There’s nothing easy about being an executive—it’s a tough job. It’s so tough that even the smartest, most talented, and most successful leaders often stumble, quit, or even change careers.
As a matter of fact, about half of executives fail within their first two years on the job. It’s a stunning statistic, and often leads to simplistic explanations, like “that person was a bad fit.”
But understanding more about why executives fail is critical to preventing future failures and essential to building strong leadership at the top.
The mistake is to think that the jobs are just too hard and accept the high rate of failure. But we’ve worked with thousands of executives over the years. And most of the time, the challenges they’re facing are common. But no one talks about them.
The impact on performance varies depending on several factors. Some of the big factors are external, such as company cultures, a shift in strategy, or major industry disruption.
But what matters more is how executives handle these pressures. Somehow, the same challenges cause executives to trip, one after the next, including leaders with strong skills and track records. Every individual deals differently with them depending on their personal tendencies as well as the relative strength or weakness of their skills.
So What Are These Pitfalls?
1. An Unfiltered Focus
The magnitude of going from managing 30 people to 200 is huge. Suddenly, a lot more people are asking for time, attention, and resources. Wanting to build good relationships and find early success, the typical executive says “yes” to too many things. But down the road, too many priorities cause a lack of focus. While executives and their teams work to make progress on everything, they don’t make significant progress on anything.
How to recognize it: Usually you’ll see an incredibly busy department, possibly to the point of overload and fatigue. At the same time, little progress is made on key priorities. They miss deadlines, abandon projects, and frequently fall short.
2. Network Isolation
One of the most common reasons why executives fail is their struggle to build and maintain their networks. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good with people. Rather, they are used to operating independently. While that may have worked at lower levels, executives must think more broadly and proactively about how their work affects other groups. This pitfall has become especially common as more companies switch to remote work.
How to recognize it: You’ll start to see misalignment and conflicts between groups. Likewise, the executive will see unexpected stakeholder resistance, and a lack of advocacy for their team’s projects. One of the trickiest side effects is that they may get a positive response from their team that is tightly aligned. But that can coincide with low regard for other groups and a reluctance to adopt broader company change.
At lower levels, leaders often coach their teams on more technical matters in their area of expertise. But when they get to the executive level, it’s time to think more broadly about talent. “Un-coaching” happens when executives downplay or miss opportunities to coach, develop, and grow the skills of their team.
When you see a team that has high turnover—especially the unexpected departures of high performers—un-coaching may be occurring. In addition, among those who remain, there’s a high proportion of mediocre performers. You may also see low engagement scores and lagging performance across the department.