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Having Problems Getting Ahead?

How to Recognize and Overcome Key Leadership Career Derailers

getting_aheadWe all know at least one person who has been pigeon-holed in the same mid-management job for the past twenty years. He works well, gets things done on time, and doesn’t make waves, but he doesn’t make any real professional progress either. What’s preventing his upward mobility? Why hasn’t he risen to a leadership role? Why has his career, maybe even yours, stalled?

Let’s face it … we all have positive attributes, strengths, and skills that have gotten us where we are today. This is the plus side of the equation. Now, let’s look at where we might be deficient. Are you a good communicator? Can you motivate others? Are you aware of how you come across to others? Do you take an oppositional view when it comes to change? Are you a good listener? Do you nurture solid relationships with the decision makers?

If you’ve answered honestly and said “no” to any of these questions, then you’ve just pinpointed an area that’s a likely derailer or personal career stopper. If you answered “yes” to everything, then you’re probably not being honest with yourself.That’s because rarely do we see ourselves as others do and, rarely, do we admit to our own shortcomings or recognize behaviors that may be sabotaging our careers. It just may be time to take a long, hard, honest look at yourself. Luckily, experts report that there are ways to “get back on track” which include soliciting input from your peers, direct reports, and your boss.

Peter Rosen, president of HR Strategies & Solutions in Atlanta, sees career stallers or derailers as behaviors that may limit or prevent an otherwise qualified person from succeeding. “Even a behavior that propelled you to where you are today may need to be modified once you’re promoted. Otherwise, it may stop you from going further — or cause you to fail,” he says.

The salesman whose single-minded focus and aggressive, straightforward manner, for example, helped him achieve outstanding sales figures may be too abrasive for his new management team. He may need to work on building a better rapport with his direct reports. Suddenly, his winning trait has become a roadblock on his path to leadership success.

Like our salesman, a common stumbling block for many is poor communications and a lack of interpersonal skills. It’s the key to motivating others, providing direction, and getting ideas across.

Successful Leaders Are Great Communicators

For some individuals, communicating via the written word is a challenge. For others, oral presentations are awkward or even terrifying. But the real problem with communication is lack of empathy, according to James Waldroop, co-author of The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back: Overcoming the Behavior Patterns that Keep You from Getting Ahead, and developer of the Internet-based interactive career assessment program. CareerLeader®. “Communication is based on another skill,” says Waldroop, “understanding other people — not using the same communication style with everyone you talk to.”

He sees leaders as “cultural the speech and behavior patterns of those around them. For instance, are Ted’s behavior and perspective different from Diane’s? Does he look at things in terms of productivity, while she speaks in terms of retention? During the first month in any new position with a new team, Waldroop recommends writing down what you observe about co-workers. “Don’t just trust this to memory” he cautions. “To get the most out of your team, you want to get to know each person on it, learn what’s important to him or her, and discover what trigger words are important to them.”

According to Waldroop, an “empathically tone deaf” manager who believes that everyone on his team thinks and feels as he does is operating egocentrically. He needs to learn how to personalize his communication style if he wants to inspire them. It’s about knowing how to read your audience and tailoring your tone and content accordingly. The same holds true for written communications.

When asked what behavior sinks most managers, Jack Zenger, co-author of The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate, said it’s first and foremost interpersonal incompetence. “It’s the leader’s inability to get along with other people, to communicate effectively, work collaboratively, and offer help when needed, that can be devastating,” said Zenger. “When a leader doesn’t understand the negative impact he’s having on others, and can’t see the demoralizing consequences on those around him, he destroys trust, hurts morale, and ends up with an uninspired team. Sooner or later this will derail his career.”

Maureen Moriarty, leadership development trainer and executive coach at Pathways to Change, agrees: “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with people and at the end of the day, emotional intelligence and will matter more, the further up you move in your career, than your technical expertise.”

