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5 Ways to Derail Your Career & 2 Questions to Keep it on Track (review)

right stuffThis review was first published in the Jan. 29 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Right and Wrong Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade

By Carter Cast

Public Affairs

$36.50

A lousy annual performance review is a gift that few of us will ever get in our careers.

Most of us work for bosses who shy away from tough conversations, believe only in accentuating the positive or dismiss reviews as a time-wasting unnecessary evil.

They do us no favours. What’s left unsaid in performance reviews will eventually trip us up. Our blind spots will get us fired, demoted or passed over for promotion.

“Sooner or later, unaddressed developmental needs will limit the career progress of good people,” says Carter Cast, author of The Right and Wrong Stuff, a professor at Northwestern University and a former executive with Walmart, Blue Nile, Electronic Arts and PepsiCo.

Career derailment is in the cards for up to 80 per cent of us, warns Cast. Based on his research, a lack of self-awareness and difficulty in working with others are the leading causes of career derailment. He says that careers stall more from having the wrong stuff than from lacking the right stuff.

“It is often hubris – not lack of talent – that causes people on the rise to fall. Prior to failing, people who derail where successful and considered talented up-and-comers. Derailment often afflicts talented managers who are either unaware of a debilitating weakness or interpersonal blind spot or arrogant enough to believe that development feedback doesn’t apply to them.”

We’re headed for the fall if any of Cast’s five archetypes sound all too familiar:

Captain Fantastics lose friends and make enemies thanks to unbridled egos, an inability to listen and an “I-me-mine” mantra.

The solo flier is a strong individual contributor who fails to realize that you can’t build or lead a team by micromanaging or doing all the work yourself.

Version 1.0 is comfortable with routine and resistant to change. “Their attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not serve them well over time and eventually their dinosaur-like tendencies may lead to extinction,” says

One-trick ponies consistently do one thing really well. But this overspecialization makes them one-dimensional and unpromotable. And what they’ve been good at in the past may not be what the organization needs them to start doing now or in the future.

Unfocused whirling dervishes overcommit and underdeliver, with weak planning and organizational skills to implement any of the creative ideas “spewing out of their brains like a hyperactive geyser.”

Avoiding career derailment is a DIY project, says Cast. “Most bosses are too worried about their own hide to take the time to worry about yours. There’s one person out there who really wants to help you get ahead – there’s one person who’s truly interested in your success and well-being – you.”

Start shoring up your weaknesses by asking two questions. Do I have the right strengths in my current position relative to people doing similar work? And do I have the right strengths around which to build my career in the future?

Now take the initiative for your professional and personal development. Be aware of your weaknesses. Seek out challenging assignments that will build your strengths. Routinely solicit honest feedback and act on what you hear. Build and maintain positive relationships with others. Recruit mentors and create a learning circle to share ideas, perspectives and lessons learned with industry peers outside your organization.

If you’re a boss, make developing others a genuine priority and adopt Cast’s three-strike rule. Hold three meetings with an underperforming employee.

Have the tough but necessary conversation in your first meeting and come up with a game plan to improve performance. Measure improvement or the lack of it in your second meeting. In your third meeting, either congratulate the employee for getting their career back on the track or wish them well in their future endeavours.

“All too often companies ignore the topic of derailment until it’s too late, but their employees cannot afford to do so,” says Cast. “Of course it’s important to focus on developing your strengths, but towering strengths cannot overcome debilitating weaknesses. We all need to understand and mitigate our career-limiting vulnerabilities.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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