Avoiding the 40 Percent Executive Failure Rate

October 29, 2018 3:15 pm

As an executive coach and former Fortune 500 vice president of human resources, I’ve watched hundreds of professionals make their way up the organizational ladder to the next level of leadership. But in many cases, unfortunately, the higher they climbed, the harder they fell. What is the common denominator among these failed executives? To a person, they did not realize that what got them there, wouldn’t keep them there. Organizational studies suggest this lack of leadership preparedness is more the rule than the exception.

My own research concurs. I interviewed some thirty successful executives from a variety of industries and sectors, including organizations such as Avon, Northrop Grumman, Capital One, the U.S. Army, Sallie Mae and America Online. These leaders revealed to me that what got them to the top — the knowledge and skills that made them successful on the way up — wasn’t enough to enable them to succeed in their executive- level positions. To thrive at the top tier of leadership, they needed to pick up some new beliefs and behaviors while they let go of some others — or risk failing as executives.

40 Percent Fail

Workplace surveys reveal that 40 percent of new executive leaders don’t last 18 months. The reason?

  1. Moving successfully to the senior level requires you to do three things that aren’t instinctive or commonly taught in executive development programs:
    First, confidently step into your executive role. It’s common for new leaders to feel like imposters during
    their first few months on the job. To succeed, you must project a strong executive presence in spite of
    how you may feel inside.
  2. Second, clarify and confront your own leadership weaknesses, through self-assessment and by soliciting
    feedback from trusted peers, bosses and subordinates.
    And third, choose to change by picking up the new skills and behaviors you need to become an effective
    leader, and letting go of unhelpful habits that get in your way.

Let Go of Self-Doubt
As a new leader, your first challenge is to show up with confidence. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable in your new role — if you don’t, you’re probably underestimating what’s ahead of you. The key is to not let it show, but rather to show up confidently at the executive level:

  • View yourself as a peer from the beginning. Remember, you were promoted to the next level because
    those who are already there deemed you capable of the role.
  • Be aware of your inner critic. We all have an inner voice that questions our ability to overcome obstacles
    and succeed. Tap into your competence and don’t let the inner critic take over.
  • Be ready for executive meetings. Learn all you can about what’s to be discussed, prepare your position and key points, and actively participate.

Let Go of Running Flat-Out Until You Crash
When faced with a challenge or crisis, many leaders believe they’ll pull through as they have in the past — by driving themselves relentlessly until the problem is solved. The trouble with this approach at the executive level is that beyond every challenge, there’s another one waiting to take its place. If you keep it up, you’ll eventually drive yourself into the ground. Instead, develop a routine of recovery and renewal that refreshes you:

Get physical. Regular physical activity strengthens your body and mind — and relieves stress.
Make time for spiritual revival. A walk in the woods, meditation or prayer, and time devoted to just being still or quiet can be rejuvenating. Repeat: “I am not my job.” You are an executive because of what you do — and who you are. Realize your potential at work, at home and in your community.

Let Go of Self-Reliance
Leadership means turning work over to your team and supporting their efforts even if — today — they aren’t able to do the work as well as you can. Turn self-reliance into team-reliance: Don’t compete with your team. Direct your competitive drive to the external world and collaborate

Get the right people in the right roles. Hire people who are as smart and capable as you and contribute to
successful outcomes. Redefine how you add value. What you do and how you do it is less tangible when you’re a leader. Ask yourself, “Given my role and the experience I bring to the table, what is it that only I can do?” The list of  answers to this question should be short — but high in organizational value.

Let Go of Only Looking Up and Down
Four-out-of-five new executives neglect to build partnerships with Peers — and wind up failing in their jobs as a result, according to research conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council. These executives are plagued with what I call “vertical tunnel vision”: A tendency to look up to the boss and down to
subordinates — and to virtually ignore their peers. I made this mistake myself when I was recruited to Columbia Gas Transmission as vice president of
human resources. I thought the best way to get started was to travel to the field and get a feel for the company and my staff — not a bad thing, but I overdid it. Within a few weeks, I started to get feedback that my new executive peers were wondering where I was.

I had quickly developed an acute case of vertical tunnel vision. I was looking up to what my boss — the CEO — wanted, and looking down to learn more about my functional team, but I was totally disconnected from my peers on the senior-leadership team. Broadening your field of vision by looking left and right offers a 360- degree picture of the organization and your role in it. To build relationships with peers: Learn their business. Ask peers about their work and how you can support them. Share your business. Be open and honest about your objectives, challenges and perspective. Solicit
feedback. Show up as an equal. Find give-and-take opportunities to streamline operations, overcome obstacles, and back one another’s efforts. Let Go of a Low-Profile Vision of Your Role As an executive, you’re always on stage — whether you like it or not. Everything you say and do has a ripple effect. This was another lesson I learned the hard way. Early in my career, I was a director in the West Virginia governor’s economic development office. One day, I was scheduled to deliver a speech at one of the state universities.

That morning, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article criticizing West Virginia. The article contained dozens of factual errors and seemed to me like an unjustified, cheap shot. I began my speech by sharing my anger and opinions about the article. The next morning, I was horrified to read in the local newspaper that an official from the governor’s office (me!) had openly criticized the Wall Street Journal in a speech the day before. I hadn’t realized there were reporters in the room when I gave my speech. Fortunately, my boss was understanding. I got off with a reprimand — and a valuable lesson.

Keep the potential liabilities of your higher profile in mind by practicing these strategies to protect

  • Act like an ambassador of your organization. Think before you speak and practice diplomacy. Listen to what others have to say. Beware of pushing your own views too hard. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
  • Choose effectiveness over being right. Marc Effron of Avon says, “The right solution is the one that actually solves the problem with all members of the group being relatively happy they are moving in that direction.”

Leading at the Next Level
Success at the next level of leadership depends on your ability to step up with confidence that you can dothe job you were promoted to do, clarify and confront your leadership weaknesses, and choose to change what isn’t working. Insanity has been defined as doing things the way you’ve always done them and expecting different results. Don’t be among the 40 percent who fail at the executive level. Pick up the skills and behaviors you need to succeed — and let go of those that are holding you back.

As a parting note, I suggest that all of you in this position continue the process of reference-checking
periodically, especially as the situation evolves. You need to monitor if references who appear to be on
your side change their tune as their relationship with you changes (they realize you’re not coming back,
they slide downhill, etc.).