There are many downsides to working for a single company for 36 years as I did, but there are also some unique opportunities to observe things over time. Due to my longevity, I was able to observe numerous people over decades of their career and the way the company regarded them. The phenomenon that I found most disturbing was the early and mid-career “stars” who flamed out over time.

These were individuals who were regarded early in their careers as productive, high potential and great fits for the assignments given them. Later, they were regarded as mediocre and even dispensable. Often they left the company and then regained their productive trajectory in another company. Why? Being that the genetics of individuals do not change that fast, why did they go from high potential to low performers?

I had numerous situations where I had worked closely with a team of individuals and then got transferred to another job assignment and, therefore, would lose touch. It was uncanny that it was in those situations where significant time passed and the changes in reputation were not incrementally slow, but rather were startlingly transformed when I revisited them.

I also thought it was bizarre how the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude prevailed rather than any appreciation of past results and accomplishments. A history of success did not seem to carry very far. Often the new supervisor is more concerned about “what have you done for me?” versus “what have you done for the company.” As a result, past “stars” usually were starting over with each new boss. This leads to a situation where what was high potential under one leader can become a disappointment quickly under a new job role or leader.

I have contemplated on this and tried to take both the company’s view and the individual’s into consideration.

The company changes over time and what they expect from employees likewise changes. I don’t see anything wrong with that and it requires people to adapt. Companies actually grow up. Also, companies want people to progress to ever-higher levels of accomplishment and responsibility. This puts pressure on the employee to learn new leadership skills and improve in emotional intelligence. Some of those past stars are incapable of growing faster than the job role demands and that is one potential explanation for the deterioration of regard for the employees.

Many of the early rising stars are ambitious and volunteer for ever- increasing levels of responsibility where they sometimes do not have the necessary established skills to be successful. The company provides the opportunity and the person cannot perform, even though they were fine at one level below. Over self-confidence has pushed many into the wrong job. Moving from a technical capacity job (focused on problem solving skills) to a business development job (dependent on interpersonal skills) is where I have most often witnessed the greatest downfall. The person’s skill group necessary to be successful is quite different from the new position and often the employee does not know what they do not know. They have been successful in the past so they assume that they will be successful in the future role also.

Regardless of whether it is the company or the employee creating the failure conditions, it is a huge waste of human potential and investment for an employee to sputter out later in a career.

Recently, in studying four or five individuals who were “comets that flamed out,” I have come to the increasing conclusion that it is not the company or the employee’s principal problem, but it is the individual’s supervisor who bears much of the responsibility for the loss. The company is not a homogenized one but consists of a large set of tiered individuals who are supervisors. These supervisors make or break their subordinates’ chances for success. Let me explain.

Being that it is not uncommon for employees to volunteer or to be assigned to a job role that they are ill-equipped to succeed at, it is the supervisor’s job to recognize the poor fit and “save the employee” from failure. It is OK to experiment and change people’s job roles, but it is the supervisor’s job to put the “right person in the right job.” If the supervisor makes a bad decision, it is usually only the supervisor who can save the situation by delicately reversing the assignment. Employees in the wrong jobs for their skills become depressed, lose confidence and spiral down to a greater level of failure.

It is also the supervisor’s job to train, encourage, mentor and demonstrate care to foster employee growth. Many supervisors are not very good at that. In situations where a person is in the wrong job, I often find ever-declining support from the supervisor. Such an attitude is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Supervisors should be 100 percent in their support or 0 percent, but not have some gradual declining opinion. What I mean by that is that100 percent support is to be unconditionally committed to making the situation work, with a shared responsibility for success. There is nothing worse than to work for a boss who has declining support as if they are detaching from the end result. Dwindling support is often detected by the employee and results in fear and depression. This creates a spiraled-down, pre-ordained failure.

In summary, I believe that young stars do not become middle-aged duds from a deterioration of skills. They probably fail because they are placed in the wrong jobs for their skill group and are never saved by their supervisor from failure. Certainly, employees need to take some responsibility for not having self-evaluation skills and having over ambition that often leads to the stretching of their capabilities. On the other hand, the greatest predictor of eventual career crash belongs to the supervisor. Without a supervisor who is encouraging, perceptive and motivating, the employee rarely has the chance to excel. An inspiring leader can get 125 percent out of their teams while a depressing leader will reduce the full potential by 25 percent. That is why I see so many “comets flame out” and is a waste of investment for both the company and the individual. For the employee, when failure beckons, changing companies is the only escape.

Rather than focusing on solely judging their employees, I think companies should focus on judging the supervisor’s skills. Developing people and getting the “right people in the right job” takes leadership skills. Mistakes of assignment will be made, but saving the situation from those mistakes is the key to retaining the talent.

Lastly, I want to share an impressive list that comes from the corporate culture of Google. These are their reported “Rules for Effective Management”:

A good manager:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  3. Expresses concern for the team’s well-being
  4. Is productive and results oriented
  5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares
  6. Helps with career development
  7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Has technical skills that help in advising the team

If more supervisors possessed these traits, many more comets would keep on trajectory.


© 2014 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.