The 5 Warning Signs your New Leaders are Derailing


In our last newsletter we focused on the 12 Challenges First-time Managers Have and ways to support new leaders encountering these challenges. Expanding on this theme, we want to look at the small warning signs that could lead to bigger trouble down the line.

Gil could fix any problem you put in front of him. Need a report by noon? They gave it to Gil. Need to find something in the data that no one else could? Gil could find it, write about it and present it in a way that made sense. His technical expertise was sought after throughout the entire organization. You didn’t need to tell Gil what to do; he would just do it, and go above and beyond what was needed. As productive as he was, he thought he was a shoe-in to be the next manager of the department. All he had to do was pass the interview.

But he didn’t. Despite all that he knew, the organization didn’t think he had the skills or the experience to make that all-important transition from stand-out producer to leader. Gil felt humiliated and, eventually, left the organization.

Does Gil sound like someone (or a lot of people) in your organization: that “golden child” or “rock star” or ever-growing list of high-potentials who are so good that you think they should be promoted from individual contributors to leaders, but whose career later derailed when you realized it was a mistake?

How do you know if you have employees like Gil? Here are five warning signs, based on decades of research, that your current or soon-to-be new leaders may be on the verge of derailing:

  1. Problems with interpersonal relationships: Do your new leaders have trouble developing good working relationships? Are they “lone wolves” who are often seen as cold, arrogant and insensitive?
  2. Difficulty building and leading a team: Do your new leaders struggle to transition from being a team member to being a team leader? Can they staff and form their teams effectively? Can they handle differences and conflicts among team members?
  3. Difficulty changing and adapting: Do your new leaders have difficulty changing their mindsets? Are they resistant to changing, learning from mistakes, and growing and developing as leaders? Can they adapt to people with different work styles? Can they adapt to the strategic approach necessary in their new leadership position?
  4. Failure to meet business objectives: Are your new leaders actually performing well? Or do they over-promise and under-deliver? Do they lack follow-through?
  5. Overly narrow functional orientation: In research on derailment, this warning sign is the one that tends to stick out the most for new leaders. Think of it as the classic salesperson who was so good at sales that she was promoted to lead the sales staff. In this leadership role, however, she could not stop being a salesperson and switch to being a leader, with all the added responsibility and understanding of others outside the sales function.

If a lot of your new leaders (or those who are groomed to be leaders) are showing these signs, there are ways to help—and there’s no time to waste. Based on my research on almost 300 new leaders, I encourage new leaders, and those who develop them, to concentrate on six key areas. If we can make it clear how new leaders must change (or, as I like to call it, flip) their (1) mindset, (2) skill set, (3) relationships, (4) do-it-all attitude, (5) perspective and (6) focus, we can prevent potential derailment.

We need to do it sooner rather than later. When research participants are asked, “How long does it take to know if a person promoted into his or her first leadership position failed in making that transition?”, the average response is just a little over 140 days. That means we in the training and development field have about 20 weeks to make sure our newest leaders don’t derail. That’s not a lot of time!

I will admit, in a “former life,” I was Gil. I didn’t even make it past the interview, and my career derailed. That’s probably why I’ve become so passionate in helping new leaders; I don’t want them to end up like Gil … I mean me.

Both new leaders and those who want to be leaders need—and, frankly, deserve—more of our time and attention. We should make it a priority to alleviate potential derailment by supporting people who are making one of the most difficult transitions in their careers: the one from rock-star individual contributors to superstar leaders.

William A. (Bill) Gentry, Ph.D., is director of leadership insights and analytics and a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) in Greensboro, NC. He is the author of the book “Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders.”


“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” —Warren Bennis