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Career derailment and leadership 13/01/2011

After a stellar career and a promising future still ahead, many executives and newly appointed leaders may find themselves alienated and struggling to keep the momentum going. During such times, coaching plays an invaluable role in revealing the blind spots and keeping their career on track.

Career derailment and leadership

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  1. Adapting to change
  2. The personality within
  3. Self-awareness and honesty
  4. How coaching can help
  5. The coaching journey
  6. Deeper insight
  7. Useful links
  8. Recommended reading

Adapting to change

With impeccable track record, ability and ‘tried and tested’ formulas behind them, some struggling executives may find it difficult to navigate a turbulent patch in their career development. Career derailment has more to do with lack of self-awareness and inability to adapt to new situations than someone’s competence per se. After a flying start to their career, some executives fail to appreciate what they must change within themselves to continue performing at their peak, while in a different situation, role or company.

The personality within

One of the issues is that, in many cases, the personality traits that allowed executives to be high achievers in their career in the first place are the same which, at some point, can hinder their path. For example, blind determination, self sufficiency and an extremely competitive character may be commendable in the early years, but when leading a team, the ability to listen to others, delegate and create a vision which reflects the organisation’s aims become much more desirable.

Self-awareness and honesty

For those accustomed to success, going out of their comfort zone and exploring what types of behaviour, beliefs and mind set are no longer needed, or indeed detrimental, can be hard to do and even harder to sustain. This calls for a high level of self-awareness and a brutal self-honesty that goes way beyond identifying gaps in skill, knowledge or experience.

But with the support of a coach, these individuals are able to develop a different, more suitable and productive approach, not only to themselves as leaders but also to their organisation.    

How coaching can help

Executive coaches work with clients to explore their focus and direction, values, identity and leadership style. This process helps executives to identify and work on a path that will strengthen their position of leadership while shedding old patterns of behaviours which are hindering and threatening their career progress.

The coaching journey

Peter J. Webb describes the coaching journey as a progressive exploration of five levels of meaning:

1. The executive’s environment
2. The executive’s behaviour
3. Attitudes
4. Deep structure of the person
5. Deepest structure

The first two are external. The first looks into the executive’s environment, including strategic thinking as well as the structures and systems that allow executives to implement their plans. The second concerns the executive’s behaviour, including communication methods, relationship management, and managerial style.

The next three levels are internal. Through the coaching journey, leaders are able to explore beliefs and values and how those impact their work, relationships and the choices they make, both in their personal as well as working life. The deep structure looks into the person’s defences and unconscious beliefs, while the deepest structure concerns the cornerstone of someone’s identity.

Deeper insight

So, while at the start of the coaching process, coach and executive may be looking at what is out there and how the executive sees himself within the big picture, as the coaching progresses, the objective is to explore deeper levels. The insights gained from this process can then be integrated to the external level, i.e. strategic thinking and organisation structures and processes, allowing executives to grow within their role and use self- awareness to guide their action within the organisation.

As workplace dynamics become more complex and companies are having to deal with increasing economic and industry pressures, supporting executives in their journey of self-development is paramount. Training, skills and expertise are all undoubtedly needed. But only the sustainable and successful development of individuals can have a lasting impact on the organisation and take it to the next level. As Webb puts it: “Progress is only possible through openness, trust, self-appraisal, and realisation.”

Useful links


Recommended reading

Psychology Review, Volume 1, No 2, November 2006

 Ana Paula Nacif, Association for Coaching, Rock the Boat Consulting

Ana Paula Nacif, Association for Coaching, Rock the Boat Consulting

Ana is a senior associate at Rock the Boat, which specialises in talent and leadership assessment, development, coaching and mentoring. Ana’s expertise is in the areas of career progression, work-life balance, personal development and performance management.