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Career Derailers for New Leaders

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train-derailmentPicture your career as a train speeding down the track. All systems seem to be functioning smoothly, and you are getting where you need to go. We all know that some trains derail. Understanding how and why this can happen can keep you “on track.” Career “derailers” often involve blind spots or knee-jerk reactions to situations or people.

They are behavior patterns that prove ineffective or even destructive in key situations. If not addressed, they can eventually send a career off its tracks. This can happen gradually or suddenly, but once it happens it can be difficult or impossible to repair the damage done. In other words, derailers are development needs that are especially urgent because of the extreme risks they pose to a person’s continued success.

Career derailers are particularly important for new leaders. These include existing leaders taking on expanded responsibilities, individuals newly appointed to a leadership role, and individuals just hired into a leadership role.

These leaders typically face a number of derailment risks:

  • Competencies that have been strengths in the past can be overused in the new role
  • Limitations that caused only minor problems in the past can turn into serious liabilities
  • Blind spots based on the old environment can block the ability to read the new context accurately
  • The need to change behavior can be dramatically underestimated by the new leader until it is too late to make changes

Here is a partial list of common derailers that new leaders run into:


  • Avoids Diversity – Selects people too much like themselves in thinking, personality, or background.
  • Deploys Talent Too Cautiously – Always assigns projects to people who have already proven themselves completely capable; holds good people back by playing it safe; focuses on short-term results rather than considering developmental value of assignments.
  • Deploys Talent Non-Strategically – Fails to assign the most talented individuals to the most critical strategic issues.
  • Fails to Build a Team – Treats subordinates more as a collection of individuals. Does not resolve conflict among subordinates. Does not build team spirit or celebrate team successes. Does not share work assignments with others.
  • Fosters Dependence – Never allows individuals to fail; does not delegate.
  • Over-Emphasizes Functional/Technical Skill in Hiring – Fails to consider factors other than functional excellence, like organization savvy and culture fit.
  • Over-Manages – Over-controls and meddles. Does not empower others. Does not develop subordinates. Does too much of the work himself/herself.
  • Overly Selective – Never fills positions.
  • Poor Administrative Skills – Low detail orientation; lets things fall through the cracks. Over-commits and under-delivers. Has to scramble to pull things together at the last minute.
  • Poor Judge of Talent – Uses inappropriate criteria and standards to select staff. May hire people who are too narrow or too much like self. Not a good judge of people.
  • Poor Judge of Values & Aspirations – Fails to understand what is important to people in their work; does not shape assignments to create personal value for staff.

Interpersonal & Organizational Relations

  • Arrogant – Always thinks they have the only right answer. Devalues the opinions and suggestions of others; makes others feel inferior. Cold and aloof, and may isolate from others except on own terms.
  • Defensive – Not open to constructive feedback. Denies mistakes and faults. Rationalizes away failures. Blames others for own problems. Does not listen to negative feedback.
  • Insensitive to Others – Has an abrasive, intimidating, or bullying style—especially under
    Appears to have no concern about impact on others.
  • Not Trustworthy – Poor follow-through on commitments. Says one thing and means or does another. Can be inconsistent and unpredictable.
  • Poor Organization Savvy – Lacks sensitivity toward others and the organization. Says and does
    the wrong things. Indiscreet—shares sensitive information and opinions with the wrong people.

Personal Performance Management

  • Cannot Adapt – Has trouble working with and adapting to new or different bosses, strategies, plans, and philosophies. Disagrees inappropriately with top management on mission, values, strategies, and tactics.
  • Fails to Develop Self – Not open to learning new personal, interpersonal, and leadership skills and approaches. Does not seek input from others. Lacks curiosity and insight about self.
  • Lacks Composure – Does not handle pressure and stress well. Performance degrades when
    things get tough. Becomes emotional, subjective, and unpredictable when things do not go as
  • Overly Dependent – Has relied on the same boss or mentor too long. Not seen as independent. Perceived as unlikely to be able to stand up to a tough assignment without help.
  • Overly Ambitious – More focused on self and career progression than on finishing the current
    Manages up primarily in order to market and position self with top management.
  • Performs Inconsistently – Fails to meet targets and objectives consistently. Inconsistent results across situations and assignments.
  • Questionable Ethics and Values – Lacks sensitivity to the operating values of the organization. Operates too close to the margins; pushes the limits of tolerance.

Savvy TransitionThis article is an excerpt from the Leverage Strengths activity of Savvy Transition, an online playbook and toolkit for leaders in transition. Learn more at

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Jesse Jacoby
The Editor of Emergent Journal and founder of Emergent, Jesse is a recognized expert in business transformation. He and his team partner with Fortune 500 and mid-market companies to deliver successful people and change strategies. Jesse is the creator of the Accelerating Change & Transformation (ACT) model and developer of Change Accelerator and Savvy Transition. Contact Jesse at 303-883-5941 or

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