When A Career Veers Off Track


Mid-career derailment can happen any time, but in today’s economy there is no room for complacency. With job opportunities harder than ever to find, it’s a particularly rough time to be fired or demoted or to hit a career plateau. You can reduce your risk for derailment by paying attention to your value and effectiveness and by focusing on interpersonal skills, adaptability, team leadership and bottom-line results.

Based on the Center for Creative Leadership’s ongoing study of executive derailment with clients around the world, here are 10 ways to avoid these pitfalls:

Ask for instant feedback. When walking out of a meeting, ask a colleague, “I think that could have gone better – what could I have done differently?” Listen to the response. Don’t defend or justify your actions and don’t interrupt. Sean Fowler, assistant vice president with insurance company IAT Group in Cold Springs, Fla., uses feedback from his co-workers as a reality check. “You have to develop a bit of a thick skin,” Mr. Fowler said. “Once you get past the initial shock, you really come to appreciate it. It’s a long-term effort made up of small steps, not a leap.”

Increase self-awareness. Become a student of your own behavior. Take stock of how you feel about your work and how you react when you are pushed outside your comfort zone. Explore the values that matter most to you and use them as an anchor during times of change, transition and stress. Amy Gillard, owner and operator of Gillard Enterprises, an event-management business notes that selecting work which is not the right fit will only create challenges with clients down the line. “Self-awareness is key in my business. You have to know who you are and what you have to offer,” she said.

Pay attention to organizational culture. To stay aligned with your organization as it morphs and changes over time, you need a clear understanding of the prevailing culture. Analyze how decisions get made and think about the underlying assumptions that guide the organization as it responds to challenges and opportunities.

Use empathy. Your direct reports, your peers and even your bothersome boss are all human beings worthy of your respect. Listen without judging. Take the feelings and perspectives of others into account. Don’t use humor inappropriately and always keep private conversations private. You’ll end up with stronger relationships.

Learn to listen. Hearing isn’t the same as listening. Turn away from your email and concentrate on the person talking to you. Don’t be passive. Ask questions to make sure you understand. Stay in the moment and take notes to help you remember key points. Show people you’re really hearing them. Air Force Col. Trent Edwards, Commander of the 28th Mission Support Group at Ellsworth Air Force Base, learned to listen differently in response to feedback from his team and his family. He realized he was using a “war zone” mentality in non-war zone settings. With tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Edwards describes his previous approach as “very action-oriented. Everything was always go, go, go. Now I try to listen with more patience, with an open ear to try to hear what is being said and also what is not being said.”

Collaborate. Try to not be the Lone Ranger. Be open and willing to disclose your decision-making process to others, along with important facts and feelings. Your influence and effectiveness will increase.

Deal with problem employees sooner rather than later. If a direct report’s behavior or lack of skills threatens the success of your team, confront the problem head on. Don’t let it fester. These kinds of problems almost never heal themselves. Document specific shortcomings and either dismiss the employee or create a development plan for improved performance. The cost of carrying poor performers can have a ripple effect across the organization – destroying morale and dragging down productivity.

Delegate authority. Don’t keep your employees tied down and stuck in the same roles and responsibilities. Allow them to test their wings. Assign stretch projects you think they can handle. As they prove themselves, increase the complexity of the assignments. Give adequate guidance and follow up to see how they are doing. Debrief shortfalls and use them as a learning opportunity. Above all, acknowledge positive outcomes.

Focus on the task at hand. While it’s great to have a development plan and to work on skills you will need down the road, don’t forget that your main job is just that – your main job. Organizations value managers who get work done. Focus on what you need to accomplish each day. Bring jobs to a close. Tie up loose ends. Document outcomes. Get closure, and…

Break out of a rut. Learn from the mistakes that you and others make. Stop talking about how things were done in the past. Bring a new idea or solution to the table. Break away from your lunch cliques. Identify a rut you are in and get out of it.

Become known for your skill at adjusting to change, building strong relationships, leading effective teams and getting results. Your colleagues will appreciate it – and you’ll reap the professional rewards.