April 1, 2013
This Is Why Smart Leaders Fail

When taking on new roles and expanded territory, a promising leader can fall flat. Even a proven leader can step up with the wrong approach. Despite their quality track records, these otherwise successful leaders may jump too hastily into their new opportunities.

Research firm Spencer Stuart released a study on this unfortunate phenomenon, probing the experiences of senior executives to identify the five most common ways smart leaders set themselves up to fail.

1. Misaligned Expectations

Don’t expect to reach your target if you don’t know what’s expected of you. Shifting to a completely new job or company is especially vulnerable to this issue. Inadequate definitions of anticipated goals (and doing nothing to clarify them) will quickly undermine success.

One common outdated expectation is the existence of a 90-day adjustment period. Spencer Stuart warns that failing to make an impact within just 30 days means risking the appearance of ineffectiveness.

The Fix: Use the recruiting phase to start understanding if and how your expectations will align with your new role. Once set up, set aside some time to familiarize yourself with the organization, but remember there’s no leeway to lollygag in a “transitional” phase.

2. Failing To Adapt

Smart leaders undoubtedly have brains and skills, but don’t be fooled in thinking these are enough to rise to the top. Relying on skill sets that are too narrow is often counter-productive, and the strengths that were helpful in one role can cause you to struggle in another.

As one HR executive warned, “If you don’t evolve and create a different kind of operating rhythm and new ways of interacting with the organization, while perfecting the way you communicate, you won’t be successful.”

The role of CEO is particularly complex with unknown factors and numerous obligations. Savvy executives learn to thrive from such ambiguity. One CEO described, “It’s like driving a really fast car and being prepared to go an extra 50 yards before you put your foot on the brake.”

The Fix: Be humble, self-aware and transparent. Cultivate broad sets of skills and knowledge to bring even more strength to new roles and responsibilities.

3. Underestimating The Power Of Relationships

When it comes to the power of networking, leaders are well aware that “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Likewise, Spencer Stuart found an executive’s success is directly related to the way he or she interacts with superiors, peers and direct reports.

Developing positive relationships leads to increased opportunities, advice and reverences.  Yet, the opposite is also true—the smartest person in the world won’t crawl far up the leadership ladder if he or she can’t interact, delegate and guide others effectively. 

The Fix: Go out of your way to meet people. Help employees and co-workers feel listened to and appreciated, and they’ll look up to you for it. 

4. Lack Of Self-Awareness

Take a moment to scrupulously ask yourself if you adequately understand your strengths and weaknesses. Do certain behaviors weaken your odds of succeeding in other areas? Do you have a sizeable ego or dive headlong into projects while ignoring the ideas and concerns of others?

Becoming self-aware requires strict and unbiased honesty with yourself. Frankness from others is also beneficial. Constructive criticism, for example, should never feel threatening—especially because those giving it are usually trying to help you assimilate into the new culture. This might take more effort, as one HR professional explained, “C-suite executives have a high degree of confidence, so they always have to try to listen because it’s always going to be a chore.”

The Fix: Develop a habit of assessing your leadership qualities and identifying what needs improvement. Learn to accept and thrive from helpful feedback. 

5. Cultural Mismatch

Sure, you may be a wild success, but the way you’ve always done things is not guaranteed to work in every situation. One executive described such cultural disparity as the “single element that people just completely and utterly misjudge or underweight.”

If standard methods turn out to be a poor fit, your success meter will start draining immediately. Even if your skills and experience align perfectly with a new job, be careful not to start breaking unwritten rules left and right. One executive explained, “If you come from a company where there is a very different set of cultural norms and you don’t understand that the cultural norms here are different . . . that is a big driver of failure.”

The Fix: Consciously look for cultural barriers and don’t underestimate them. Work to understand how your workplace functions and people interact. If you find you’re lacking in capabilities but can be a good cultural fit, don’t worry—skills are more easily attained.

These five pitfalls can befall any smart leader, but if heeded and avoided, new roles and opportunities can open numerous doors for professional growth.

What have you tried when it comes to overcoming leadership obstacles?