Young Leaders and Failure

Figure 1: Responding to Failure

We all can think of examples of young leaders that fail.  In some cases, we might have even been the leader that failed.  The failure is not necessarily wholesale, but still reduces productivity and results.  How often do new leaders fail? A study conducted by Institute of Executive Development found that 40 percent of new leaders fail in the first 18 months.  Similarly, Aon Consulting concluded that new executives will typically quit or be fired in the first 36 months.  If a new leader does survive, then it takes between three to six months to become productive.  What about when the leader is young and new? A recent HCS study found that among young leaders the failure rate is much higher that other leaders at approximately 60 percent.  Assuming that the failure rate for both categories of leader is above 40 percent, the estimated productivity loss would be in the billions of dollars.

As we discussed in the two posts on barriers, there are specific characteristics and circumstances that limit the success of young leaders.  The Institute for Executive Leadership identified interpersonal and leadership skills as the number one reason for failure followed by lack of personal skills and goals conflicts.  What happens after failure?  As interests have grown in the causes of failure, less research has been done on what happens after failure.  Where do these young, talent would-be leaders end up? Does the initial set back end diminish their value?

HCS conducted a survey of 400 young leaders that considered their initial experience as failure.  Not surprising, most (63 percent) left their first organization after failing (see Figure 1).  Among those that left, 44 percent moved to another leadership position outside the organization while the remainder moved to a lower level position.  More than half (54 percent) felt that the initial failure and resulting move was positive for their career in the longer term and helped them develop.  The respondents that stayed with the initial organization (37 percent) returned to lower level positions more often (79 percent) compared to those that left the organization (56 percent).  Moreover, most felt that the experience did not enhance career development (21 percent felt it improved career development and opportunities).  The results are not shocking given the typical lack of acceptance of outside factors impacting leadership failure and the stigma of leaving a higher level of position to move down or even laterally.

What can our organizations do to help young leaders that fail?

Assess Capabilities and Results – It is important to determine what went wrong and provide any needed support.  To many times, failure is considered an end to itself.  It is critical that an organization constructively assess the situation and ensure that future leaders as well as the failing leader have a more productive experience in the future. Find out what went wrong and fix it.

Provide Support – When things do not turn out as planned for an employee and especially a manager, it is important to provide sufficient support for the employee to return to productiveness.  One of the big reasons that failing managers leave an organization is a lack of support from senior management and being categorized as a failure.  How often have you heard someone describe a coworker as the one that had a job in the past and failed even years after the change in job occurred?  If we make the failed leader feel like an outcast, he or she will not try to lead again. Create a culture of support if you are serious about developing and retaining young leaders.

Mentor – Mentoring makes a huge difference in the initial as well as later success of leaders.  Every new leader should have a mentor.  When issues arise, it is critical that someone with the time and experience can answer questions as well as provide support through the transition and beyond.  Create a mentor program.


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