How to Avoid Derailment

Posted 12.01.2008

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I took some time to catch up on my reading.  It’s probably a bit of self-selection, but I’m seeing and hearing a lot on previously successful companies and executives running off the rails.  It raises the question at both the macro and micro levels, how do you avoid derailment?

Cadillac The current issue of Fortune magazine provides what may be the ultimate case study of derailment at the macro level in its cover story, GM: Death of an American Dream. Written by the magazine’s longtime auto industry reporter, Alex Taylor III, the article is a succinct but sad summary of what went wrong at GM.  The cause in three words or less:  way too comfortable.  In even the largest organizations, success or failure always comes down to leadership.  While complimenting GM executives as “modern-day Eagle Scouts,” Taylor goes on to diagnose the core leadership dynamic that has caused GM to derail:

“But in working for the largest company in the industry for so long, (GM executives) became comfortable, insular, self-referential, and too wedded to the status quo — traits that persist even now, when GM is on the precipice. They prefer stability over conflict, continuity over disorder, and GM's way over anybody else's.”

I’ve written here before that one of my favorite quotes to use in presentations is one that comes from a New York Times profile on Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, last year:

“One of the evolutionary laws of business is that success breeds failure; the tactics and habits of earlier triumphs so often leave companies — even the biggest, most profitable and most admired companies — unable to adapt.”


Success breeds failure because we become comfortable and confident continuing to do what has worked for us in the past.  It’s as true at the micro (individual) level as it is at the macro level.  In a brief podcast interview, Doug Ready, visiting professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, notes that the reason so many executives derail when they take on bigger responsibilities is that they just can’t stand the discomfort that comes with making the needed behavioral changes to become successful enterprise White paper leaders.

This is the central idea behind the research for my book, The Next Level, and a white paper my company has just released on new prescriptions for executive success.  Change, whether it’s driven by a changing external environment or a promotion to the next level, requires getting used to picking up new behaviors and letting go of others even if they’ve made you successful in the past.   That’s how you avoid derailment.

How do you know if you’re succeeding in making these changes?   If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not making the changes.