Five Reasons Why Managers’ Careers Go Wrong


With the Christmas and New Year holidays being a traditional time for taking stock, many aspiring leaders will be assessing their career progress and deciding on next steps. A useful starting point might be a look at a recently-published book by Carter Cast, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a venture partner with Pritzker Group Venture Capital. The Right And Wrong Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made And Unmade (Public Affairs) was born of Cast’s own self-appraisal, which, rather than being voluntary, was forced upon him by a negative assessment of his prospects by a superior early in his career.

Describing the experience as an “aha moment”, he writes: “Success, I started to understand, wasn’t just about working hard and having a skill advantage, being industry-savvy and highly motivated. Even among the smartest and most talented people, there are behavioral problems that end up stalling careers.” Seeing others going through slumps, being demoted or fired led him to investigate what it is that really impedes the progress of these people. In the course of this research he discovered that many are closer to career derailment than they realize. Because most bosses are not like Cast’s and often deliver feedback in opaque terms, many people do not become aware of a performance issue until it’s too late, he says. He reckons that a half to two-thirds of careers of managers and leaders will derail, with more than a half at some point being fired or demoted.

Believing there are five common reasons for this, he explains them through archetypes in order to humanize a subject many will not be comfortable talking about and which is not generally considered in those how-to personal development books. And, in case, any reader does not think they resemble any of the characters he describes, Cast has a warning: Look past their specific characterizations and into their behaviors – “and chances are you will find a few gold nuggets that you can address to improve your performance”.

The five archetypes are:

1. Captain Fantastic. These are the people, says Cast, who suffer from interpersonal issues because of their “unbridled ego drive and dismal listening skills”. Their energy and ambition may lead them to rise quickly initially but once they are in broader roles that require the support of others their tendency to alienate others leads them to flame out.

2. The Solo Flier. These are often strong individual contributors who “not only deliver the bacon, they cut and wrap it as well”. They are “self-starting, self-contained, multitalented achievement dynamos”. But when they are promoted into management positions they have problems building and leading teams and tend to resort to micromanaging or doing the work themselves. Their teams become dissatisfied and eventually rebel.

3. Version 1.0. Such people are comfortable in their routines and highly suspicious of change. They resist learning new skills that would help them adapt to the changing environment, hold back from adopting new technologies that might help them do their jobs better and when new management comes in often refuse to change how they do things. Such caution does not generally serve them well and often leads to their demise.

4. The One-Trick Pony. These are the people who are so good at doing a particular job that they are seen to have just one skill and so become unpromotable. Unlike the previous group and their resistance to change, people in this category do not realize they need to change and that they have become overspecialized. They cannot move up because rather than having a diverse set of work experiences they have done the same thing over and over.

5. The Whirling Dervish. These are the people running around the office, constantly late for meetings and complaining about their workloads. The fact is that they lack planning and organizational skills so that, while they may have lots of ideas, they are seen as liable to “overcommit and under-deliver”, with the result that bosses and co-workers cease to count on them completing tasks and start avoiding working with them.

Cast asserts that there are people with these traits in every organization, from large corporations to small start-ups. The archetypes also occur irrespective of gender or seniority. So if the problem is so common, why do organizations not go to more trouble to deal with it? The answer, Cast believes, lies in the focus on accentuating the positive. In particular, focusing on strengths at the expense of weaknesses.

Perhaps this holiday period is the time for aspiring leaders to forget all that talk from teachers and parents about them being “special” and instead think a little about those times when they might not have entirely done as their boss wished or where their co-operation with fellow workers was not as beneficial as it could have been.


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