Over the last twenty years I have had candid – no truths untold – conversations with hundreds of executives in order to identify the good, the bad and the ugly of their strategic leadership and career development decisions.

Recently I asked Bill, a former Division SVP and GM for a leading technology company, to talk to me about his strategic leadership actions and career decisions.  With Bill’s commentary, we can begin to examine the ‘Career Backstory’ and gain insight on the actions that positively impacted his career and the actions that ultimately led to a career derailment.  (Note: a Backstory, or the dramatic revelation of secrets, was first introduced by Aristotle.)

This Cause and Effect diagram summarizes Bill’s recollections and the ‘Career Backstory’:

© All Rights Reserved; CG Consulting Group LLC

In The Beginning – The Good

When Bill was asked to take on this role upon the departure of the previous division GM, he was able to accomplish much within a few months: the division beat its profit targets; reduced time to market; retained all of its strategic accounts during the transition; regained its market dominance and drove down significant costs.

Customers felt like the division was listening to them again, had the right priorities, and was developing the right product.  One underperforming business was sold; another was spun off in a JV, allowing the division to focus on its core market and products.  A lot had been accomplished in just over a year.

Factors Contributing to Career Derailment – The Bad

Missed Opportunities to Communicate

Bill now struggled with how to grow the business going forward.  He did have a division business plan, but not everyone on the division executive team, or in the corporate office, was on board that it was the best way to go.  The executive on Bill’s team who owned the go forward plan was ineffective in gaining consensus or buy-in from the CFO and others.

Unfortunately, Bill did not spot this until later in the process, and so failed to intervene early enough.  Some members of the team felt the plan was too simplistic, others thought it elegantly simple.  Also, because he had worked with this person in a previous company, Bill was accused of favoritism by some members of his team.  Bill knew this accusation was not accurate, but it was not a winnable argument with the members of his team who had reached this conclusion and did not respect his choice of plan leader.

Back Stabbers

At the same time, Bill’s finance leader took advantage of Bill’s trust and hands-off style, and later Bill’s time on the road with customers, to drive the division according to his own personal priorities rather than Bill’s. He proceeded to subtly undermine and misrepresent Bill’s efforts, plans and decisions (including sowing seeds of the favoritism rumor noted above).  Bill had given him the benefit of the doubt when he inherited him, but had begun to think of him as the character of “Wormtongue” from The Lord of the Rings, using his position to poison the well of support for Bill and his efforts.

Despite Bill’s attempts to have him replaced, Bill was told he could not release him due to his political connections.

The Go Forward Division Plan Was Not Well Supported

The plan Bill and his team had embarked upon split the executive team, and came up against unanticipated technical obstacles with partners that prevented the division from moving forward with original product plans. There was serious disagreement among team members on which market segments and products to prioritize.

Bill failed to bring his team together on this, and was unable to close the gap between the camps fighting out which strategic priorities should get precedence.  He recognizes in retrospect that his inability to get the team to ‘gel’ on a single, executable plan, along with having chosen and relied on the wrong people in some key roles, are his key failures in this role.

The Deal to Find Another Role For Bill

Interestingly, Sam, a former senior executive, came forward and expressed an interest in buying or running this division.  Sam had relationships, credibility, seniority and access that Bill could never hope to have within this company.  Sam was no doubt a better leader for the division than Bill was, or likely could be.

Bill agreed; after all, Bill had not come to the organization to take on this role, and was hoping for a role elsewhere in the company now that most of the “break/fix” work was behind him, which is his strength.  This was his opportunity.  He was happy to turn over the “growth” role to a go forward-type CEO to replace him. 

Bill would be the first to admit that he is a problem solver and process improvement leader, not a strategist CEO.  He was never truly comfortable in the role as division GM – at least in this company given its business model and culture.  So when asked if he would step aside for Sam and take a temporary role on his supervisor’s staff until something else came up, he said “yes”.

As part of Sam’s introduction, and prior to a formal announcement, it was decided to explain Sam’s presence as an “executive coach” for Bill.  Bill did not have any real choice but to go along, although this move seemed a conflict of interest – here was someone who wanted Bill’s job, but was going to be his coach, and report back on his style and performance to the C-suite?  Bill assumed it would be a moot point after he moved to a new role.  This turned out to be a bad mistake on Bill’s part – in retrospect he should have said no to the “coach” role – and figured out a different explanation for Sam’s presence in the division.

