evaluating the power of leadership development programs in Fortune 500 companies.

According to the survey:

  • 70% link leadership development efforts to business success
  • 85% believe executive management commitment is essential to developing leaders
  • 85% of the companies require senior executive involvement in leadership development
  • 85% actively track the turn-over of their high potential leaders
  • 95% use external executive coaches to enhance their leadership development.

Concluding Thoughts

Even in today’s climate of downsizing, matrix structures, and virtual employees, CCL believes executive derailment is a fact of life and whether one stays in an organization or moves to another, adaptability and personal development are key elements to success even in the face of transition.

Preventing derailment is really in everyone’s best interests.

Derailment is an expensive proposition for organizations when you consider the cost of wasted salary, severance packages, and hiring a replacement. Not to mention the intangible costs of loss of morale, motivation, and productivity.

The higher up in the organization one is derailed the higher the cost and impact to the business.  It simply makes good sense to make leadership development a priority and thereby reducing the risk of derailment.

Recognize opportunities for development and grab ‘em by the horns!

Michelle (Shellie) Seyfarth, PhD is President of Seyfarth Diversified Strategies, LLC.
She serves as an executive coach, business coach, and dynamic workshop facilitator
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