Prevent Top Leader Derailment

Every company has a few smart, hard-charging, get-results-at-any-expense types of executives. While they do get results, whether it’s increased sales, entry into new markets or revamped finance processes, many don’t see the price of how they achieve that success. The sometimes-abrasive behavior from the executives who take on this approach can lead to disgruntled peers, demotivated teams and on-edge supervisors.

An April “Pulse on Leaders” study by leadership consultant PDI Ninth House, analyzed by University of Minnesota researchers using data from 39,000 global leaders, shows that inability or unwillingness to see one’s own faults is associated with significant career stalling or even derailment. The data revealed that people who are significant self-promoters — those considered to be out-of-touch with how their direct manager rated them — were 629 percent more likely to derail than the in-touch group.

These self-promoters can be results-driven or the type of people who moved up the organizational ladder by touting their own abilities without proven results. The office chatter surrounding these people is often, “How did he get that job, and how come no one is noticing he’s not getting anything done?”

By contrast, self-deprecators — those who consistently rate themselves lower than others rate them — were less likely to derail than the in-touch group. Specifically, moderate self-deprecators were 8 percent less likely to derail, and significant self-deprecators were 36 percent less likely to derail than the in-touch group.

Behaviors Leading to Derailment
To better understand why some fast-track leaders derail, a related study, also released in April and conducted by University of Minnesota researchers with PDI Ninth House data, identified behaviors that indicate the greatest risk of derailment. In this research more than 14,000 U.S. leaders were rated by their direct managers on 135 behaviors, representing 24 core competencies.

This study asked managers to rank leaders’ risk for derailment on a five-point scale. The results showed only 6 percent of leaders were rated a high (4) or very high (5) risk for derailment, whereas 67 percent were rated little/none (1) or slight (2) risk of derailment. The researchers then contrasted the behavior of the “likely to derail” and “unlikely to derail” groups.

Those leaders considered most likely to derail by their direct managers received failing scores on the following behaviors:

• Demonstrates awareness of own strengths and weaknesses.

• Creates an environment where people work at their best.

• Expresses disagreement tactfully and sensitively.

• Has others’ confidence and trust.

• Develops effective working relationships with higher management.

• Develops effective relationships with peers.

Often the natural inclination for bosses and HR professionals is to say the leader in question may not be worth the development effort. Then they’ll put the leader into dead-end positions in hopes the person will terminate his or her employment. However, this is a shortsighted approach because despite these leaders’ derailing behaviors, they are quite often extremely intelligent, hard-working individuals who deliver strong business results.

The first step to change potentially derailing behavior is to convince leaders of the issue and of the negative impact of the way they conduct themselves. While in-depth assessments and external coaches have a proven ability to make change happen, not all organizations have the time or resources to invest.

That means it is up to the internal HR team and the individual’s boss to start the process of first identifying leaders with derailing behaviors and then helping to change those behaviors before it’s too late. Following are steps to consider.

Conduct 360-degree reviews and pay attention to the results: Busy managers often don’t have full insight into how their direct reports get the job done. They may simply notice positive business results and assume everything is alright. Complaints may not surface about the individual, perhaps because those around him or her are intimidated. Talent managers should be sure their 360 process reflects not just the idea of what gets done, but how it gets done, such as creating a positive work environment and settling conflict with tact and diplomacy.

Have a courageous conversation: Although it may be uncomfortable, once a pattern of derailing behaviors is identified, talent managers should sit down with the leader to give that person an organizational ultimatum: “Fix this or the consequences could lead to fewer promotions, raises or even termination.”

Offer assistance: HR leaders should not expect the leader to change by him or herself. They should offer access to a trained coach — either external or internal — who can work directly with the leader to define problematic behaviors or interactions with others and make suggestions for how to modify his or her approach.

Monitor change: Talent managers should identify real situations where change would be visible, such as the way the leader conducts meetings or responds to sub-par work from subordinates. They should have the leader write down the potentially derailing situation and what he or she is doing differently as a result of the coaching.

Make change ongoing: Behaviors don’t change overnight. Leaders should consider additional 360-degree reviews six to nine months after a change initiative begins to see where advances or setbacks are occurring.

Understand the impact on teams: Derailing behaviors from one individual, whether it is a boss, peer or subordinate, can have a negative impact on an entire team. Talent leaders should monitor dynamics and whether changing poor behaviors from one person can help overall team morale.

Two Cases in Point
To understand how HR leaders can work with individuals at risk for derailment, consider Mark Henning, an executive who has seen strong business success during his nearly three decades at Dow Chemical Co. Today Henning can look back at a specific period in his career when his interactions with his co-workers were lacking.

“I used to know the outcome of meetings with my teams even before the meeting began,” said Henning, global general manager for Dow Microbial Control. “I thought I could solve issues faster and better than anyone, so I’d ask questions, knowing I probably wouldn’t listen to the advice and would end up doing what I thought was best.”

Henning and other executives like him had received 360-degree feedback from bosses, peers and subordinates that their style was not inclusive, but Henning discounted that feedback. However, when his boss strongly suggested he take part in role-playing exercises and real-time coaching feedback, Henning realized the implications of his actions.

“That was one the most humbling experiences of my life,” Henning said. “It was time for a change.”

Because of that intervention and subsequent professional coaching, Henning has revamped his approach to working with others and has become much more inclusive in the decision-making process; he now realizes the power of delegating.

HR managers have an entirely different set of issues when dealing with self-deprecators, including finding those diamonds in the rough who are reluctant to make their skills or competencies known.

Jan Vondrachek is a classic self-deprecator. While she was well prepared when interviewing for the role of executive director of addiction recovery services at addiction treatment company Hazelden’s Newberg, Ore., facility, she felt a sense of appreciation, rather than entitlement, when she was chosen. She thanked her supervisor for taking a chance on her, and her supervisor responded by saying: “We didn’t take any chances; you were the best person for the role, and we’re getting you a coach to help you understand that.”

Through 360-degree assessments and coaching, she has gained new self-awareness. She’s learned that it’s OK to be vulnerable, to take chances and to learn from mistakes.

“I ask my direct reports if they want my job, and I’m in no way threatened if they say yes,” Vondrachek said. “In fact, it gives me great pleasure to find ways to help them achieve their goals and get the confidence to move forward.”

She has all of her direct reports and their reports put together comprehensive development plans. She says talented people across the organization exist, but they won’t share what they are interested in and what they are capable of unless someone asks them.

Ultimately, HR professionals need to keep a mindful eye on the talents and tribulations of their staff. Tools such as assessments, 360-degree reviews and coaching can help bring out the best results.

Louis N. Quast is vice president and executive consultant at PDI Ninth House and associate chairman of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development in the College of Education and Human Development. He can be reached at