Seven tips for heading off derailment

I know personally at least 10 successful leaders who have “derailed” in the last few years because of their poor decisions. In some cases, poor judgment has cost them a job promotion or got them fired. In other cases, the consequences of their decisions were more serious: forced career change, major financial loss, broken families and divorce and/or legal ramifications.

What contributed to the poor decisions that derailed these leaders? And, how can we avoid being derailed – especially major derailment?

What leads to derailment?

Research by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), Development Dimensions International (DDI) and others (e.g., Korn Ferry / Lominger) has shown several contributors to stalled careers or derailment for executive leaders:

  • Skill deficits – difficulty building and leading a team, difficulty changing or adapting, etc.
  • Knowledge gaps – too narrow functional orientation, etc.
  • Performance shortfalls – e.g., failure to meet business objectives
  • Ineffective personal attributes – arrogant, perfectionist, etc.

Many of these contribute to the poor judgment and performance that derails a career. And some – especially decisions and actions that breach trust or violate ethical or legal standards – are major derailers that impact life far beyond job promotion.

How can you avoid derailing – especially major derailment?

Here a few tips based on research and my work with hundreds of leaders to help ensure you don’t go off the rails:

  1. Increase self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Are you aware of your blind spots, vulnerabilities and chinks in your armor? Do you know how you come across to others? Do you know how you can leverage your strengths to help you with the areas where you’re not as strong? Can you manage your ‘hot button areas’ constructively?
  2. Make a plan and work it. Do you know which career derailment factors need your attention? A 360 degree assessment, along with the help of trusted mentors and an executive coach are great resources for creating and implementing a development plan to address these.
  3. Take care of yourself. If you’re under prolonged stress and pressure, you’re at extra risk of making poor decisions. We know we should exercise, eat well and get rest. Yet many of us neglect these healthy habits and underestimate their power for strengthening health, energy, alertness, mood, productivity and good judgment – especially in times of stress. The same is true for relationships and activities that energize and nourish us.
  4. Plan for work valleys in between the peaks. One leader I know wisely ensures he and his teams proactively plan valleys, so work is not only made up of peaks. Do you really have to work every weekend? When is the last time you took 24 hours completely off? Schedule and keep important non-work commitments like you would a client commitment. Remember: the Out of Office message on your email or voice mail is your friend; use it to stay sane and to help manage expectations when you need to unplug.
  5. Beware of isolation; build close relationships. In my observation, isolation is the single biggest contributor to poor judgment and major derailment. Do you have people around you that give you regular support and encouragement – at work and outside of work? And do you let people close enough that they will offer helpful challenge and constructive criticism? Solo decision-making is not ideal even when you’re at your best; and it’s downright dangerous when you’re under pressure, physically exhausted and emotionally or spiritually depleted.
  6. Ask for help. Whether it’s asking for advice on a difficult career decision, asking for feedback on how you handled a tricky conversation, or asking for support in a tough situation you face or an area of vulnerability, asking for help in advance is a whole lot wiser and easier than picking up the broken pieces after you went it alone.
  7. Be accountable. Usually, poor major decisions follow several foolish or questionable little decisions. If you involve others who care, support and challenge you on the little decisions and little mistakes, you will be more likely to stay on course and not make the bigger errors in judgment that lead to major derailment.

Thank goodness for second chances after derailment. But why not avoid the cost, pain and damage of derailment to us and others, where we can?

Image copyright Dorothy Carse: licensed for reuse

 Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders get and stay on track. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.