Why Promising Young Executives Fail

As a coach and teacher at heart, there is nothing more satisfying than to see one’s former pupils surpass the teacher and go on to great roles and accomplishments. Conversely, there is nothing sadder than to see young talents squander opportunities and end up flying far below their potential. In the Robert DeNiro film A Bronx Tale, a poignant scene shows a father imploring his son: “There is nothing more tragic than wasted talent.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I wish I could say differently, but through the years I have seen some amazing talents with bright futures literally “blow it” in every sense of the word. And this begs the question, “Why?”

When you step back and analyze post-facto these cases, it seems like the same five themes emerge, either individually or in combination. Consider these “traps” every fresh graduate can learn from.

Resistance to growth. Some MBAs will come off campus with the false belief the piece of paper actually means they have nothing left to learn. So with this attitude, they transform the MBA from “Masters of Business Administration” to “Mediocre But Arrogant.” They don’t recognize that in business, and in life, it is a continual journey of learning and growing, and it never stops. They may enter ahead of their peers, but over time, someone standing still will surely be passed by those open to learning and growing. Never assume you know it all, because you don’t.

Focus on activity vs. results. It is easy in the corporate world to get caught up in looking busy — lots of meetings, memos and PowerPoint presentations. And some unfortunately get caught in this trap, thinking activity alone equates to “doing a good job” and missing the big picture — it’s all about wins and losses in business. Focus on the KPIs (key performance indicators) such as sales volume, profits, cost management, and employee retention, to name a few. Eliminate activities that don’t bring results and improve the KPIs. Shareholders care about shareholder return, not how many hours someone spends in a meeting or how long the PowerPoint is.

Lack of loyalty to the company. Loyalty begets loyalty. In any organization, open constructive dialogue is crucial to improving the business. However, constant gossip and complaining without suggested improvements is lethal. It is an immaturity that becomes a cancer for the entire organization.

Can’t work in a team. Some are unfortunately “one-man shows” who don’t engage others in running their project. They like to work alone and do it “their way” and give little credence to how others can add value. As my old P&G boss David Taylor used to say, “Nobody is smarter than everybody.” How true this is. While there may be select roles where a “one-man show” can work, this approach is a kiss of death in today’s global business environment, which requires unprecedented collaboration across borders and matrix organizations.

Ethical lapses. This is the saddest of all, when great talent goes down over slips in ethical behavior. The greatest marketing talent I ever saw, a young man far better than I in marketing “gut,” lost his career over lying on his expense accounts. This was 21 years ago and it still pains me. Just recently, a young talent I know decided to engage in deceptive behavior as a mask for “chasing the money” and selling out to a competitor in a massive show of poor ethics, loyalty, and honor. Ethical lapses are truly the saddest of them all. Because not only do they destroy a career, but also reputation and honor. And our reputation is all we really have in life. We can lose cars or houses but reputation is all we truly own. Nothing destroys reputations faster than ethical issues.

Young talents, learn from those who have come before you! Recognize a simple truth that talent is just like a kiss — nothing but a suggestion of the possibilities.