By Jem Smith
Robert Kaiser makes an intriguing argument as to why many executives see their career progress suddenly interrupted, arguing that for many ambition and inflexibility, which may have contributed to their early success, can become such a handicap in senior leadership positions that it eclipses their intelligence and work ethic, causing them to become a liability.
He argues that many executives reach a point called ‘Termination’, when their career suddenly becomes unstuck. For some this point is never reached – either their talents meet the demands of being part of the top leadership team in the largest organisations in their field or, for whatever reason, they leave before their termination point is reached. Drawing on research into management going back to the mid-1980s, principally from Sears, Roebuck and Co. and the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), Kaiser concludes that for the rest, around 50% of executives, their career hits this point of crisis and never recovers, either levelling out or going backwards from then on. The question is which executives are affected and why.
The Right Stuff
The CCL research in particular suggests that successful and derailed executives are very similar in many ways, both being bright, hard working and motivated with a good track record. The difference, according to a 1983 CCL paper, was that the successful executives had ‘the right stuff’, an array of skills, experience and attributes which allowed them to cope with the stresses and difficulties of very high office, namely:
- A wider range of experiences in their career history in terms of the people and environments they had worked with and what they had achieved.
- A greater ability to deal with stress and to be graceful about their own ability to make mistakes.
- A focus on problem solving rather than structures.
- An ability to get along with a wider range of people.
There are many opinions as to what constitutes ‘the wrong stuff’, i.e. those traits which hold back many executives, but a broad consensus emerged that it was largely due to the lack of the above, namely:
- An inability to delegate efficiently, which becomes more important the greater your responsibilities.
- An inflexibility which, while possibly suited to making sure routine tasks are completed efficiently and to a high standard, becomes a handicap when more creative approaches are needed.
- Most importantly an inability to get the best out of those they worked with and to attract and retain good subordinates due to a perception of arrogance, aloofness and ambition. This particularly came out under stress, when these executives had a propensity to turn on their subordinates.
It Is Actually Important To Have ‘People Skills’
Other factors have also been pointed to by some, including an inability to learn new things as executive’s responsibilities grow and a lack of technical business skills, which becomes more of a handicap the further up the ladder they went. The lack of people skills however was by far the overriding factor however, unsurprising when you consider that the main feature of career progression is a lessening of the dependence of executive’s success on their own output and a greater dependence on the output of their subordinates.
This handicap thus becomes greater the further up the ziggurat executives ascend and eventually overwhelms their inherent strengths. Kaiser also acknowledges a role for bad luck in termination – some executives face greater problems, earlier on, than others and some get all the way to the top before their flaws are revealed.
It also appears that executives often derailed when they emerged from out of the shadow of a patron, i.e. when they had to take full responsibility for their actions and become true leaders.
Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Somewhere Very Similar To Mars But With A Few Important Differences
The research also shows some interesting gender differences. For women having the ‘right stuff’ affected their chances of avoiding derailment more. The characteristics of derailed executives was similar for men and women with the exception that the men tended to have more problems with forming relationships with colleagues, while the women often had an ‘image’ problem, i.e. they were perceived as not looking like leaders.
Moving onto the differences between failed executives in different cultures Kaiser shows how some research found that while derailed executives in Europe and the USA were very similar it seemed that problems motivating and managing subordinates were more of a handicap in the EU. This research also found that the ability to adapt to change was becoming a more critical determinant of whether executives succeeded or not in both cultures, presumably reflecting the increasing pace of change in business.
Further research has shown that when it comes to expatriate executives, the similarities between failures become far fewer. It seems that traits which are a disadvantage in western business culture (see above) can be an advantage elsewhere. It is thus almost impossible to predict which executives will become successful international managers based on such traits. What does appear to be a good predictor of future success across cultures and positions is self-awareness – when different approaches work in different environments the only real key to success is to be aware of your behaviour as an executive and be prepared to adapt it if it does not get results.
Conclusion: Don’t Look For A Wimp Or A Tyrant, Look For Someone Who Can Be Both
In his paper Management Derailment, Kaiser and his co-authors conclude that there are behaviours in four key areas that are good predictors of an executive who is inflexible and insufficiently self-aware and therefore heading for derailment:
- Business Skills: They adopt too tactical an approach, aren’t strategic enough.
- Leadership: They are unable to develop mutually respectful and trusting relationships with subordinates. They can’t delegate properly, inspire or coach their staff.
- Interpersonal: They are incapable of bonding socially with their peers and colleagues.
- Self-management: They are not sufficiently aware of their own behaviour and so when things go wrong it doesn’t occur to them that this might be a cause of it.
Fundamentally when the moment of crisis arrives in an executive’s career she will either rise to the occasion, showing herself to be adaptable, visionary and a great leader of her staff or the stress will overwhelm her and she will become defensive, bad tempered and rigid in her thinking.
Saving The Passengers: How To Spot Executives Before They Derail.
So how can executives be screened for leadership potential? Surprisingly, research by Kaiser and others when he worked at CCL showed that personality testing is rare in executive level appointments, occurring in only around a third of cases, and in almost all of these the screening focused on the wrong thing, for two reasons:
- It is based on identifying good and bad traits, in the manner outlined above, despite the fact that many of these traits are contentious and can anyway be hard to define in practice and that in international organisations they are different depending on which culture you’re working in.
- It slanted almost entirely towards identifying the ‘good’ traits in executives and making recommendations based on that. This may miss the fact that someone who is gifted in some areas, e.g. who has a wide range of management styles and an ability to think strategically, may be severely handicapped in others, for example he may also be unable to delegate and loathed by his subordinates.
Kaiser claims that the key, apart from a track record of people skills and a varied career history is to test executives’ personalities for self-awareness and balance, i.e. not to concentrate too much on trying to identify traits as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to see if the executive posses the capability to recognise that their behaviour can influence the success or not of the organisation and to be both operational and strategic, forceful and empowering, depending on the circumstances, rather than being set irrevocably one way or the other.
He further recommends that this type of personality testing is combined with a transition plan for executives moving up to new positions, with an integrated feedback system to allow them to spot if their management style is not working.
All very reasonable you might say, but how many of us actually work in an organisation which does this?
 McCall & Lombardo (1983). Off the Track: How and Why Successful Executives Get Derailed. CCL.
 Van Velsor & Leslie (1995). Why executives derail: Perspectives across time and culture.
 McCall & Hollenbeck (2002) Developing Global Executives
 Eichinger & Lombardo (2003). 360-degree assessment. Human Resources Planning
several studies by William Gentry on self-awareness in the EU, among middle managers, etc.
 Hogan, Hogan, & Kaiser (2010) Managerial derailment. APA Handbook of I-O Psychology
 Sessa, Kaiser, Taylor, & Campbell (1998) Executive Selection. CCL.