How to spot executive derailment and get them back on track

There’s a lot of advice out there about what HR people need to do develop the ‘rising stars’ of the future – but much less talk about how to deal with previously promising executives who have lost their sparkle.

So I was fascinated this week to read about a new research project from London Business School which looks at the key causes of an executive’s derailment and what can be done to get people who are struggling back on track.

HR can often see signs of an executive’s demise before they see it themselves. There may be mutterings among senior management about how an individual seems to have ‘lost their edge’. Or, they are left out of important project groups or not involved in taking key decisions when previously they would have been the ‘go to’ person.

This is bad news for the business, which has often invested a great deal of time and money in developing executives for greater things. The good news, however, is that according to the authors of the LBS study, it is possible for people who have derailed to bounce back.

So as an HR person, what are some of the key signs a senior manager is starting to flounder and what can you do to help them get back on track?

executives

You know they’re on their way down when…

1. Their energy and enthusiasm diminish. If someone who was full of ideas and always first to volunteer themselves and their team for new projects suddenly disappears into the woodwork, it’s time to take a look at what’s really going on. Has a failed initiative knocked their confidence? Are they struggling to cope with the pressure of a senior role where everyone expects them to know all the answers? Of course, there may also be personal issues at play. Managers often feel they need to put on a front and pretend that ‘everything is fine’, even when it clearly isn’t.

2. They are constantly behind the curve. The LBS study cites the inability to cope with change as one of the top five causes of executive derailment. We tend to assume that people in senior positions will have the resilience to cope with change, but that often isn’t the case, especially in ambiguous, fast-moving environments when priorities can shift almost overnight. Keep an eye out for those managers who seem to be struggling to keep up with what’s going on in the business and who may appear reluctant or slow to embrace the necessary changes.

3. They are struggling with the internal politics. Knowing ‘how things get done around here’ can be a struggle for someone who is new to the business, newly promoted or who thinks that organisational politics aren’t important. The LBS study found that ‘insufficent social capital’ was one of the key issues behind executives losing their footing. Look out for managers who don’t appear to have a strong internal network or who are struggling to get other senior colleagues round to their way of thinking.

You can help them get back on track by…

1. Help them find a mentor. Probably one of the most valuable interventions HR can make is to find a struggling manager a mentor. Look for senior managers in the organisation who could act as role models and who would be willing to take the individual under their wing. This will give the manager a valuable ‘safe’ space where they can discuss how to handle difficult issues and ask for advice without feeling that they are publicly exposing their weaknesses. Make sure that you position mentoring as developmental, rather than remedial – you’d be surprised at how many people think being offered a mentor is a sign of needing to be ‘fixed’ rather than a sign of the organisation being willing to invest in their future and help them be the best they can possibly be.

2. Helping them to develop self-awareness. Often people just really don’t know what their strengths and weaknesses are or why they react to change in the way that they do. Psychometric tests (applied by a qualified practitioner) can give people a really useful insight into how they are and how they operate – and can help them understand how to work with others more effectively. Research suggests that constructive feedback, however uncomfortable if often well received by more senior staff. A 360-degree feedback process can be invaluable in helping a struggling manager see why they may be experiencing roadblocks and understand what they need to change to get past them. Another approach to helping executives to cope with change is to encourage them to get out and meet people in different lines of business. Exposing ourselves to people who look at the world in a different way can help us adjust our own reference points and encourage a learning mindset.

3. Provide training in influencing skills. People who understand the art and science of influencing and are able to adapt their style according to the circumstances will always be more successful than those who just launch into conversations or negotiations unprepared. There are many executive development programmes available to help managers get to grips with the subtleties of influencing and to help them develop a toolkit of approaches and techniques they can use with everyone from senior peers to external stakeholders. If formal training isn’t an option, there are plenty of online resources and some excellent books on the market.

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