In any event, Bill began deferring to Sam and letting him attend meetings.  Very quickly, Bill’s team (and even Bill) were making the mental transition that Bill was on the way out, and Sam was on the way in.

It became obvious quickly that Sam’s and Bill’s leadership styles were very different.  Sam is passionate, highly vocal and very directive.  Bill is – in contrast – dispassionate, selectively vocal and seeks agreement to arrive at a decision.  As Bill’s “executive coach” Sam took the opportunity to comment on, and report back to the C-suite, on this stark difference in approach, and not in a way that would contribute to Bill’s ‘development’. Bill, of course, was not privy to these reports and had no opportunity to respond or position his actions in any other light. 

The Deal is Off – Or Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

None of this would have mattered much except the entire deal blew up one evening.  Refusing to report to Bill’s current supervisor, and instead making a bid to report to someone else he knew in the organization’s C-suite, Sam stepped over the line and infuriated Bill’s supervisor.

In less than 24 hours, the deal (to find Bill a new role and to name Sam as his successor) was off – and Bill was thrust back into the job he had for all intents and purposes, just left.  Unfortunately, Bill had lost whatever momentum he had generated over the previous year as well as the support of some members of his team who had been promised larger roles or better support by Sam.

This was a huge disappointment all the way around.  Bill’s direct staff was already looking forward to having Sam, who pushed them harder and seemed much better positioned to work magic in the C-suite than Bill, who was clearly not “passionate” about their core business and hence really more of an interim leader. When they were informed of the last minute change in direction, at least two members of Bill’s team could not hide their disappointment, even to Bill’s face.

Company Politics: It Is Never Advantageous To Be a Lame Duck – The Ugly

It was the beginning of the end.  Bill did his best to re-engage with his team and the business over the next few months, but he was in effect a lame duck, and everyone knew it.  They also assumed the deal that had fallen apart would at some point be reconstituted and Sam would be back.  With that hanging over his head, Bill spent his time with customers in the field and making sure the new product line would launch.  He found it impossible to pull the team back together again.  Everyone’s loyalties had been exposed, and the genie was out of the bottle – especially with Sam in the wings ready to make a second coup attempt.

And Bill’s heart wasn’t in it.  Having turned the division around with customers and the new product line, Bill was done in his mind, and had hoped to move on to another role.  He struggled to build commitment in a go forward plan. 

An execution leader and problem solver rather than a strategist, Bill had originally hoped to hand the division over to Sam (the division was by all measures in far better shape than when he took it on), and get a shot at fixing something else “broken” in the mainstream company, but Sam’s failed ‘drive by’ deal blew up that chance.

How Do You Defend Against An Untrue ‘Label’?

Sam had lobbied hard for the job, and did not spare Bill in the process, using his role as Bill’s “executive coach” to highlight his differences in opinion of both style and performance between them. Bill knew he had made mistakes with his team and the go forward plan, but had also done a very strong job of fixing a broken division, in terms of product, execution and customer confidence.  Furthermore, he didn’t really want the job, and had already moved on in his own mind.  He was tired of the bickering and dissent among his team and their inability to operate as senior executives.  He was tired of his Machiavellian finance leader and his protégé, who was openly hostile to his leadership.

So he was more than willing to be reassigned to a role that was a better fit, especially a role in which he could improve or reposition another product line or business unit rather than develop long-term strategy.  Still, given how Sam had handled him in absentia before, Bill had no opportunity to defend his record, clarify or contextualize his actions, or even ask for help or a real executive coach.

So when Sam showed up again, having been biding his time for another opportunity, Bill’s supervisor, who had unexpectedly decided to leave the organization, no longer had the political capital or will to prevent Sam from coming back in. 

This time there was no alternate role for Bill, and no chance for him to recover his reputation with the remaining C-suite members.

In the end, key members of Bill’s direct staff helped “vote him off the island” with his supervisor, especially those who wanted Sam to come in and bring promised change. Ultimately there was less than a week between Bill learning he was on the bubble and that bubble bursting.

