The Probability of Failure

The Probability of Failure

By Stuart O’Reilly

Surprisingly, there is little published information on the likelihood that a manager will ‘fail’ at his/her job. The data that does exist gives estimates from 30-67% likelihood, with the mean at 47% (Hogan, Hogan and Kaiser – Management Derailment). Indeed, Hogan suggests that around ‘two thirds of managers are insufferable and that half will eventually fail.’ An Australian survey at Bond University (Erikson and Shaw) found that one third of respondents viewed their leaders as failures. As one online commentator on these figures concluded: “it is surprising that aeroplanes fly, or that electricity and water gets through to our homes”.

These downbeat prognoses, however, do not really accord with average employee engagement scores of 63% in North America and 57% in Europe (AON Hewitt 2012). Nor do they gel with organisations’ performance reviews, which tend to categorise very small numbers of managers as ‘below expectations’ (although arguably internal performance reviews systematically overestimate managerial capability). So what is really going on, and does it even matter?

Does it Matter?

Does it matter whether we know what proportion of managers can be expected to fail? At Wickland Westcott we believe so, primarily because organisations need to have some benchmark to indicate whether their own failure rates are within the expected levels.

More problematic, however, is what we actually mean by failure. A very broad definition might be ‘a level of performance deemed unsatisfactory to the organisation’. The underlying reasons for this underperformance, however, can be many and varied. In some cases, individuals fail because their role is not well defined or is actually unrealistic. In other cases, they fail because they do not have the skills and competencies to carry out the task they are assigned.

Much of the literature on management derailers identifies the inability to manage relationships as the key reason why people fail. Sometimes, bosses also prevent people from being successful. Individuals exit organisations for all these reasons and often their departure is cloaked in a compromise agreement. Based on over 35 years of consulting work, we believe that there is a consistent ‘bleed’ of senior managers from medium and large organisations. We also know that many organisations tolerate underperformance, when the problem is not quite acute enough for them to take action.

So what is our estimate?

Wickland Westcott estimates that the rate of senior management failure is approximately 15%. This figure applies to well-managed and competent organisations that have selected and developed their people reasonably effectively. In short, such organisations should expect 15% of their senior recruits to ‘not work out’.

Critically, this group will include a number of individuals who are in fact capable managers. Indeed, based on our own internal survey of Wickland Westcott consultants, we believe that where a senior manager has undertaken at least five different senior roles in their career to date, it is 80% likely that they will have ‘failed’ in at least one of these roles.

Based on the above figures, when recruiters say: “everyone is allowed at least one blip in their career”, they are probably right.

What are the lessons?

For the organisation: if the senior management failure rate is significantly above 15%, or indeed if the organisation feels its pool of talent is less capable, then some review of the sourcing and appointment process is likely to be warranted.

However, given that the 15% failure rate is driven by factors not always entirely to do with the individual, such as poorly defined roles or strategy, then tightening up on goal and role clarification, enhancing induction processes, and ensuring early and regular (two-way) performance conversations can make a big difference. The more progressive, enlightened organisations realise that in many cases perfectly competent people can end up in roles to which they are simply not suited. Spotting such mis-alignment early, and taking swift action, is surely an indicator of an effective talent/HR function.

If an organisation’s senior management failure rate is substantially below the 15% figure, then presumably there is cause for celebration? Not necessarily. The organisation can only really feel satisfied if, hand on heart, it believes it has proactive and confident performance management processes, and is therefore not masking a pool of underperformers who are not quite poor enough to attract attention.

As individuals, what can we learn? As we live longer and our career paths lengthen, we should perhaps acknowledge the high probability that one of our roles may not go well. If you find yourself in this situation, recognising and addressing the disconnect, rather than hoping it will somehow resolve itself, appears to be the best strategy. There is a strong need for each of us to avoid complacency – we should look for feedback wherever we are in our careers. Remember – “it could be you!” Indeed, it probably will be.

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