Derailment refers to the involuntary loss of promotional opportunity due to declining managerial effectiveness over time. In general, managers derail because their skills and perspectives are seen as a poor fit for the challenges they face, either currently, in the near future, or with additional moves to more senior-level jobs. While some derailed managers are fired from their jobs, many remain on the job but are no longer seen as promotable to positions of greater responsibility as a result of a perceived loss of effectiveness and poor performance.
Organizations often invest heavily in the development of individuals believed to have high potential for success at senior levels. For example, high-potential managers often receive special or accelerated job assignments, coaching, mentoring from senior executives, and access to leadership development programs. When an individual begins to lose his or her effectiveness when taking on the challenges of senior roles, much has been lost. While derailment can happen at any level in an organization, it usually represents the greatest loss at senior levels, in terms of an organization’s investment in development, and frequently provokes the most questioning of existing selection and development processes. Therefore, the perceived causes of derailment have been studied primarily among senior managers.
Research indicates there are several key reasons why managers derail. One important factor is an individual’s inability to adapt to changes in the environment. Many managers who derail do so because they are unable or unwilling to develop new skills and perspectives as the demands they face change over time. Changing demands can come from added responsibilities in their jobs, promotions, organizational changes (e.g., mergers, globalization), environmental changes (e.g., market, regulatory environment), and the like. When managers are unable or unwilling to see that change is needed in their approaches or in their skill sets, to seek feedback from others on how skills might be improved, or to make the needed adjustments, their effectiveness as leaders can be increasingly compromised over time. Also, the inability to identify when new skills are needed and to develop new skills and perspectives makes it almost certain that an individual will be less likely to address any other derailment factors he or she may have.
Having problems with interpersonal relations is a second major factor leading to derailment. Derailed individuals are often seen by others as abrasive, arrogant, manipulative, demanding, or aloof. Although characteristics like these may be long-standing aspects of a manager’s personality, they may not influence one’s effectiveness early in career. Prior to being promoted into a management role, a lack of interpersonal skills may be overlooked in performance reviews if one’s technical performance is good. As an individual takes on supervisory responsibilities, this characteristic begins to matter more, in that a lack of interpersonal skills can get in the way of motivating and developing others. At lower levels in the organization, despite having poor interpersonal skills, managers are often able to achieve good performance from people over whom they have direct authority. However, as an individual moves up to more senior levels, is responsible for people who also have more organizational power and authority, and must achieve results from people over whom he or she has no direct authority, poor interpersonal skills can become a major obstacle to achieving high performance.
A third major cause of managerial derailment is the inability to build and lead teams. This factor has to do with poor performance in one or several aspects of team development and leadership, including choosing the right team members, securing adequate resources, and creating structures and processes for team innovation and high performance. The teams often described in the derailment literature are diverse teams, often cross-cultural in membership and geographically dispersed. They are also teams with urgent or high-priority tasks, working in a complex, global environment. The leadership role on such a team is demanding and often ambiguous for a manager and usually requires a significant degree of behavioral flexibility.
Other causes of derailment at senior levels include being seen as too focused on one’s own agenda at the expense of organizational goals, not being trusted to follow through or to have high integrity, being too narrow and unable to assume a broader than functional orientation, being authoritarian in leadership style, and being too isolated from other key stakeholders in the organization.
Research shows that managers almost never derail for one reason alone. In fact, the causes of derailment are often closely interrelated in any one derailment event. An individual who is abrasive or manipulative (that is, has poor interpersonal relations skills) will not be one to whom others readily provide useful developmental feedback. So, as conditions change and new skills are needed, that manager is unlikely to get the information needed to develop new skills (and will be seen as unable to adapt to change). Someone with poor interpersonal skills will also be less likely to be able to effectively lead a diverse team of people he or she may rarely see when the team is geographically dispersed. In a rapidly changing world, the inability to adapt will get in the way of effectively leading diverse teams faced with complex or ambiguous tasks.
Finally, research shows that avoiding derailment also involves a strong ability to learn from one’s experiences, both positive and negative. The ability to learn from experience has many components, including (a) the ability to recognize when new skills or approaches are needed; (b) the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own development; (c) understanding the important aspects of one’s personality, values, and commitments; (d) the willingness to intentionally try out behaviors and attitudes that do not feel natural or comfortable; (e) reflection on the process of one’s learning in day-to-day activities; (f) persisting in the face of mistakes, setbacks, and lowered performance while learning something new; (g) using a variety of tactics for learning rather than approaching learning in one single way (for example, solely through hands-on experience, reading, or accessing others); and (h) the ability and willingness to seek regular feedback from multiple sources (for example, peers, bosses, and direct reports).
- Leslie, J. and Van Velsor, E. 1995. A Look at Derailment Today: Europe and North America. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.
- Lombardo, M. and Eichinger, R. 1989. Preventing Derailment: What to Do Before It’s Too Late. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.
- McCall, M. 1997. High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
- Morrison, A., White, R. and Van Velsor, E. 1991. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Make It to the Top of America’s Largest Corporations? Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Van Velsor, E. and Leslie, J. 1995. “Why Executives Derail: Perspectives across Time and Culture” Academy of Management Executive 9(4):62-72.
- Van Velsor, E., Moxley, R. and Bunker, K. 2003. “The Leader Development Process.” Pp. 204-233 in The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development, edited by C. McCauley and E. Van Velsor. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.