Executives slide off the rails

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

The corporate world is awash with stories about supposedly high-flying managers faltering along the way. The London Business School (LBS) has carried out extensive research into 'executive derailment', seeking to find out why so many executives, who enjoy success in their early years, encounter a problem between personal skills and job requirements as they reach a higher managerial level.

Figures indicate that five years into their career journey, only 25 per cent of executives are still on track to achieve their career potential. Another 25 per cent reach a plateau and are unable to progress any further, while a further 25 per cent are made redundant. The rest leave an organisation voluntarily. The research was conducted last year among a sample number of industry sectors globally.

John Wills, London Business School's director of accelerated development programmes, says executive derailment happens across all businesses and at all levels of positions.

'Someone [who] has a good record of accomplishment and seemingly has what it takes to be promoted may actually sow the seeds for their own downfall,' he says. 'For example, over-reliance on a single strength often leads to an inability or unwillingness to accept and learn from failure. Technical or business brilliance can also lead to a narrow focus and approach to business problems. Even ambition can sometimes lead to unethical behaviour and create problems with building trust.' Wills says executives moving to a general management role can no longer rely on specialist knowledge to carry them through. 'To achieve individual success and success for their companies, today's executives require a whole new set of 'big-picture' skills.'

Organisations wishing to avoid losing good people should ensure that tomorrow's leaders receive support through the different transitional stages of management, Wills says.

Mary Greene, London Business School's director for business development and executive education, says employers need to be aware that today's up-and-coming executives are different from a decade ago. 'Whether it is the influence of the internet and the fact that so much information is available, surveys show the aspirations and expectations of young management professionals are completely different from those of their counterparts in the 1990s.

They are striving for more and expect more opportunities, support and training from their companies,' Greene says.

Emilia Gallo, a Hong Kong-based human resources leadership and development consultant, says executive derailment has always been a feature of the Hong Kong business landscape but recently has become more prevalent. 'Often executives are derailed because they have made an error of judgment, but by far the biggest reason this happens is because of internal politics,' she says.

'The financial crisis has resulted in a lot of executive redundancies followed by a rapid hiring frenzy when the markets bounced back, which has consequently led to a lot of people being placed in senior positions who perhaps shouldn't be there.'

Gallo says companies should concentrate on internal succession planning during good and bad business cycles. Faced with a talent shortage, they should also identify the essential executive skills they need to run their business and focus less on peripheral skills.

Individuals should take greater control of their careers and rely less on their companies to guide them. Gallo says the good news for those who feel they have become derailed is they can bounce back, and are often stronger than before. 'When people work out the things they are good at ... and stop trying to be all things to all people, they are usually happier and do a better job for their employers,' she says.

Staying on track

LBS offers executive programmes to broaden and strengthen key skills, which can help avoid executive derailment

Up-and-coming executives should do more to take control of their careers

Companies need to work on mitigating talent shortages and building a platform for future leadership roles