We love to read about the dynamics of success. We study it, celebrate it, and try to emulate how successful leaders rise to the top. I’m no different: I’ve funded my career helping executives succeed, either over coaching and development or assessments of their strengths and opportunity areas to identify the development work they require to do to take their careers to the next level. But even as I’m drawn to success stories, I have found that the greatest lessons come from examining failure.
For instance, my last research attempt looked into how elite executives make a successful transition to the C-suite. As I worked over the interviews, I found that executives whose careers had been derailed shared multiple commonalities. Specifically, I found that C-suite executives are vulnerable to career failure when they are in the midst of one of three common transition scenarios.
1.The leap into leadership. The transition to the leading group is demanding, with 50% to 60% of executives failing within the first 18 months of being promoted or hired. For instance, Gil Amelio was Apple’s CEO for less than a year in 1997, and General Motors’ chief human resources officer decamped in 2018 after merely eight months in the job.
For some, this high-profile leadership transition is more than they bargain for. They are unprepared for the frantic pace or they lack the requisite big-picture perspective. (Sixty-one percent of executives can’t meet the strategic challenges they confront in elder leadership.) This is an especially common hazard for leapfrog leaders — executives one or two steps down in the organization who skip levels when they are elevated a leading spot. But even the best seasoned executives have little transparency into looming group dysfunction or insurmountable challenges until they are actually in the role.
One veteran executive I fathom accepted a job reporting to the CEO only to find that her functional area had been mismanaged and was in serious financial disarray. She started to angle around its performance in year one, but her reporting structure was altered mid-stream, and she found herself accountable to the CFO. The new situation left her feeling “micromanaged,” and she moved on two years later.
The single best thing a new executive can do to avoid a brief tenure is to actively pursue feedback. Most undergo rigorous executive assessments prior to receiving an offer, but soon they are too occupied with the demands of the job to be introspective. Many benefit from in-depth 360-degree reviews at six to eight months and then again at 18 months. One division president I interviewed learned in her 360s that board members were skeptical of her abilities. To her credit, she did the difficult work of getting to fathom the board members ahead and put together a plan to actively triumph them over.
Overall, knowing the areas others think you require to grow allows you to get the backing you require — executive coaching, finding a peer-mentor, or adjusting your group to round out your development areas. It further helps you assess whether you are fitting onto the culture or if you require to strengthen key relationships internally and externally.
2. The organizational transition. I would argue that nearly every organization today is either considering or enacting a transformation of a few type. Even in this “change is the new normal” reality, high stakes transformations are highly risky for executives who fail to reinvent the organization or themselves fast enough.
Mergers, for instance, create instant overlap in executive roles, and redundant leaders can be swept out in waves. Just as often, leaders fail to read the tea leaves ahead of a surprise executive succession and are left vulnerable when their allies exit. But by far the biggest derailer for executives concurrently this transition is misinterpreting the require for change or getting on the wrong side of it. For example, Durk Jager walked down as CEO of Proctor & Gamble in 2000, merely a year and a half into the job, after roiling P&G’s conservative culture by taking on “too much change too fast.” More often, leaders are too slow to act or unwilling to get on board as a change attempt gets underway. In 2009, for instance, GM removed its CEO, Fritz Henderson, because he was not enough of a change agent.
To survive organizational and industry shifts, leaders require to get in front of change. They require to think about where they fit into the new demand and find a way to have an impact. They further should overcommunicate with the CEO or board to make it clear where they stand on the require for change and how they will lead its implementation.
3.The pinnacle paradox. The last tricky transition that derails executives is the career pinnacle. C-suite leaders are at the apex of their careers. They have competed for years and achieved what they have been striving for: a spot on the leading team. As a result, multiple experience a type of paradox: They are working harder than ever to succeed, but they don’t fathom what’s next in their career. In time, this uncertainty, combined with job stress, can lead to burnout. Executives I have coached sometimes bump the ceiling and consider “stuck” at the top. Whether they experience burnout or move on for an additional reason, the average tenure of C-suite leaders has been declining in recent years. According to one study, the median tenure for CEOs at large-cap companies is five years. The tenure for CMOs is even less: 42 months, according to Spencer Stuart.
Executives can take steps to either extend their tenure or prepare for what’s next in their career. As part of that, they require to rethink their relationship with sponsors. At this stage in their career lifecycle they may not require sponsors to create new opportunities for them, but they do require advocates, supportive peers, and career role models. C-suite executives can move on to lead in other organizations or they may eventually retire and do board work. Others may find like-minded partners and investors to launch their own venture. I’ve worked with younger executives, as well, who accept global assignments or move down in the organization to gain new experience — they move down with a plan to move up again later in a dissimilar functional role. Regardless of their future plan, C-suite executives who surround themselves with backing and have a clear vision of their future, are more likely continue to succeed.
The capacity for reinvention is the single-most-important career attribute for executives today. Successful reinvention may look dissimilar for each of us, but if we do not attempt it, we are sure to fail.