The bigger picture

Pritzker Group VC's Carter Cast shows the way to identify and fix risk factors that could derail one's career

Published 3 years ago on Jun 02, 2018 3 minutes Read

People with these traits are in every organization-from big corporations to small law firms, from educations to early stage start-ups. These five archetypes cut across not only type and stage of organization, but also gender and level of seniority. As it turns out, the research on which these archetypes are based is robust and consistent. So, an important and puzzling question is: Why aren’t companies doing a better a job of helping their employees identify and address these five common behavioral issues in order to reduce the rate of worker derailment? Why isn’t the topic of derailment included as part of career development conversations? The answer, to a certain extent, lies in the popularity of the “focusing on your strengths” movement. Without a doubt, the “strengths movement” 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 other methods of self-examination and career development. “Accentuate the positive” has become a new mantra in many workplaces, where, according to The Wall Street Journal, “bosses now dole out frequent praise, urge employees to celebrate small victories and focus performance reviews around a particular worker’s strengths- instead of dwelling on why he flubbed a client presentation.”

There are two problems with companies’ excessive focus 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 its particular state of incarnation. 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 stops a talented person’s career in its tracks. The 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 personal traits such as mental horsepower, emotional intelligence, and decisiveness as well as job skills, such as technical know-how. The problem is, these assessments gauge the “right stuff” areas and 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 conversation, 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. Organizations pursuing a developmental strategy focusing on strengths alone will not lead to the career ascension of their employees. Sooner or later, unaddressed developmental needs will limit the career progress of good people.

This is an extract from Carter Cast's The Right and Wrong Stuff published by PublicAffairs