Bill was out!

He left the company with less than a month’s time to prepare an exit strategy or story, and with only the company’s offered severance (there was no employment contract in force).  Unlike some of his peers who also were relieved of command, he was not given the chance to linger or take on “special projects.”  Still, he accepted the change professionally, spoke ill of no one, swallowed his pride and left quietly.  In the end he was disappointed in his own shortcomings, but even more disappointed in the people he supported who in turn did not support him.

Bill will only likely truly put this behind him when he lands on his feet and succeeds in his next role, wherever that may be.  In the meantime, he’s working hard to let go of the anger and resentment, which would otherwise poison his personal as well as his professional life.

When the Division is Not Part of the Core Business

This business unit was non-core, and there had been talk of selling it for years.  Senior executives did not spend much time reviewing its plans or progress; the division was simply irrelevant to the overall financial and strategic picture.  As a result, there was a certain nonchalance about making decisions affecting the division, or its leadership, as decisions that really didn’t matter that much.

Impact of Company Culture

There is a history of nepotism and personal favoritism at the company.  Despite its size, scope and stature in the community, the company is often still run as a family or insiders business, where badge number and personal relationships trump performance.  In addition, Bill found managers there lacked the dispassionate logic he had come to respect and expect from large corporations – he found unprofessionalism and emotionalism cloaked as “passion for the business”.

Bill also overestimated the appreciation for strong execution against the division’s plan.  He discovered that the company is far more interested in top line growth or cool technology rather than strong bottom line performance.  As a result, technologists and business development executives excel there, while GMs and operations leaders do not.  In the end, the successful repositioning of the business, despite the heavy lifting, was underappreciated and did not earn him the kudos it would have at other companies. In short, he had invested in the wrong personal brand for this culture – he was a ‘business execution generalist’ in a company that valued ‘technology innovation specialists’.

Career Derailment 101

Bill’s gut pulled together the disparate facts, with body language and signals he was picking up from his boss and his team. Bill negotiated the best exit he could under these frustrating circumstances and he left the organization.

Bill learned a great deal about organizational politics, about his own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and what he might do differently or better next time.  He learned that he is more ‘Spock’ than ‘Kirk’ and will focus his go forward roles to play to his analytical and logical strengths and avoid the political and personality challenges that frustrated him in this experience.  For example, rather than look for CEO-type GM roles, he will focus on COO-type operations roles.

Bill has acquired a new brand of ‘toughness’.  He is less willing to trust others, has a much lower level of tolerance for people who try to maneuver around him, and intends to intervene more quickly and decisively when he perceives political or personal threats. He may also be less willing to take on risky assignments without a much stronger exit strategy, sponsorship and a formal contract.

Advice for Other Executives Experiencing Career Derailment

Bill advises: at the first sign that your leadership style is not in alignment,  go to your manager, your mentor, other influencers and to HR with a plan to let them know that you feel that you and your division are facing some major business, political, or profitability obstacles. Request their support.

Give yourself time and breathing room – while simultaneously – work on your exit strategy.

There are millions of executive ‘Career Backstories’ that happen daily.  The key is to realize that the Backstory is as important – and sometimes, more important than the achievement of KPIs  – in determining the leader’s career success.

The ultimate key is to realize that the good, the bad and the ugly happens to all of us during our career lifetime.  We must learn the lesson and then get ready for the next three (yes, three) career moves.

Thanks Bill for allowing me to tell this story.

A question for you to consider:

  • Regardless of the length of tenure in your current organization, have you taken the time to step back and identify your ‘Career Backstory’?

© All rights reserved.

Christine M. Glasco consults to company executives, business owners and non-profit leaders on career management/career transformation strategies and strategic leadership development solutions. To provide you with clarity on how to achieve the next steps in your career, go to www.christineglasco.com and request a complimentary copy of Is Your Career on Track? Assessment and e-Workbook

Email: info@christineglasco.com Phone: 1.940.367.0837

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One Response to Career Development Alert: The Causes and Effects of Career Derailment

  1. […] leader clients presents an opportunity for me to assist the leader in looking at the root causes of corporate infighting; identifying the various factions; dissecting the pros and cons of involvement with different […]

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