Building Resources to Avoid the Bullet

Building Resources to Avoid the Bullet

     Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without results.” In other words, the bullet missed and I am paying full attention now.  I would add nothing provides better focus for serious personal development than witnessing a career-ending bullet shot at someone else.

      You’ve likely been a witness to career derailment, that curious phenomenon where very talented, driven leaders end up out the door rather than moving up the ranks.

      In addition to working to help my company executives build immunity to derailment, I often have the chance to present the concept to university MBA students.  These ambitious, hard driving future stars are often surprised to understand that smarts, superior technical skills and self-motivation alone are not guarantees to avoiding career disappointment. 

       The presentation begins by deconstructing cases of successful stars that suddenly flame-out.  The presenting derailment factors are the usual surface factors of failure to achieve expected results (not a surprise) or achieving results in a destructive way (more surprising to some).   There usually is one or more of five factors underlying these headlines:

  • Lacked strategic thinking and held on to too much tactical work.
  • Had all the strategic thinking needed, but couldn’t execute well.
  • Didn’t influence and build relationships effectively across the matrix organization.
  • Failed to build and motivate a strong team.
  • Demonstrated an unrecoverable crack in personal integrity and character.


      These factors surface most during times of change. In other words, the leader was doing fine and then experienced a transition, such as a new job, new boss or new circumstances, which made these dormant weaknesses critical job factors.


The Transition Challenge


      At this point, most MBA students are interested and push to understand how to avoid it in the first place. (Usual signs of drive and ambition)  My response is to draw two charts about navigating transitions. At the onset of a career, technical skills matter more than managerial or strategic leadership. The progression to executive shifts the order of importance.

      The first chart reminds us that moving from manager to executive requires new skills. Most new executive think they have “arrived” and no longer need to keep up a rigorous personal learning agenda. Further, they often become deaf to negative feedback. If that happens, sooner or later the derailment bullets start flying.

      To continue learning as an executive, I drew a simple chart of resources vs. demands. As transitions occur, professional and personal demands increase. One must continually build new resources to keep up with new demand.


Four Ways For Executives To Build Resources


      I have seen successful executives add resources in four main areas: hands, heart, head and whole.

      By “hands” I mean physical health. Strong leaders meet new demands well if they have a good physical base, especially exercise, eating and sleeping. Cutting corners here to meet our 24×7, always-on world will mean less endurance and energy to draw upon, and you may not be a lot of fun to be around. Further, recent brain research reminds us that exercise builds brainpower.

      By “heart” I mean emotions and relationships. Leaders often underestimate the impact their emotional demeanor has on others throughout the organization. Leaders under stress facing unexpected personal or professional demands need to draw upon their emotional intelligence to manage their emotions, as well as authentically connect with others. Maintaining affirming and renewing relationships is key. As with exercise, cutting back on time and personal engagement with important relationships can undermine a leader’s effectiveness.

      By “head” I mean the practices that build perspective. Derailing leaders often spend too much time on the runway of their work and don’t gain appropriate altitude to see the bigger picture. It’s a critical instinct to know when to jump from a daily tactical, project-oriented focus to a more strategic, vision-oriented view. Having routines and reminders can help. Getting coaching and tools to be effective at each level also is critical.

      By “whole” I mean always being grounded in purpose. The ultimate source of energy to grow and meet new demands is a heartfelt commitment to a personal calling or reason for being. Great leaders continually remind themselves why they go about their work. I shared with the class my centering purpose is to connect people with their full potential.


The Organization Checklist


      In concert with encouraging budding stars to build in strong resources to navigate transitions and derailment challenges, the organization pays a role as well.  Based on internal as well as external ‘post-mortems’ of executive derailment, the following checklist can be useful to help the organization:

Three checklist questions when considering a promotion:

  • Are we confident in this selection or is this too much of a stretch?
  • Are new skills/experiences required the leaders lacks especially for the job requirements?
  • Are we avoiding the trap of confusing performance with potential (and readiness)?

Two checklist questions when issues surface:

  • Are we ignoring this problem and hoping it will get better on its own? (Hint, they rarely do.)
  • Are we devoting adequate time and resources to support the new leader? (Especially in roles historically difficult to succeed and with frequent turnover?)

Four checklist question for ongoing talent development:

  • Have we provided the right amount of tools and development to prepare the talent for the next job?
  • Are we selecting and coaching for resiliency and adaptability
  • Are we building confidence and self-insight/humility into our talent?
  • Are we adequately communicating and reinforcing our values and integrity standard?

      Learning from successful leaders is a preferred way to instruct talent.  Dealing with failure is uncomfortable and usually avoided in training and communication.  For contemporary talent management practices, we need to provide the right balance of build for success and also teaching and acting in a way which avoid the bullets of derailment. 


© Kevin D. Wilde