For an individual to reach the top levels in an organization, John Beeson, principal of Beeson Consulting and author of “Why You Didn’t Get that Promotion: Decoding the Unwritten Rules of Corporate Advancement” (June 2009, Harvard Business Review), says you must possess higher order communication skills and be able to communicate a vision and a sense of direction and priorities, as well as engage people. He points out that “if your lack of empathy is so acute that you are insensitive, abrasive, missing cues about what others are thinking and feeling, and lose your team or your audience, then that can derail your career.”

Get Back on Track: Practice your communications skills on friends and family, get critiques from close colleagues, consider getting professional assistance from an executive coach, and work on tone and inflection with a speech coach.

Resistance to change is another huge stumbling block. Rigid thinking, a strong opposition to change, an unwillingness to learn new skills and an “it works why fix it” attitude can drown your potential for leadership advancement and even jeopardize your position.

Successful Leaders Embrace Change

“Right now, organizations have a green light, because of the market economy, to cut in places they might not have cut in the past,” says Justin Honaman, Director of Customer Intelligence for Coca-Cola Customer Business Solutions and author of Make it Happen! Live Out Your Personal Brand. Companies often see managers who are not open to change, not flexible and not willing to learn new things, as not a good fit. “Those individuals may be great contributors,” Honaman says, “but, not the right ones to move into

“Managing and driving change is a primary responsibility of leaders in an organization,” says Mike Noble, managing partner of the Boston-based Camden Consulting Group, “especially with the speed and pace that technological change is occurring. Being able to lead your organization through that is critical. If you haven’t got the capability to drive change effectively, you’re not likely to be successful.”

Why then are so many of us resistant to change? “At the root is insecurity,” says Rusty Rueff, co-author of Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business and frequent contributor to Glassdoor.com. “Most of us are comfortable in our routines and when asked to change, resist because we feel vulnerable. We often ignore invitations to change and wait until the situation demands it; but, by then, it may be too late.” Rueff goes on to explain that most bosses realize that change can involve a few missteps and some uncertainty, but they generally look upon an openness to change as moving the individual and the company in the right direction.

Accepting change means being flexible. It involves a willingness to consider different approaches to handling a task or solving a problem, an eagerness to learn new skills, and openness to the ideas of less experienced team members.

“Leaders shouldn’t feel threatened or embarrassed when subordinates come up with good ideas,” says Zenger. “Instead they need to realize that 70% or more of the great solutions bubble up from underneath and don’t trickle down from on high. The most effective leaders recognize the value of those ideas and nurture and implement them, rather than say ‘no’ to them.”

Keep in mind that, as a manager, your rigidity can rob your team of it’s drive, squash creative thinking, and deflate enthusiasm. In the long run, your inflexibility can hinder productivity and keep you from getting ahead.

Get Back on Track: Be willing to learn, to listen, and to share with co-workers. Make yourself approachable and open by not discounting the opinions of other. And, be eager to experiment with new ideas. A positive attitude toward change can swing open doors to personal growth and upward mobility within a company.

So, now that you’ve improved your communications skills and you’re more open to new ideas, your next hurdle will be to get these changes implemented — and that may come down to who you know. If you refuse to build genuine relationships with the decision makers, then your career is doomed to stop short of a leadership role.

Successful Leaders Build Influential Relationships

Call it “playing politics” and many of us shun the idea. But, if instead, you see it as pulling together a strong network of decision makers who can help bring about the best outcomes for your organization, then you are moving in the direction of becoming more influential.

“Once you reach the manager or director level, the ability to continue to rise through an organization demands an understanding of internal politics,” states Sherry Read, principal of Read Solutions Group, an executive coaching and strategic human resource consulting firm in Wilmington, DE. “Otherwise, you simply won’t get to the top.” Read believes those who choose not to build political influence skills and who rely on hard work and logic to get ahead are missing the boat. Still, she admits it can be difficult to change a personal belief such as “politics are bad.” So instead, she turns things around by advising clients to ask themselves: How can I become more influential? What does it take to learn to influence people toward the outcomes that I believe in?

