Here is the full transcript of seasoned consultant and author Ron Carucci’s fireside talk: Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Executives at Talks at Google conference.
RON CARUCCI: So thanks for being here today. I hope this is a meaningful conversation for you.
How many of you, by a show of hands, have aspirations of some kind to elevate your role at some point in your career and lead more people than you’re leading today? Great. So this will be super relevant to you, I hope, to avoid some of the pitfalls we found in our research. So I want to do three things– talk about the data we collected and how we got the research and why, how it is that people who rise up to bigger jobs and organizations, some seem to thrive, and then talk with you in a little bit of Q&A about how it is you are thinking about applying it here.
So a bunch of years ago — our firm works on large, crazy, transformational projects with our clients. And a bunch of years ago, we were working with an organization during which one of the young leaders who had been part of the effort was super-high-potential, seen as very competent, people enjoy working with him. Everybody saw a long, promising career for him. At the end of the project, he was offered the chance to take on a much broader assignment for the organization in this new world we had just transformed. Nobody was surprised. Everybody assumed, oh, he’ll do great. About nine months later, I saw his name on the caller ID, and I was excited.
I assumed, oh, he’s calling to tell me about all the great progress they’ve made and how things are going. But sadly, he was calling to tell me he’d been fired and that he needed help getting another job. I barely had time to recover from that conversation, two hours later the CEO of this large multinational gazillion-dollar organization, who’s our client, called to also let me know they’d let him go, and that he was a bit angry, implying– more than implying– that some of the responsibility for his failure was mine, for not better preparing him. That didn’t feel good. I was devastated.
I couldn’t imagine, how could we have possibly misjudged his potential that much? Every nine-box, eight-box, six-box, whatever grid you used, he was off the charts. How could somebody suddenly go from being in one level, being the next coming, to suddenly being a disaster in nine months? That made no sense.
I asked if we might come back into the organization to see if we could learn what could have gone wrong. That short investigation we went back in and did led us to a 10-year longitudinal study of more than 2,700 leaders. And what we found out was, painfully, that more than 50% of those that take on broader assignments in their organizations fail in their first 18 months.
That young leader was just another statistic. We thought, gosh, we can do better! I don’t ever want another phone call like that in my career again. So we began digging and digging and digging to find, why is it — for more than 20 years, we’ve known this statistic. This is not — the recruiters love it, because it’s an annuity for them. But short of that, why is that OK? 50%, right? That’s a crap shoot.
Why is it OK that the carnage of families that have relocated and people who had promising ideas and opportunities that organizations were hoping to capitalize, that half of them go sideways is reasonable? That just seemed completely unacceptable to us. So we began to go digging. And the scary thing we found in the research was, when we found out how many landmines organizations put in the way of people on their way up, it’s a wonder any of them succeed. I couldn’t wait to find out what the other 50% were doing to manage to traverse those. I went back to the CEO and I said, I will apologize and take responsibility for all the landmines I did not prepare him to face.
You need to take responsibility for putting them there, because they’re so unnecessary. So what I want to spend time today talking about that we found in this study of 2,700 leaders, 1,800 of which were set aside as at least bordering on exemplary, we also isolated 100 of them in mid-ascent to see if we could sort of watch in slow-mo what was happening across this elevation season. Whether it was to an executive role or to middle management, from wherever they were, what was going on on the way up, and what caused some to stick the landing, and some to faceplant?
To hopefully avoid those. So there’s three parts I want to chat about. One is, what’s the weird things that happen on the way up? Why is there this altitude sickness? Right, you get to a higher altitude, you can barely breathe as you land there. And then the great news in the data was, in fact, that as we dug into, what were the other half doing that made them just thrive? And it turns out there were four recurring patterns. I had the research team do 99 regression analyses. And they finally said, enough. It’s not going to change. The same four recurring patterns, over and over, that set apart those that succeeded.
The problem was — and that’s where we’ll spend the most of our time today. The problem was, the data said you had to do all four well. So people who did three of the four brilliantly were in the failure group. So the reason I kept going back to do more analysis is I didn’t want to have to say you had to do all four well. I wanted to say three of the four is OK, but it’s not.
So we’ll talk about what those four are. The great news was, these weren’t four — like, some weird genetic misalignments that caused this superhuman power in these folks. These were basic capabilities that they had acquired and learned. So the good news is they’re learnable. The best time to learn them is not when you hit your first senior director job or your first vice president job. The best time to learn them is now.
So here’s just some of the things we found that were a little bit shocking to us 69% of the people in our research said, we were not prepared for the roles I’m sure, in your department, that wouldn’t be the case But in other companies, that’s what people told us. 76% said that all of the formal development efforts they had undergone did not prepare them for the challenges they faced. They had great theories and models and read some interesting articles, but what they faced in the challenges was never covered in any of their learning developments. And most of them had no coaching. Most of them had no preparation work before, and none of them– it was in the 80% of what they had afterwards 67% of them struggled to let go.
So they took– as they escalated, they took the work with them. One of the interesting things about the notion of power, we studied, how do people handle the notion of power? And these days, that’s a pretty important conversation 60% of them felt like impostors. They felt like people ascribed more power to them than they actually felt they had themselves. And so they struggled to reconcile feeling like they’re going to, at some point, find me out.
So you can see here, these are not pretty stats, right? This begins to give a picture for why it is that so many promising young professional aspiring leaders are arriving in positions that they’re not ready for. We can do better. We absolutely can do better. So one of the metaphors we use in the early part of the book is this is very much like wing-walking. Long before you were born, people in the early part of the 20th century would actually get up– both for aerial entertainment, but also to learn how to refuel planes– would walk across the wing.