For more than a decade, corporate hallways have echoed with the encouraging words of the strengths movement—enhancing employee strengths as a primary form of managerial and leadership development. Leaders have worked to incorporate the findings into their organizations and to create strong employee engagement. But now, another problem has surfaced. With all the focus on what people do well, managers are failing to give critical feedback, and the results are troubling.
One study shows as many as 67 percent of talented people will derail in their career at a cost of up to 20 times that of that employee’s salary. It’s an epidemic of underperformance.
I know firsthand how debilitating the problem is because I experienced my own career derailment event. Over 25 years ago, I was a young, promising executive at PepsiCo, certain I was on the fast track when my boss called me in and told me I was “unpromotable.” Why? Because I was “obstinate,” “resistant” and “insubordinate.”
In retrospect, that critical feedback was the best gift I ever received because it caused me not only to be more self-reflective about my own behavior, but to find out why talented people derail. What goes wrong? To that end, I’ve dug through the extensive research about career derailment, interviewed scores of HR leaders, senior managers and C-Suite executives and surveyed 100 people, who—in what should have been the prime of their career—had been fired, demoted or whose careers had plateaued. From managers and leaders to executive coaches, recruiters, CEOs and C-Suite executives, I listened to them talk about why and how good careers went bad.
“Managers should have weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones with their subordinates, where they discuss performance against objectives and give clear developmental feedback, both positive and negative.”
The source of the problem
I discovered that two top culprits are an inability to work well with others and a lack of self-awareness about personal areas of vulnerability. The big question for leaders: Why aren’t we giving the kind of feedback to make people more aware of these shortfalls? I believe that often the strengths movement has been taken too far and used to the exclusion of other methods.
Leaders must look closely at 3 areas of their company to enact change.
1. Create a culture of frankness. If the culture of an organization is modeled around open and honest communication and clear developmental feedback, it flows down through the entire organization. It starts with the values and behaviors that are espoused by the firm’s leaders. What are the top 3 to 5 values stressed by senior leadership? Are you behaving in ways that are consistent with them? For example, when I worked at Walmart, “attention to detail” was stressed, for “retail is detail.” So I needed to ask myself questions like, “Am I really up-to-speed on the status of a particular initiative? Am I well-versed on the performance of a particular product line?
2. Give frequent, candid feedback. Having candid feedback sessions with employees once a year during the performance review cycle is standard practice, and woefully insufficient. Companies need to stress to managers the importance of giving immediate developmental feedback to their team members. Managers also should have weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones with their subordinates, where they discuss performance against objectives and give clear developmental feedback, both positive and negative. Keep the process simple and brief, as most people can only recall and act on one thing at a time.
3. Embrace more weakness-oriented development tools. Effective personnel development assessments exist which include potential derailment areas that firms can use to initiate or further this conversation. The Hogan Development Survey and Korn Ferry / Lominger Leadership Assessment Instruments are both good, robust tools.
Organizations pursuing a developmental strategy focusing on strengths alone will not lead to the career ascension of their employees. Soon or later, unaddressed needs will limit the career progress of good people—hurting both employees and the organization.
It’s time to bring straight talk and candid discussions back into the company. Not just on performance review day, but every day.