Unmasking Career Derailers: Overcoming Hidden Roadblocks to Success in Your Professional Journey

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    The challenges I encounter as a coach working with managers and leaders are often unseen ‘career derailers’. These seemingly harmless tendencies can subtly but profoundly disrupt your ambition to climb the corporate ladder. In many cases, these derailers are manifestations of deficiencies in critical leadership competencies. 

    From my client interactions, I’ve identified three common derailers: Trouble with people, a failure to inspire, and a lack of strategic thinking. Recognizing these derailers is the first step towards overcoming them. So, let’s pull back the curtain and look deeper into these roadblocks to success. 

    Derailer 1: Trouble with People – The Shielded Personal Learner 

    Picture Peter, a middle manager known for his straightforward communication style. As a result of his steadfast approach, he has lost his professional relationship with Jodie, a key member of the project. This illustrates our first derailer: trouble with people. 

    Peter’s resistance to change and personal development can stifle the collaborative spirit that is key to organizational success. There could be several reasons for his rigid stance, including a fear of risk-taking, a preference for familiar methods, a desire for perfection, or a perceived lack of time for self-improvement. 

    Peter’s unwillingness to evolve will likely exacerbate his lack of self-awareness and inability to adapt to changing situations, which are two of the most critical leadership competencies. We should, however, remember that we are all works in progress. If we wish to develop, these competencies can be nurtured over time. 

    Derailer 2: Failing to Inspire – The Taskmaster Leader 

    There is also John, an ambitious and energetic manager who has ambitions to become a middle manager. His relentless focus on results often leaves his team overburdened and underappreciated. Our second derailer is a failure to inspire. 

    John’s tendency to see his team as separate entities rather than a unified whole can aggravate conflicts and dampen team morale. Assigning work and defining responsibilities to individual members is frustrating because he does not bring the team together and resolve issues in a broader context. Whenever possible, he prefers to meet one-on-one.  

    However, it’s essential to remember that leadership is getting work done through others by inspiring them. John’s one-size-fits-all approach to communication isn’t inspiring, and he should learn how to understand and adapt to the needs of each member. A harmonious and productive workplace can be achieved by balancing task orientation with people-orientation. 

    Derailer 3: Non-strategic – The Tactical Executor 

    Lastly, let’s consider Emma, a seasoned senior leader lauded for her impressive sales results. Yet her focus on tactical tasks overshadows her strategic vision, representing our third derailer: non-strategic thinking. 

    Emma’s reluctance to strategize might stem from discomfort with complex problems, a risk-averse nature, or the belief that the future can’t be foreseen. It is possible that she tends to overuse her action orientation and get things done.  

    However, as leaders, embracing complexity and uncertainty is part of the package. Besides strategic thinking capabilities, successful leaders have another crucial capability: seamlessly zooming in on details and tactics as well as zooming out to see the bigger picture. 

    Navigating Beyond the Derailers: A Compass for Success 

    1. Champion Lifelong Learning:

    Embrace a continuous learning journey with enthusiasm. Regularly seek out professional development opportunities and feedback. Develop your personal learning curriculum, e.g., negotiation skills, conflict management, influencing without authority, etc., and dedicate time to improving interpersonal and managerial skills. 

    2. Cultivate a Collaborative Spirit:

    Reflect on your approach to work: task orientation versus people orientation. Develop a plan to improve your communication skills to create an environment that celebrates teamwork. Practice different aspects of communication, e.g. effective delegation and conflict resolution. Help your team grow, as their success directly contributes to your own.  

    3. Nurture Strategic Thinking; Learn to Zoom In and Zoom Out:

    Cultivate your strategic skills by learning from experienced mentors and attending strategic management seminars. Treat complex problems as opportunities for growth and learn to thrive amidst uncertainty. Observe yourself when you tend to zoom in – getting lost in the details – and practice ways to zoom out to see the bigger picture.  

    Navigating these derailers and taking proactive measures to circumvent them is vital for maintaining your upward career trajectory. Remember, encountering speed bumps is part and parcel of every professional journey. It’s our response to these challenges that truly shapes our path to success. At times, these speed bumps may hint at the need for a guiding hand, a coach who can illuminate the road ahead. With a nuanced understanding of your professional landscape, a coach can be your partner to identify personalized solutions. Rather than simply navigating around these speed bumps, make them steppingstones for your continued growth and professional success. 

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