Is The Wrong Stuff Stalling Your Career?

We live in a feel-good era when everyone gets a prize for participating. Many people agree with the adage that feedback is the breakfast of champions, but hardly anyone seems willing to provide the straight talk that uncovers blind spots or bumps in the road. Many “performance reviews” are little more than hug fests.

The cost is huge. Some studies show that half to two-thirds of business managers will be fired, demoted, or will simply plateau at some point in their careers.

Why? Because the behaviors that really matter are not getting the attention they deserve.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Carter Cast, a seasoned business executive and academic, has written a new book that provides helpful insights into avoiding common career-busters. It’s titled The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade. 

I visited with Cast to learn more about his views on the important issue of career management.

Rodger Dean Duncan: A theme of your book is that too much “strength” talk can contribute to career derailments and that more “straight” talk is needed. Can you elaborate?

Carter Cast: I think the “strengths movement,” popularized by the books Now, Discover Your Strengthsand StrengthsFinder 2.0 is a positive development. What’s not to like about a philosophy that focuses on our upside—one based on the premise that we’re happier and perform better when we understand what we’re good at and put ourselves into jobs that leverage those strengths? The problem comes when it’s taken too far and used to the exclusion of other methods of self-examination and career development.

Two problems surface when companies focus excessively on the positive. First, not all strengths are of equal importance. What you’re good at might not be what your firm needs you to be good at. The value placed on particular strengths often depends on the job context; the strengths needed usually vary by industry type, by job function, and by firm size and stage of development. You may have a set of skills or several strong behavioral traits that just aren’t of primary importance for your company at a particular point in time. For example, you may be an empathetic person with excellent account management skills but that may not be of primary importance if you’re at an early stage venture that needs you to have outstanding selling skills to bring in new accounts.

Second and more damaging is that the overreliance on “focusing on your strengths” can mask a critical skill gap or a personal blind spot that can stop a talented person’s career in its tracks. Derailment research shows that careers stall more from having the “wrong stuff” (e.g., being insensitive to others) than lacking the “right stuff” (e.g., not having strong analytical skills). Competency assessments are widely used to gauge positive personal traits such as mental horsepower, emotional intelligence, and decisiveness as well as job skills, such as technical knowledge.

The problem is, these assessments gauge the “right stuff” but do not examine the “wrong stuff,” areas where people are vulnerable to derailment. The reason boils down to a preference for focusing on the positive—competency development—and not addressing the negative—fixing issues that may lead to derailment. But without having these necessary hard conversations, people suffer because they’re left unaware of a blind spot or area of vulnerability instead of being able to develop a plan to resolve or mitigate it. As a result, people are not receiving the personal feedback they need to improve, and their careers are suffering.

Duncan: A lot of people conducting performance reviews seem to avoid discussing vulnerabilities or blind spots. Why is that? Is it lack of skill, lack of courage, or something else?

Cast: You’re certainly right about that. Research from Lominger, a talent development firm, shows that of the many competencies they track, in terms of managerial effectiveness, “developing others” is rated dead last and “confronts direct reports” is near the bottom as well. So it’s safe to say that these conversations aren’t happening inside the walls of companies. Why? Clearly, these are hard conversations to have. No one wants to confront a direct report and tell them they’re ineffective in an area and need to improve. But if that tough conversation is just one of many developmental conversations you’re having with a direct report—some being positive, some being neutral—then it’s more likely your direct report believes that you’re well intended and has their best interests in mind. They probably won’t get angry, defensive, or flat out shut down in the face of your tough feedback, because they know that you’re trying to develop them and this tough conversation is just one of many conversations you’re having about their career. It’s when a boss isn’t communicative with a subordinate and then comes down like a pile driver only during annual review time that there’s a problem.

Duncan: You write about the reasons for career derailment in terms of five archetypes. One of those you call Captain Fantastic. What are the symptoms of the Captain Fantastic syndrome?

Cast: These are the folks whose sharp elbows bruise you on their quest for the Holy Grail of the corner office. They may be sharp, but they give you razor burn. They suffer from interpersonal issues because of excessive ego drive and dismal listening skills, resulting in poor working relationships with coworkers. Captain Fantastics have this mantra of “I-me-mine.” They don’t use the word “we” in many of their sentences. They initially rise up through the organization, but, because they alienate others, when they’re placed in broader and more complex roles that require the support of others, more often than not, like Icarus, they flame out.

Duncan: What are some good approaches or tools in helping a Captain Fantastic overcome self-defeating behaviors?

Cast: The central problem plaguing Captain Fantastic is a lack of self-awareness. The chances are good that he doesn’t realize the extent to which his insensitivity and naked career ambition is hurting the way he’s perceived by his co-workers. People instinctively back away from the Captain –they don’t want to work with him. The best thing we can do to this guy is hold a mirror up to his face so he can finally see his blind spot. Conduct a 360-degree feedback review so he can see the extent to which he’s alienating his subordinates and peers. If he “gets it” after that, next I’d probably work with him on his listening skills. Captain Fantastics usually don’t listen very well – they’re too busy reloading. Counsel him to listen without interrupting, avoiding the tendency to jump in and “add value” to someone’s point. Before he speaks, he needs to ask himself, “Does my comment really further the dialogue on this topic?”