Jessica had been on the high potential list every year since she started with her biotechnology company. She was moved into a variety of roles, taking on different responsibilities and succeeding each time. She was known as a strong leader because of her ability to achieve results. When she was moved into the Director of Operations role things started to change. Within 6 months of taking the role, she wasn’t delivering the results everyone thought she was capable of delivering. Her team was contentious and morale was wavering. What was going on? Had Jessica topped out her potential, a living example of the Peter Principle? Had she lost her ability to lead?
Of course she didn’t lose her ability to lead. Her abilities and skills had not just simply vanished but other parts of the situation had changed. I’ve seen five common reasons why a leader who has been effective in the past is now failing.
1. Some skills, critical skills were overlooked before. Let’s talk about the obvious reason first. Some leaders have not developed key skills that they need to be successful. Just like brilliant students who breeze through school, sometimes people climb to positions of leadership because they are brilliant marketers, brilliant scientists, or brilliant (put your profession here). But along the road to success, the people around this leader choose to overlook a key skill (or two or three) until it can’t be overlooked any more and causes huge issues. For example, if we go back to Jessica, throughout her career it was noted in talent reviews that she could be abrasive and often got things done through force of will rather than by building relationships and coalitions. She thought of herself as ‘results-focused.’ When she moved into her Operations role, it became imperative for her to build relationship with peers in other parts of the organization to get results. Interestingly, her ‘results-focus’ is what got in the way.
2. Cultural mismatch. This is a common reason why leaders who have been wildly successful in one environment for a long time, fail miserably in a very short time in another. The way a person operates and becomes successful in one culture can be very different from another. For example, a leader may have been very successful in a culture that valued quick decision making and risk taking. Put that same leader in an environment driven by consensus and a desire to explore issues from every angle before moving forward and wait for the results.
3. Process and system mismatch. In the 1800’s, some people did very well in the wild, wild west and others went back home to the security of their established communities. Some leaders are very adept at working in environments with less defined processes and systems. They either work without them or really enjoy putting them in place. Others thrive in environments where processes and systems are clearly defined. Think of the serial entrepreneur who is put into a large, complex organization that has acquired his firm. Change was a way of life in his entrepreneurial firm but isn’t in this large organization. Leading change in the former was easy; everyone thrived on it. In the new organization it takes real work. The processes that exist are meant to maintain the status quo not change it and people in his new organization wonder why he was once perceived as someone who drove change.
4. Lack of management support. Even the most seasoned executive needs people in her corner. She needs people who support her success. She may need coaching and mentoring to navigate the new role. Even the best CEO won’t succeed if the Chairman of the Board decides she is not the person for the job and needs to go.
5. Organization structure. We all have been in situations where roles aren’t clear, responsibilities are redundant, unnecessary internal competition is the norm, resources aren’t available or decision making is lost in layers of management morass. Leaders can find themselves in the same situations. I worked for an organization once that routinely pitted leaders against each other by giving them the same issue to address or initiative to lead in different parts of the organization without each leader knowing about the other’s charge. There could only be one winner in this situation so one of them automatically was going to fail.