Marsha Egan, CEO of the Egan Group, Reading, PA, agrees that it’s important to be organizationally savvy. “What’s crucial is clueing into who the influencers are and aligning with someone who is seen in a positive light. By carefully observing the corporate culture, you can become politically astute. It’s not game playing; it’s the ability to gather intelligence that opens the door for you to build mutually respectful, supportive relationships that will help the company.”

Both women see politics as the ability to use analytical and networking skills to gather information about what motivates people and how corporate decisions are made.

Those individuals who see probing others for information as manipulative can take a less self-serving approach by keeping others in the loop. “Help others by sharing things that could be of value to them,” suggests Read. The bottom line is to do what’s in the best interest of the organization — then, you’ll get ahead.

To those who view politics as a dirty game, Waldroop poses the question: “Do you want to be right or effective or do you want to be both, and learn some new tricks?” Waldroop reminds us that it’s about getting our ideas adopted because they’re good ideas it’s not just about having the ideas. Learning the right “chess moves” can be fun, and effecting change can be exhilarating, once you appreciate how the system works.

Jane Perdue of The Braithewaite Group, Charleston, SC, thinks politics has gotten a bad rap. “It’s about nurturing alliances and building coalitions that have the power to help you promote your ideas. It’s working with and through people to make things happen.”

Get Back on Track: Watch to see who can heIp you move a new idea forward. Invite a decision maker to lunch. Get to know the influencers in a casual, non-business way, find out how you can heIp them, and cement long-lasting bonds. Now you’re able to communicate with your team, you’re open to good ideas, and you’ve made alliances with key decision makers, but your vision is too tightly focused on short-term goals. You’re missing the big picture, fail to track trends, and lack insight when it comes to future forecasting. Your failure to strategize may have your career handcuffed.

Successful Leaders Think Strategically

A look at peak performers shows a common thread: the ability to think strategically. Dr. Diane Kramer, developer of Extraordinary Self Development Programs, suggests creating “future maps” based on observations about yourself, your organization, the global community, and external industry trends. These maps allow you to step into the future from different perspectives. With constant updating, with the latest real information, mapping gives you a better sense of the direction things are headed and can guide you toward making some intuitive predictions.

The transition from good manager to effective leader can be fraught with challenges. “For many, the biggest is getting out of the details and being able to look across initiatives in order to see how these things add up to the big picture,” says Honaman. “It’s being able to strategically pick and choose where you spend your time in order to add value.”

In order to start thinking strategically. executives need to step back from their day-to-day tasks and get a fresh perspective. “Most of us have the capacity to think strategically, but we simply don’t get around to it;’ says Egan. She recommends going to industry conventions. “It takes you away from everyday projects, gives you a chance exposes you to new ideas. You come back seeing things from a new angle and can start thinking with greater vision.

If you can’t envision where you’re going, then how in the world are you going to get there? Strategic planning is a critical force that affects day-to-day choices and helps guide the direction in which you, your department, and your company move. Without a sense of strategic thinking, and the ability to project forward, your company won’t move ahead and neither will your career.

Get Back on Track: Widen your horizons outside of work, read more, including consumer and industry magazines, surf the Internet, and talk to people. If you do, you’ll begin to see trends in the making. Also, be sure to set aside time each week for strategic planning. If necessary, elicit the aid of a strategic planning consultant to get you started.

Your Next Move: Getting Feedback

Over the past ten years, executive coaching has become a widely accepted practice. In fact, it is estimated that, today, upwards of 90% of Fortune 500 companies use coaching as an important tool in their executive development kits. But, if you have a willingness to change, then simply start by asking your coworkers and higher ups for honest feedback. Or as one executive coach tells his clients, start by asking a trusted colleague the following question: If I want to really grow within this organization, what’s one thing I need to improve? Or, get outside assistance. Most executive coaching firms offer a professional 360 degree feedback assessment tool to help get you back on track.

Good luck!

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