High flyers sometimes in for a crash landing

The Life: John Wills explains why so many executives are falling off the management track.

John Wills says most executives fall off the management track. Sammy Dallal / The National
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John Wills is the London Business School's director of accelerated development programme. On a recent visit to Dubai, he explained why so many executives are falling off the management track.

You've looked closely at what is called "executive derailment". What does that mean?

It's really what per cent of individuals do not reach the next level in their career. They were on track, they're high potential and looking like they'll make it to the senior level of their organisation - but something happens and they suddenly derail.

So what happens?

They suddenly find themselves where they're no longer able to advance because there's a misfit between their personal skills and the new job they're meant to take on. What happens is something about the work that they do changes.

And they don't change to adapt to that new job?

Yes, that's quite the problem. They don't change. The work changes around them.

What portion of executives get derailed?

The numbers are a little scary. If you had 100 managers identified as high potentials by their employer, only 25 per cent would still be on track after five years.

That means three quarters of them are out of contention for top spots at that company. What happens to these managers?

About 25 per cent plateau. Another 25 per cent get fired or are made redundant. Another 25 per cent leave the organisation because they either get recruited away, or they decide to leave.

At what point in their careers are managers most likely to derail?

You could derail at various stages of a career: early on, when you're going into your first management role. Any point between there and your second major career transition, from head of market or sales to running a business unit or country as part of a big conglomerate. The third [most common] point is when you move from running a subsidiary or business unit to an entire organisation.

Is this much of a problem in this region?

I get the sense this is the same in the Middle East, because of talent shortages with managers. You make these investments in people and they fail to deliver. That's quite expensive for the organisation.

How can companies help prevent this from happening?

Selfishly, we'd like to allow for continued opportunities for executive education. That's one of the more measurable and valuable ways. The second is the organisational culture, and understanding that individuals need to succeed and to get rid of barriers. Provide training. Individuals going into the most senior levels need to be mentored.

What should managers be doing to better their chances for advancement?

An individual has to take responsibility of this. They have to recognise they need to re-develop and continuously develop. They think they can do what they did in the past, and that's not going to work.