Being a successful leader in an organization does not shield you from career failure. In fact, the higher up you are on the org chart the more risk of professional setbacks, as mistakes and blind spots at that level tend to negatively impact the broader organization, implicitly or explicitly. So how can you ensure that you’re not headed for a fall?
In my time working with emerging and established leaders, here are some of the biggest threats I’ve encountered to their career success, along with strategies to skirt them:
- Lack of self-awareness. Leaders lack self-awareness in two major areas: their impact and their reputation. They’re unaware of how they affect others, and of how they are perceived. I once had a C-level client who took pride in his ostensible ability to delegate, but his team saw him as dumping tasks on them without a thought of matching a task to the right person. He was also bad at giving direction, yet saw himself as giving his team the gift of autonomy. Similarly, I was recently asked to consult with a successful TV producer who had been fired from the job he’d held for over a decade. He had worked his way up through the ranks, and his outgoing personality was a huge factor in his success. But those traits also sparked his downfall when he was accused of inappropriate conduct with several clients. This leader’s lack of awareness that his overly familiar style discomfited some people cost him the job he loved and tarnished his otherwise stellar reputation.
The best way to foster self-awareness is to actively seek feedback. To encourage others to give feedback that is honest, especially direct reports who may fear retaliation, leaders should create a feeling of psychological safety in the process. For instance, phrase your requests for feedback in a way that allows people to respond in a positive forward-looking way. Instead of asking “What is something I need to improve?” say “What do you think would make me even more effective as a leader?”
- Not Learning New Things. Most leaders are busy. They’re good at their particular job, highly task-oriented, and so busy checking things off their to-do list that expanding their knowledge and capabilities beyond their current role may seem frivolous. Aside from being “too busy,” however, those leaders may also have adopted a complacent attitude: “I’ve learned enough and experienced enough in my years here; I’m not going to set off now to absorb a whole new skill set.” But here’s the problem: the world is changing, with or without you. The ground is constantly shifting. Your boss may be replaced tomorrow, a round of restructuring may put you in unfamiliar territory, or the next disruptive technology may upend your job entirely. By not thinking strategically about your place in the big picture and striving to learn and to grow, you are endangering your career.
The antidote to career stagnation is a willingness to try new things. Join a project outside your purview or deepen your knowledge of a strategic business area unrelated to your present responsibilities. For help, recruit mentors and subject-matter experts and read widely from a variety of sources. Build relationships outside your current network, and generously offer your expertise to others. Besides shielding you from career decline, these activities will yield a host of insights that may even hoist you up to the next level.
- Bad relationships. Not repairing difficult relationships can be costly. Ignoring them can be ruinous. There are only so many bridges you can burn before you’re marooned on an island of your own making. Yes, this means networking. It also means learning to manage up and invest in better relationships with your boss and your boss’s boss, both of whom wield great power over your career trajectory.
Foster good relationships with your direct reports, too. If one or two people on your team have unconventional work approaches, engage them. As a leader, if you can’t meet people on their own ground, and be inclusive of different communication styles, your career will stall. Furthermore, many rising executives neglect peer relationships. A negative reputation among your peers can hurt you, especially if you rise above them or if they eventually rise above you. If you didn’t nurture those relationships, why would they want to help you once they’re in a position to? Be willing to assist others without expecting anything in return. Hone your networking skills, reach out to people, be willing to have conversations. Not having time is not a good excuse, because managing relationships is just as crucial to success as delivering results.
- Not delivering results. Mastering office politics will certainly help your career, but you also need to deliver results. Business leaders are tapped for bigger opportunities precisely because they create value for the business. Whether that is an increase in market share, or revenue, or profit, or a decrease in cost or risk, reliable performers can count on favorable attention from senior management.
You also need to be able to communicate those results. Start thinking about your job not in terms of the job description, but in terms of outcomes. What wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for you? What do you deliver reliably? How do you contribute to the larger vision and goals of the company? Be able to articulate these answers very succinctly, so you can deliver them in an introduction, in networking situations, with clients and in meetings with senior leaders. Don’t tell people your job title, tell them your purpose and the impact you have on the lives of others and how that impacts the business at large.
In the ceaselessly changing world of work, neglecting such fundamental career markers as self-awareness, personal growth, quality of relationships, and business results can threaten the fortunes of even the most credentialed leaders. Take charge in these areas, however, and you may leap rather than climb – or fall from –the career ladder.