Jack Wilson, CEO of American Manufacturing Enterprises, was coming up on his 8-month mark in his new role and it was painfully apparent to everyone that he was not delivering on the Board’s great expectations. They couldn’t understand how someone with a career of progressive successes, starting as a bright up-and-coming MBA and culminating with a successful five year run as CEO of Mega Industries, could be failing so miserably at a company so similar to Mega. Jack’s story is not that uncommon. In fact, between 35–50% of executives fail during their careers, usually in new roles.
Can you guess the number one reason why they fail? It’s not because of technical incompetence. It’s because Jack’s personality, world view and management philosophy were not a good fit for AME.
How could that happen? Certainly, one would think that most companies and boards go to great lengths to screen and recruit candidates, and it’s been my experience that most companies do try to recruit carefully.
But let me illustrate how the process goes awry — in spite of companies’ best attempts.
Wrong executive — wrong job
Alice Kay was a hard-driving executive who worked her way up the ladder through several different fast-growth, high-tech companies. She had been very successful working at the executive level in a mid-sized company (1000 employees) when it was acquired by a multi-national. She was one of the execs who lost their job due to the consolidation. She swore to herself that she didn’t want to go through that again so she took a job as COO of a family-owned business. The President of the company told her that they were interested in growing the company at a steady but safe rate. She sighed with relief. Unfortunately, however, within six months she grew impatient with both the cautious approach and the “lack of business acumen” of the President.
She couldn’t hide her impatience and disdain for the President. Staff, loyal to the President, began to complain about the COO’s attitude. By year’s end, she was asked to go.
In this case, the fault was primarily hers, not theirs. She lacked sufficient self-awareness to recognize that she was not cut out for life in the slower lane. With no ill intent, she sold them a bill of goods — all true. She definitely could grow the business. She was clearly competent to do the job. She also thought she wanted to work in a differently paced company. She simply lacked self-awareness and self-acceptance. You have to know who you are — including your strengths and weaknesses — and then accept the facts with no self-deception.
Self-awareness for executives
I have seen successful entrepreneurs fail miserably when they tried to stay with their companies after they have grown to a much larger size. For these companies, what was needed was someone well-suited to institutionalize systems and processes that would create efficiencies and allow their company to compete in a mature marketplace.
It seems obvious that the one significant way you can avoid becoming another member of the 50% Failure Club is to become sufficiently aware of yourself: your strengths, limitations, and passions. Many executives, however, suffer from the delusion that they are multi-talented, versatile and highly adaptable. Roughly translated, this becomes, “I can do anything I put my mind to!” But management gurus from Peter Drucker to Jim Collins and Marcus Buckingham will tell you otherwise. And, from my experience coaching and working with hundreds of executive, I agree.
How to build self-awareness
At some point in your career, usually at the point when you are being asked to replicate your successes either in another role in your current company or being recruited into another company, it would be wise to conduct an objective third-party assessment of yourself. The top-of-the-line assessment process would include going through a 360-degree feedback (multi-rate) process, where you are rated by others on your leadership and management abilities.
The research on 360 assessments supports that the views of your peers regarding your competency on the job is highly predictive of how well you will do in that environment. In addition, you should take a leadership-oriented personality assessment that will help you understand how your personality impacts your effectiveness. These assessments will help you understand yourself — and your capabilities in any specific organization — much better.
These assessments will raise a number of questions, including:
- Do you have a good handle on your thinking style?
- How easily and with what tools do you solve problems?
- Do you fully understand your work style?
- How well do you understand your approach to (and interest in) interacting with others?
- How well do you understand what gives you passion in your work?
- Do you have the skillset needed for the work?
- How well do you handle criticism or discomfort?
All of these questions can lead a true executive to higher levels, but they will also shed light on a person whose true strengths do not lie in leadership. Of course, this should be used by any executive considering a move to a new position or who is considering staying with a growing company. However, these assessments can also be used by the Board to ensure a viable hire.
At the end of the day, executives fail in new jobs because they neglected one important truth: If you want to be successful — “Know thyself.”