Why do smart people derail their careers?

May 28, 2014 | Burlington, Ontario
Contributed by Tammy Quigley, MBA '00

Glain Roberts-McCabe

Why is it that smart, successful people sometimes derail in their careers at the mid-point? And how do our strengths as leaders sometimes become weaknesses?  I had the pleasure of attending this intriguing session as part of the DeGroote School of Business Women’s Breakfast Series. This month’s presentation was given by Glain Roberts-McCabe, President of The Executive Roundtable.

With over 20 years of experience in leadership positions, Glain shared her insights into why it’s important to constantly assess our leadership skills, and to seek feedback from others to hold us accountable. “The more successful you are, the less support and feedback you’ll receive”.  This observation resonated with me as someone who is mid-career with over fifteen years of experience in positions of increasing responsibility.  As my career has progressed, I have definitely noticed that I receive less direct feedback than when I was a young manager early in my career.  Glain noted that leaders who have thrived and earned early career successes can sometimes become a bit too comfortable as they reach the mid-point of their career. We can become less bold, less creative, and less willing to take risks.

…it’s important to constantly assess our leadership skills, and to seek feedback from others to hold us accountable…

Glain outlined some blind spots that can sneak up on us during our 30s and 40s – for example, succumbing to the imposter syndrome – a particularly significant trap for women.  I’ve been guilty of falling into this trap in my own career: looking at an opportunity and thinking, “I’m not qualified, they’ll never even consider me”. A man in a similar position would be more likely to openly jump at the opportunity despite not being nearly as ‘qualified’.

Also resonating with me was a list of strengths that can turn into weaknesses as a leader. For example, having high standards is a strength but can turn into a weakness if as a leader you bring people down, are a perfectionist, and perhaps don’t delegate well.  This is a common pitfall for ‘type A’ people who often climb the corporate ladder early in their careers.  Another strength that becomes a weakness is being a strategic thinker – have you ever worked with one of those brilliant thinkers who does a lot of talking (and drawing of things on white boards) but is lousy at actually executing a strategy?

So, how do we as leaders recognize these behaviours and work to change them so we are not derailed?  Having attended many management seminars in my career, I’m always hopeful that I’ll come away with some practical tips, and I wasn’t disappointed with this presentation.

feedbackGlain noted several ways to ensure we are aware of our behaviours as a first step – developing self awareness through self-assessments  along with asking for feedback on a regular basis. There are several reputable leadership assessments readily available.  This was a key take-away for me that I will add to the agenda of my regular meetings both with my direct reports and my boss – specifically asking for 3 things I’ve done well and 1 thing I could change.  Also, tracking what energizes you – who were the people involved, what were you doing?  I recall coming out of a recent project planning meeting for a major change initiative where I felt so fantastic I wanted to work well into the evening to get the necessary work done.  Clearly being part of change is what energizes me as leader.

Lastly, we need to ensure there is an accountability loop when we do work on changing our behaviours. Using a “feed forward” approach we can identify a derailing behaviour, ask for suggestions, listen and record, thank and then implement and track.  Most importantly we need to close the loop and ask for feedback on our progress.  As Glain mentioned, these are not easy things to do – they make us uncomfortable and we could easily go through our days avoiding these more difficult conversations.  The benefit, however, is that as we develop a culture of open feedback this becomes part of our day-to-day work and no will longer mean conversations that are filled with uncomfortable silences.

Tammy Quigley earned her MBA at the DeGroote School of Business in 2000 and is a senior hospital administrator in Kitchener, Ontario.

One thought on "Why do smart people derail their careers?"

  1. dinesh k.bhalse says:

    dear sir i hope one day my son come your university as a mba student


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