Building sustained success throughout a professional career is no easy task. Circumstances and organizations change, and the skills that were in high demand at the start of someone’s career may not be considered as valuable after they’ve spent a few years in the workforce. Learning to adapt to these shifts is especially crucial for leaders because they also need to keep pace with industry trends and expectations if they’re going to make their companies competitive for customers and employees.
If they can’t make those changes, they’re likely to fall victim to career derailment.
What is Career Derailment?
Research estimates that anywhere between thirty to fifty percent of high-functioning managers “derail” at some point in their careers. Derailment can come in a variety of forms, but usually one of the following reasons is in play:
- Repeatedly passed over for promotions.
- Key job responsibilities have been taken away.
- No longer kept in the communication loop.
- A lack of potential for higher positions keeps them stagnating in their current role.
- Demoted, disciplined, or removed from a position.
Derailment doesn’t only affect unproductive or ineffective employees. In many cases, leaders who derail were once marked as high-potential individuals. They might have ascended quickly or won over the trust of leadership with an impressive history of delivering results.
At some point, though, something changed. Maybe the employee stopped putting in the same level of work or a shift in the organization’s strategy made their existing skills less valuable. Negative behaviors that might have escaped notice previously, such as bullying subordinates or taking credit for the work of others, may finally be exposed and held against them. Even if the employee remains in their current position, they may get the impression that they’ve plateaued and no longer see a path forward.
What Causes Career Derailment?
From an organizational standpoint, there are a few derailment causes that can leave an employee who was formerly perceived to be high-potential undesirable for future positions:
- They Lack Emotional Intelligence: Most modern companies take a team-based approach to important tasks, leveraging the knowledge and skills of a broad array of employees. This is especially true of pharmaceutical companies, which often have a global presence and require employees to overcome communication barriers in terms of language, culture, and geography. If a person lacks the emotional intelligence necessary to form interpersonal relationships, they will have difficulty managing and working in a team environment. More importantly, as they take on additional responsibilities, these shortcomings will make it harder for them to lead and influence others effectively
- They Don’t Adapt to Change: For today’s organizations, disruption and change are the new normal. Strategies that worked effectively a year ago may no longer apply to current circumstances, and leaders often find themselves adapting quickly to new situations, often with very little information to guide their decisions. Agile leaders have the flexibility to navigate changes successfully, but some leaders are not equipped to deal with sudden change. No one person is bigger than an organization, however, and leaders who can’t implement and secure buy-in for necessary change initiatives will struggle to be effective.
- Failure to Meet Objectives: Sometimes it just comes down to performance. Leaders who can’t deliver results will typically be given an opportunity to course correct, but if the trend continues, they will see their responsibilities reduced or they will be let go altogether. This is obviously a worst-case scenario, especially if the organization has invested the time and effort into developing a leadership candidate.
- Their Organizational Knowledge is Too Narrow: In many cases, people rise through organizations within the context of a siloed department. They are promoted based on past performance, which is perfectly fine if the new position simply calls for some additional, but similar, responsibilities. Moving someone from a more technical position into a leadership position, however, can create many challenges. The candidate may not possess the necessary skills to succeed as a leader, and they may not have experience with thinking strategically across an organization as opposed to the needs of a single department.
The Pharma Industry’s “Silo” Problem.
This last reason for derailment is especially common in the pharma industry. Since large, multinational pharma companies have traditionally been very siloed in organizational structure, many people are promoted to leadership positions without a clear understanding of how different elements of the company interact with each other.
Today’s pharma companies make extensive use of cross-functional teams to draw upon their diverse array of skills and resources. If an employee lacks sufficient knowledge about the rest of the organization, it can be very difficult for them to function effectively in such a team. If they also struggle with some of the other leadership derailment factors (poor interpersonal skills, inflexibility, etc), the results can be disastrous. Building better leadership in the pharma industry must focus on getting beyond these barriers.
Getting Back On Track
Fortunately, there are ways companies can adjust their assessment and development programs to help high-potential candidates avoid derailment or get them back on track after they encounter difficulties. Ongoing skills development, especially leadership skills they may not have an opportunity to develop in their current position, can help prepare them to step into more critical roles in the future.
More importantly, lateral promotions that effectively “zigzag” an employee through the organization gives them an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive view of the company. This helps them avoid many leadership derailment factors. They understand how different departments are organized and why they function the way they do. More importantly, it forces them to create relationships throughout the organization, which creates a foundation for them to use influencing strategies in the future to secure buy-in for difficult change initiatives and other key decisions.
Career derailment has the potential to ruin promising careers and deprive organizations of the significant investments they’ve made into leadership development. By identifying some of the reasons why employees are derailed, companies can build better development programs to provide leaders with the tools they need to keep engaged and pushing toward sustainable success.