When Successful Managers Go off the Rails - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #136

When Successful Managers Go off the Rails

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Managers who are solidly established in their organizations and boast impressive track records can suddenly find their careers ‘derailed.’ They no longer have the skills, mindset, personality or reputation that made them effective leaders in the past; eventually they are demoted, fired or asked to take early retirement. New research from the Center of Creative Leadership confirms the causes of such derailment and also identifies what managers and companies can do today to prevent situations that are not only devastating to the individuals but also costly to their organizations.


Derailment is the term assigned to the phenomenon of once-successful managers whose careers have ‘gone off the track.’ They are no longer effective in their functions or as leaders. They are no longer promotable. They are no longer contributing to the organization, despite years of experience and accumulated knowledge. What happened? Through a number of years of study, researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC identified the five causes of derailment:

  1. Failure to meet business objectives. Once successful and effective managers become poor performers because they have become easily overwhelmed, overcommitted and/or overconfident in their abilities.
  2. Problems with relationships. As managers move up, they lose their ability to develop good relationships with others. Instead, they become insensitive, manipulative, demanding and even not trustworthy.
  3. Difficulty changing and adapting. Some managers are unable to change their management style or to learn from feedback and mistakes.
  4. Difficulty building and leading a team. As managers move up in the organization, more and more emphasis is placed on the ability to get results by hiring the right people and influencing them effectively to get results.
  5. Too narrow managerial experiences. Some managers are successful when they stay in their own functions, but are incapable of working across functions or gaining a perspective beyond their own functional areas – a requirement for individuals in higher-level general management positions.

A new survey by researchers Jean Brittain Lesly, senior manager of CCL’s Tools & Instrument Group, and Kelly Hannum, manager of research at CCL, reveals more details about these five derailment causes and how they impact careers and organizations today. The survey, conducted in partnership with Yi Zhang, a former CCL researcher now at the College of Business of Zayed University, asked more than 2600 managers in five countries to rate the five causes based on how much each cause was a concern for managers at their level (mid-manager, executive, etc.).

Overall, managers rated too narrow managerial experience as the most important and prevalent reason for derailment. This was especially true, however, for upper-middle, senior and top-level managers. For middle managers, difficulty in building and leading a team was nearly as problematic for career potential.

Middle managers also differed in their perception of the potential for derailment; specifically middle managers considered the derailment of their careers less likely than more senior-level managers – especially managers at the upper-middle levels.

The research also showed that managers in the U.S. are less likely to derail or to see the potential for derailment than their counterparts in Asia. Regardless of country, however, the same two suspects consistently emerged as the cause for derailment too narrow managerial experience and difficulty in building and leading a team. Based on sectors – the survey focused on the financial services and IT sectors because of their international growth and comparability–  too narrow managerial experience was again the top reason for derailment across the board.


Derailment is not just an individual success issue. The growing ineffectiveness of a long-time manager or executive can be costly for organizations in a number of ways including loss of profitability, turnover of key personnel, and the loss of strategic company knowledge. The intangible costs of the departure of a talented individual who has played various key roles during a long career with the firm is especially difficult to measure.

The CCL researchers offer steps at the individual, managerial and organizational level to help prevent the potential for derailment.

The focus at the individual level is awareness of weaknesses. Individuals should:

  • Take a 360-degree assessment instrument to increase the awareness of potential problems. Periodically solicit feedback from superiors, peers and direct reports.
  • Take responsibility for their own development. Learn what skills or abilities are needed for the positions to which they aspire.

Managers can reduce the derailment potential in others if they:

  • Are clear about the demands and expectations of the job,  both in terms of skills or abilities and in terms of behaviour (such as the ability to develop relationships with a variety of groups).
  • Delegate and empower employees so that they have the opportunity to develop.
  • Hire a diverse group of individuals – if group members have different strengths and weaknesses, the group as a whole will be more effective.

At the organizational level:

  • Career paths should be designed to move the manager across different functions and areas (what the authors call a “zigzag” career path).
  • Managers need to be supported in new positions – despite training, they will still need some guidance during the transition.
  • Offer assessments of potential problems as well as strengths.
  • Offer training to employees on how to provide feedback.

Derailed managers may go to another company where there is a better fit for his or her skillset and mindset, but this outcome is costly to the organization. Better to take steps now to prevent derailment.



‘Trouble Ahead: Derailment Is Alive and Well,’ Yi Zhang, Jean Brittain Leslie, and Kelly M. Hannum, Thunderbird International Business Review, 9 December 2012 DOI: 10.1002/tie.21525

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Idea conceived

December 19, 2012

Idea posted

May 2013
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