We have all heard the stories or witnessed them first hand. Perhaps it has happened to you. A once promising executive suddenly comes crashing to earth in a blaze of spectacular failure. Sometimes there are ethical or moral failures. Sometimes, as I noted in an earlier post on executive derailment, the problem stems from a failure to build and maintain peer relationships. But sometimes it is something else.
I have seen several of these over the course of my career and in many cases the downfall is preventable provided the early warnings are both recognized and heeded. Here are three examples of individuals who were once considered rising stars only to suffer a tragic career failure that negatively altered the course of their careers and what we can learn from each. For obvious reasons I have changed the names and, in two cases, slightly altered some of the circumstances to further conceal the subject’s identity. In both of these the substance and lessons of the story remain unchanged.
An ambitious and energetic woman in her late 30s, Laura was considered to be one of the most promising rising stars in her company and was hands down the most highly regarded female manager in the organization. She was bright, energetic and a “get it done” person who threw herself head first into any challenge she was given and she had been given quite a few. In every situation she delivered. She was held up as an example for the company’s entry level female managers in a company that thrived on developing women and minorities. When the company needed to form a new organization to respond to changes in the regulatory environment Laura seemed a natural to take on the challenge.
As usual she threw herself into the new challenge with the goal of building a state of the art organization that would be a benchmark for other companies to aspire to. This time, however, something was different. Her attempts to get funding, hire staff and employ top tier advisors were met with delays and refusals. After about six months she began getting more visible pushback from both the CEO and CFO on her efforts. She grew continually more frustrated until about nine months after taking on the new role she abruptly resigned.
The lesson here is don’t give a mover and shaker an assignment unless you want the assignment moved and shaken. Laura made her mark in the company by going above and beyond what was asked of her. As she once told me, after being given a particularly high visibility, high risk project, “I guess I got this because they knew it would get done.” Here was the problem; even though the company needed to comply with the regulatory changes, it really wasn’t all that important to the leaders of the company that we be the best, just that we comply. Laura wasn’t satisfied with just getting by. That simply wasn’t in her DNA. Two big things went wrong here and the company lost a valuable employee and role model.
First, she wasn’t given a clear picture of what the company’s executives really wanted. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves, but Laura was given a simple message to develop an organization to address the issues and that is what she attempted to do. The second lesson here, and probably the most important one, is don’t waste your best people on assignments that only need to be “good enough.” Save them for the ones where only the best will do.
Thomas was a finance guy and a very good one. He was sharp, articulate and his strategic thinking skills greatly exceeded most people his age. He was prominently featured on the finance department’s succession plan including occupying the top slot in the long-term CFO replacement candidate category.
I first became acquainted with Thomas when he was assigned to me to mentor as part of our company’s leadership development program. I found him to be an eager learner who showed up at every session well-prepared with thoughtful questions and well formulated answers to the assignments I gave him. He was a joy to work with.
It was a few years later when we next found ourselves working together on a large company-wide project. I hadn’t spent much time with him in the past couple of years and the man I encountered was quite different. His enthusiasm and drive had been replaced by an attitude that I would describe as “detached arrogance.” He seemed to feel that he was doing the company a favor by simply showing up. Instead of talking and acting in ways that reflected a commitment to the goals and success of the company, the focus was on him and what he was and was not willing to do. I found working with him frustrating and told him so cautioning him about the self-focused attitude that had overtaken him. About a year or so later the company was forced to downsize and Thomas, the former finance all-star, was in the first group to be let go. I have talked to him several times since then and, sadly, his career has yet to recover.
Thomas began to “read his own press clippings” as the old saying goes and in the process began to see himself as indispensable. He believed that, because he was so valuable to the company, he could call the shots and decide where the company could best use his talents. The tragedy here is that no one intervened and called him out on this behavior until it was too late. Competence and success must be paired with personal humility to keep the ego in balance. Many bright young people haven’t had adequate life experience to fully understand this. Managers need to pay careful attention for signs of an overinflated ego and firmly but compassionately coach the person back to reality.
A guy who worked for me hired James to manage several large infrastructure projects. He was an ace project manager and did a beautiful job. He was a little rough around the edges and didn’t always communicate clearly but with some coaching and training he improved greatly. He eventually rose to the level of Divisional Information Officer and did well leading the IT organization for a small but important division. Following a corporate restructuring I brought James into the company headquarters putting him in charge of a major piece of our organization. The first year went well, but as the company grew and the job grew in complexity things begin to go wrong. I worked with him in an attempt to get things back on track but as the stress increased his old tendencies to muddle his communications began to resurface. He unclearly and/or incompletely communicated the facts about several major missteps to me and other executives. I scaled down his responsibilities and attempted to help him recover but by this time he was wounded and couldn’t recover. Finally, and reluctantly, I had to let him go.
I spent a lot of time reflecting of my mistakes in dealing with James and what I could learn from them. Here are some of the lessons I learned.
First, where there is smoke, there is fire. When things began to go wrong I didn’t intervene early enough. Instead I fell back on my confidence in James based on his performance in previous roles. The problem, of course, was that he was not in his old role, he was in an entirely new and more demanding one.
Second, think twice before giving someone ‘the mother of all promotions.” I gave this guy a huge promotion and, in the process, promoted him beyond his experience. I have no doubt that he could have done the job, but probably not for another 3-4 years. I promoted him too far, too soon.
Finally, when I realized that the problems had gone too far and needed drastic and decisive action I wasn’t decisive soon enough. I thought I could “fix” him and did both him and the organization a disservice by taking too long to act.
Most of you can probably think of stories similar to these. Perhaps you have been the one who lost their way and fell from grace. Paying close attention to how the people we are charged with leading are doing and stepping in when appropriate to save them from themselves may also save their career.
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