Five Fatal Flaws - How to derail your career

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. copyright 2007

Last month's executive briefing titled: The Number 1 Reason Executives Fail in New Jobs, was one of my most read briefings. More people "opened" this briefing than the one I wrote several months earlier titled: Accelerating Executive Effectiveness." It seems people may be a bit more paranoid about their jobs than I expected. And/or, bosses and investors might want to know what to look for to prevent a train wreck or to not hire one. Regardless, it appears I struck a vein and with that in mind, I'm following up with a more detailed look into the research on key derailment factors.

According to the massive research project conducted by Zenger & Folkman for their book The Extraordinary Leader, there are Five Fatal Flaws or five behaviors and attitudes that left uncorrected will derail any executives career. Zenger and Folkman looked at the results of over 200,000 360 feedback surveys conducted on 20,000 different executives. They discovered that there are a set of critical competencies that executives in the top 10% of pack embody, while those executives who failed needed to exhibit on a regular basis just one of 5 different flaws. "Possessing one or more of these virtually makes it impossible for a person to be perceived as an effective leader." The root cause of these Five Fatal Flaws is a fundamental lack of self-awareness and self-acceptance that I wrote about last month. That lack of self-awareness and self-acceptance leads to allowing oneself to be placed into the wrong job. Wrong person/Wrong Job - the number 1 reason people fail in new roles or jobs.

The five fatal flaws are:

1. Inability to learn from mistakes

What's interesting about this flaw is that the research indicates that "derailed executives made about the same number of mistakes as those whose careers continued onward and upward." Derailed executives, however, did not use setbacks or failures in an assignment as a learning experience. As a result, they continued to make the same type of mistakes over and over again. These type of executives tend to try to cover up failures and don't take steps to correct the mistakes for fear of being found out. The most common refrain of Board members or the derailed execs boss is, "We tried to tell him, but he would not listen." I constantly tell aspiring leaders: Successful people aren't perfect, they fail a lot because they take risks and, they make course correction fast when they are wrong.

2. Lack of core interpersonal skills and competencies

The lack of core interpersonal skills cannot be surmounted by any "combination of intelligence, hard work, business acumen and administrative skill." Zenger & Folkman list the "basic human skills" as:

  • When you talk to people, look them in the eyes.
  • Learn and use people's names.
  • When talking with people, say or do things that let the other person know you are listening and understanding.
  • Do not dominate the conversation and talk all the "air time."
  • Sincerely inquire about others' ideas and activities.
  • Laugh at others' jokes and attempts at humor.
  • Praise others' hard work and efforts in furthering a good cause.
  • Smile when meeting and greeting other people.

You may look at the list and wonder how anyone couldn't do the above. Unfortunately, the prevalence of interpersonal ineptness keeps a lot of developmental coaches very well employed. It's not without reason that the saying "we hire people for their technical competence and fire them for their interpersonal incompetence," has become a cliche.

3. Lack of openness to new or different ideas

This particular flaw is a major de-motivator for subordinates because they will feel "ignored, their ideas unappreciated and their contributions undervalued." Furthermore, the organization becomes stuck. New ideas are "squelched and people stop thinking about better ways to do things." The upshot is that talented people get frustrated with these types of leaders and leave for greener pastures. The organization then becomes ladened with "yes men" who are fearful and will not take any risks. Zenger & Folkman characterize these type of leaders as "arrogant and complacent." They feel threatened by good ideas coming from others but cover that up by the delusion that they are brilliant.

4. Lack of accountability

Executives who exhibit this characteristic tend to find fault in everybody else. They set the bar impossibly high for everyone else but themselves. Some are adept at scapegoating. Frequently they blame their bosses or others behind their backs. This flaw goes beyond the minimum requirement of accepting responsibility for one's personal behavior to that of "not assuming complete responsibility for the performance of a work group" or the organization. Effective leaders make decisions and accept responsibility for the results of those decisions. Effective leaders accept criticism for mistakes from upper management and "buffer" their subordinates "from excessive criticism." They pass along "praise and credit" for ideas and things produced by others under their direction. They put the "organizational goals ahead of their own department or unit." They place "more emphasis on acting responsibly than on their desires for power and authority." The "buck stops with them."

5. Lack of initiative

Lack of initiative is the failure to "make things happen." Effective leaders do not wait to see what happens and then responds. Effective leaders ask questions like:

  • What is missing that would make a big difference?
  • What could I do that would make a significant difference to the performance of my team or organization?

They then take steps to make those things happen.

What's interesting about all of these flaws is that they are basically "sins of omission." The are "marked primarily by an inability to do something."

Can the flaws be corrected? That depends. It depends on four critical factors. All four must be present:

1. The individuals willingness and capacity to acknowledge and accept critical feedback.

2. The individuals commitment to work on making the necessary changes over time. No silver bullets and quick cures because it will take time to convince others that the individual has made lasting changes.

3. The organization's willingness to give the person a second chance and to not harbor ill feelings. Key stockholders have to be able to forgive the flawed executive and give him/her a real chance to succeed. They need to be willing to forget past "sins" if the person makes real changes.

4. The organization's leadership willingness to allow sufficient time for the individual to make the necessary changes knowing that it's impossible for the change process to be a perfect linear progression upwards but instead is more likely a series of 2 steps forward with the inevitable one or more steps backward.

At the senior level most executive have the capacity to make the necessary changes. The real hurdle is - do they have the guts and stamina to work hard to make the changes? And, no matter how committed the individual is to changing, if their bosses aren't committed to giving them the necessary time, they are doomed. How much time? Minimum 6 usually 12 sometimes 18 months and that's assuming that they are only exhibiting one of the flaws. If they have more than one of the fatal flaws - even I would be hesitant to take on the challenge of coaching them?