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Best Practices for Minimizing Leadership Derailment

The rise of a “rock star” executive can capture the public imagination and bring positive exposure for a firm. More often, however, a high-flying executive may suffer the public flame-out we’ve seen from actual rock stars. The result can inflict massive collateral damage to the reputation, morale, and value of a company. How do the best companies keep leaders from “jumping the tracks” and dragging the organization into a disastrous crash?

Helping key people avoid derailment is a unique talent management challenge: entirely individual, deeply personal, and with the highest possible stakes for both the individual and the organization. While there are no easy solutions, companies that excel in developing talent can offer some answers.

Why do leaders fail?

The reasons for derailment are generally driven by underlying aspects of personality and personal behavior. These are almost as varied as the individuals themselves, ranging from impulsiveness, arrogance, and melodrama, to excessive caution, perfectionism, and mistrust. Such behaviors are present all along. Sometimes they even contribute to success in other roles. When magnified by the spotlight of a leadership position and the stress of the job, they are often tacitly recognized and accommodated as long as things are going smoothly. Eventually, if organizational or personal crisis dials up the stress, the leader reacts by doubling down on the familiar behavior, and the situation accelerates, hurtling past the breaking point. In the aftermath, observers often say, “we saw it coming from a mile away, but what could anyone do?”

Taking Action

The Global Leadership Research Project conducted by GrowthPlay’s Chally organization analyzed data from 300 CEOs and senior HR leaders. The research makes one thing clear, best-in-class organizations are proactive at nurturing their top leadership talent. Here are the top five best practices found to minimize leadership derailment:

  1. Coaching or Mentoring (21.2%)
  2. Setting Clear Expectations (14.4%)
  3. Providing Feedback Mechanisms (13.7%)
  4. Conducting Assessment Programs (12.3%)
  5. Process for Performance Measurement and Goal Setting (10.3%)

More than a dozen other tactics, from early detection to recognition and empathy, were also used by these companies. The wide range in answers indicate that even the best-run companies have few consistent answers for the problem of derailment.

What seems common to companies that manage derailment well is a serious commitment to the effort, alignment with a strong organizational culture, and support from the highest levels of corporate governance, including top leaders themselves. With a clear intent and consistent follow-through, these companies can keep key people firmly on the rails and leading the company in the right direction.

Learn more on how best-in-class organizations build and retain leaders. Download the full research report here.

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