The Leadership Challenge: Past Success=Future Performance?

One of the greatest challenges we encounter with successful leaders is helping them see the difference between “because of” and “in spite of” behaviors. Most people become leaders and get promoted into new, bigger roles because of past success. According to Marshall Goldsmith in “What Got you Here Won’t Get There”, the same beliefs that got us here, may be holding us back. In other words, what got you here won’t get you there.


It’s certainly a reasonable assumption that past success breeds further success and it makes sense that we should keep on doing what we have been doing well in the past. This is part of our leadership credibility factor, and it is our track record of past success. It defines the things we’ve done. We’re told by those promoting us that “we’ve earned it”, and that our past history supports our being considered for larger more expansive roles – and this is valid.

However, in our new role, we may lack the ability to view ourselves as new. We may even stop asking for feedback. We feel we have something to prove and the thought of not being right or unsure frightens us. But, often times we are not fully prepared for the new challenges, and the new level of leadership needed to lead at the higher level. Indeed when we examine onboarding results for new leaders, research tells us that up to 50% of leaders in a new position will not make it to their second anniversary. And, this is the paradox, we have achieved our shot at the new role because of our past track record and we must begin our new assignments with the right balance of confidence and a learning mindset.   

Let’s take John for an example, as he is representative of some of the hundreds of leaders we have helped navigate this issue. John is a very successful, recently promoted COO of a medium size financial firm. John is successful because he does a lot of things right – he’s smart, has great attention to detail, he loves the work he does, loves finding the right answer, and loves competition and winning. This competitive attitude and need to be right is now showing up as a detriment to John as a leader in developing team members and bringing them along in the organization. John withholds information and guidance. His mantra is “they need to figure it out themselves.” Also, because of his competitive nature, he is reluctant to give positive feedback to his team. 

Johns feels no reason to change anything because, as he sees it, if he needed to change anything, he wouldn’t be so successful. On the other hand, John has difficulty retaining talent – they tend to move on to “other opportunities”. Being aware of the impact that your behavior has on other people is a critical leadership skill – a skill that John is missing in this situation. And because of this, he is dealing with unnecessary turnover and cost and HR is getting consistent feedback about how difficult it is to work with him. We are now working one-on-one in an executive development coaching capacity to help him realize the impact this is having on his performance.  

Indeed, today executive and leadership coaching is a booming industry! As Fast Company noted in 2006, the number of companies using executive coaches and finding them useful continues to grow dramatically. Based on a 2008 survey by AMA Institute, 52% of North America companies use coaching for their executives. Sherpa’s annual 2012 coaching survey estimates that coaching programs will grow by 36% this year.

Sadly, some of the leaders we see derail never understand the need for leadership development or the need for coaching. They blame others or buy into the myth that they don’t need to do anything differently. So what makes leaders decide to change? People only change when they start to experience discomfort or pain in some way – when what they truly value is threatened. Working with a coach will help you identify the one or two critical behaviors that are holding you back as a leader and it can also keep you on track and increase your ability to make the changes and follow the plan. When we begin work with a leader who has recently been promoted or with a leader who may be in danger of derailing, we advise them to:

  1. Get 360 degree leadership feedback on your current level of effectiveness from your boss, your team, and trusted co-workers. Let them know that you want to change.
  2. Based on the feedback you receive, select the two behaviors you feel are most important to change and will enhance your effective leadership in the workplace. Remember that when feedback is difficult to accept, there is probably more than an element of truth to it.
  3. Let your co-workers, team and boss know what behaviors you are working to change and ask for their recommendations on how to change these behaviors.
  4. Listen to their ideas and thank them for their feedback. Move forward to make the changes that you believe will make the biggest difference to your effectiveness as a leader.
  5. Be sure to follow-up with others as you continue to measure your progress.