It’s not unusual to see a leader turn a company around and bring it to success, only to fail at the next challenge. Some call it the sophomore slump, but it’s really a case of, “What got you here won’t get you there,” says John Hillen, coauthor of What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.
“Leaders are often victims of their own success,” says Hillen. “They wanted the change; they put the business plan in place. Then they themselves don’t make parallel plans to change with the organization. That’s why leaders often stall on the other side.”
What it takes to become a successful leader is not what you need to remain a leader. Playing at the higher level requires different skills, capabilities, mind-sets, behaviors, and attitudes. “Most leaders get it intellectually,” says Hillen, executive in residence and professor of practice in the School of Business at George Mason University. “Unfortunately, what they often do is focus energy on tinkering with the organization instead of reinventing themselves.”
Only a small percentage of organizations make deliberate plans to grow their executives alongside their business. As a result, leaders need to take it upon themselves to adapt to the new playing field, or they’re at risk of hitting one of seven career stalls, says Hillen.
1. You haven’t re-established your purpose
Leaders often fail to establish new purpose and direction once they succeed. “When things change and new people are coming on board, purpose and direction must be modified,” says Hillen. “Leaders often struggle to tell a coherent narrative, and people start making decisions at odds with culture or value.”
A warning sign that you’re hitting the purpose stall is when you think you need to hire an outsider to get to the next level. Break through by holding a story-creation session with people from all levels of the organization, suggests Hillen.
“Ask, ‘What are we about here?'” he says. “Engage teams to rearticulate values and purpose that will be easy to communicate to the ranks and out to multiple stakeholders.”
2. Your team isn’t working together on goals
After a success, team members can start acting like freelancers, concerned with their own departments and not agreeing on priorities or strategies, says Hillen.
“The single most critical success factor for high-performing teams is having a shared understanding of why the team exists, what it is trying to accomplish, and how it will work together,” he says.
Work through this career stall by holding frequent meetings or off-sites to ensure team alignment, suggests Hillen. “Create team ‘rules of engagement’ and require team members to hold each other (and you) accountable to them,” he says. “Be explicit about the culture that ties the team together.”
3. You aren’t talking to the right people
Working at a new level can cause leaders to not make good use of their time. If you feel frustrated that people aren’t following your orders, or if you’re too busy to talk to stakeholders, you’re career’s in danger.
Push through by creating a stakeholder management plan, Hillen suggests. “Who will you put on your calendar regularly?” he asks. “What kinds of conversations should you be having with them?” Concentrate on developing a strategic network, allocating time for people who control your future.
4. You can’t articulate your vision and motivate people
If you can’t seem to energize employees to own the strategy or spring into action to tackle a new initiative, you’re at risk of another career stall. Instead of blaming others for their inability to “get” it, reassess your communication skills and think of yourself as the “chief explaining officer,” says Hillen.
“Whenever possible, make communication two-way; achieve true communication, not mere transmission,” he says. Communicate more than you believe is necessary to ensure sufficient understanding, and change your style of communication to reach different people.
5. Your authority is waning
Once you’ve achieved success, you need to keep performing at a high level to maintain your team’s respect. If you give people direction but they don’t follow through, or you start getting passed over for promotion, you may have hit a career stall.
“Shift your actions and behaviors to come across to followers in a more authentically and emotionally,” he says. “Empathy works, and builds character.”
Accept a position on the board of a nonprofit, for example, take a community leadership role, or be more involved in your industry, Hillen suggests.
6. You feel exhausted and overwhelmed
Once you’re operating at a new level, it can be easy to lose sight of your focus. The danger signs of a career stall here are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and less energetic and passionate about what you’re doing and its impact, says Hillen.
Decide which tasks to do, which to delegate, and which to drop. “Allocate your time as if you’re going to ‘make history,'” he says. “Enforce, with the help of an accountability partner, rational percentages of time on your calendar to the leadership work that matters most.”
7. You’ve abandoned leadership development
A successful leader’s job is to be a leader of leaders, says Hillen. If you’re unsure of your current leadership team and are starting to no longer trust their capabilities, you could be about to hit a career stall.
“Take command of shaping your organization’s leadership-development programs and play a meaningful role in leading them,” he says. “Commit to becoming a coach as well as a boss, and dedicate discrete time for both.”
While every stall is different, every leader will stall at some point, says Hillen. “They might not hit all of them and not all at once,” he says. “When you’re in a meeting where you are the decision maker, but everybody else has more information at hand, you’re at risk. It should be an epiphany that it’s you and your behavior that needs to be changed.”