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New study shows how to detect potential career derailers

The study, based on Korn Ferry Institute analysis of nearly 40,000 360-degree surveys and more than 9,000 self-assessments of leaders across the globe, identifies some of the key warning signs that a potential business leader’s career might go off the tracks.

The research showed that those individuals who greatly overstate their abilities are six times more likely to be rated as a derailment risk by their bosses than those with accurate self-awareness.

Steve Newhall, Managing Partner of Korn Ferry Leadership and Talent Consultancy, UK, commented:“Because there is such a high risk that rising stars may derail at some point in their careers, accurately identifying high-potential leaders is not enough. Organisations must continually diagnose and treat derailment risks to keep their potential leaders on track.”

The research analyses the warning signs of derailment in the different elements defining the make-up of a leader, including traits, competencies and drivers.


Traits are personality characteristics that could be considered “hard-wired” such as social awareness and general cognitive capacity. While leaders can strengthen desired traits, it is much more difficult than developing competencies or skills.

Traits identified by the research as being closely associated with derailment include volatility, and being "closed", which often means being unable to take advantage of different perspectives and being resistant to change.

Steve Newhall believes some traits also can contribute to derailment when their presence is too strong: “Traits such as trust or optimism seem positive on the surface, but too much of these traits may make leaders excessively hands-off.”


Competencies are the basic skills or abilities a leader needs to succeed, such as a strategic mindset or decision-making skills. When Korn Ferry researchers analysed results of 360&deg assessments, they found that the risk of derailment was most accurately predicted not by the achievement of low scores on desirable competencies, but by the achievement of high scores on certain deficiencies such as failure to staff effectively, being non-strategic, or over-dependence on a single skill.


What personally motivates and drives leaders is directly connected to how engaged they are in their job, and low engagement is a key indicator of derailment.

Often, the lack of engagement is due to poor cultural fit—a mismatch between the leader’s motivators and what gets rewarded in the culture of the organisation. For example, one very potent driver is power—the motivation to attain work-related status, visibility, responsibility, and influence. While those who work in a highly competitive environment and have this driver are likely to excel, those engaged in a collaborative culture may struggle.

Overcoming the obstacles

According to Newhall, assessment, intervention and development are key to helping leaders overcome potential hurdles in their careers: “It’s important to assess for the good and the bad, and to create a development culture where leaders become more aware of their own shortcomings and how to overcome them with the help of their organisation.”


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