What Seeds Are You Sowing?

You reap what you sow—this is true in agriculture and true in your career.

Just ask Carter Cast, a clinical professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Cast conducted extensive research on the factors that affect career success and failure, and found that somewhere between 30 and 67 percent of leaders involuntarily derail at some point in their careers.

For the record, “career derailment” is a nice way of describing when a person gets fired, demoted, or stalls out far short of expectations.

If you’ve spent much time in a large organization, you know what I’m talking about. Someone appears to be on the fast-track to the top and then, in what seems like a blink of an eye, they’re reassigned to work on “special projects.” Not long after, there’s an announcement that they’ve left the organization. And while the official reason for their departure has to do with spending more time with family or pursuing other opportunities, everybody knows something bad happened.

In moments like these, avoid the temptation to pound your chest and make Darwinian references about the survival of the fittest. Not only would this be a crass example of your lack of empathy, but the costs of career derailment are high for more than just the individual involved. Some estimates of the organizational cost reach as high as 20 times the derailed employees’ salaries. The percentages also indicate that any of us could fall victim to this fate if we’re not sowing the right seeds.

If you want to avoid derailment and stay on track to reach your goals, you should consider the law of sowing and reaping. As you read the list below, ask yourself whether you are at risk and what you can do about it.

Seeds of Derailment
Most managers don’t fail because of a lack of intelligence, talent, or work ethic. They fail because of their inability to work effectively with people. Blind spots prevent them from seeing how their behavior may be rubbing others the wrong way and how these behaviors can eventually inhibit collaboration, communication, and lead to interpersonal conflict. When this happens, key contributors disengage, deadlines are missed, and projects stall.

These seeds of derailment show up in different forms, but some of the most common relational issues are:

  • Lack of Self-Awareness: Self-awareness is the solid foundation on which all professional and personal development is built. A lack of self-awareness creates blind spots and will make it impossible to grow as a leader. Blind spots can also affect your judgment and lead to faulty decisions. Just as you must make an overt effort to turn your head to see into your blind spot when you’re driving a car before you can safely change lanes, it takes special effort to see into your professional and personal blind spots that might impede your ability to make good decisions and form relationships. Most often, the special insight provided by a scientifically valid assessment like the SDI 2.0, honest feedback from others, or a combination of both.
  • Disrespect for the Values of Others: One of the quickest ways to ruin a relationship or create discord on a team is to signal, through words or behavior, that you don’t respect what is important to others. For example, a colleague who values a careful, methodical approach to problem-solving may be put off by your quick, emotion-based decisions. Early on, these incidents may cause minor friction. Over time, however, people who feel disrespected may disengage and not give their best effort, file grievances with HR or their union, or simply leave the organization—none of which are good for a manager’s reputation.
  • Overdone Strengths: Sometimes your well-intended behavior can be perceived as too much or simply wrong for the moment. Overdone strengths also trigger conflict. In a recent workshop, a talented, young employee complained that her manager didn’t trust her because she was always hovering, ready to step in to address any issue that arose. As a result, this employee confessed that she was looking for a transfer because she felt “smothered” and “stifled” and unable to make even small decisions on her own. When I shared this feedback with her manager later, the manager’s response was, “I was only trying to help…” Developing an awareness of how your behavior impacts others is critical.
  • Inability to Leverage the Strengths of the Team: Leaders who are not able to leverage the strengths of their team members will ultimately fail. Apple founder Steve Jobs captured this idea best in his famous comment on hiring, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do.”

Seeds of Success
Growing in your career requires the right kind of seeds. Seeds that will always yield a good harvest include:

  • A willingness to collaborate and listen
  • An overt effort to truly understand what matters to your colleagues and honor that in how you relate to them
  • A desire for feedback about the impact you’re having on others
  • An insatiable curiosity about people and a desire to form healthy relationships with those who have different perspectives

Of course, there are other important factors for career success, but the one that applies across all industries and roles is the ability to build productive relationships. Your results will always be dependent on your relationships, so why not begin sowing the right seeds now?

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Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at

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