November 2023  -  Author Chat

Author Chat: The Right—and Wrong—Stuff by Carter Cast

Your career might be in danger of going off the rails. You probably have blind spots that are leaving you closer to the edge than you realize. Fortunately, Carter Cast shows you how to avoid career derailment by becoming more self-aware, more agile, and more effective.

In this edition of Author Chat, Disrupt Your Career speaks with Carter Cast, Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management, about his book, The Right – and Wrong – Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade (PublicAffairs, January 2018). Carter explores why talented people experience career derailment and provides tools and practical advice to help you see your blind spots and build a roadmap to career success. An edited version of our conversation with Carter follows.

What inspired you to write the book? What motivated you to tackle this particular subject?

There was an inciting incident. I was on the phone with someone I used to work directly for. We hadn’t talked for a long time. We did our updates on family, then I asked him about his career, and I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he talked about his career. He hadn’t achieved the level of accomplishments that I think he probably thought he would, and certainly that I thought he would, because he’s very talented. We hung up the phone, and I literally got a sticky note from right next to me, and I put on my wall : What impedes the progress of talented people? I wrote that, and I looked at it for about two, three weeks. Then I went to the Dean at Kellogg and said, “Can I do some research on this? I’m curious about this topic, when you see these talented people – and we see them all the time, we invest in early stage startups – you’ll see these people hit walls. Why are they hitting a wall when they’re competent and intelligent? What’s going on? So I dug into the topic.

What are the key concepts, methods and insights from your book if you could summarize them?

There’s a lot of research on this, because of all the 360 interviews or surveys that people do. What do the people that are at the top of an organization, the high potentials, do differently than people that are in the bottom quartile? And you can tease out what competencies strong people have and what competencies people that aren’t as strong in terms of performance, what they lack. Then I ended up talking to 50 some people who had either been fired or demoted, and I found these very clear themes. The biggest theme is a lack of self-awareness. Not surprisingly, a lack of self-awareness around a blind spot, a skill gap, or an attitudinal trait that was holding somebody back because they either wouldn’t face it – it was too painful – or they were blissfully ignorant of it. And so that was the key theme. The headline of the book is: what you don’t know can hurt you.

Can you share any particular case study, story or example to illustrate what you describe in your book?

The number one reason I found for people that run into trouble and derail – either they get fired or they get demoted, or they flatline, they’re told they’re not promotable – is not surprisingly interpersonal issues. I created these archetypes, these characterizations to lighten up this topic. One of the characterizations I have is this Captain Fantastic character, who’s big and bold, and I mema and presses for the advantage and is bruising people in his quest for the corner office. He does well early in his career, because he self-advocates very effectively. But later on, when the job gets nuanced, and this person needs to rely cross functionally on other people, they need to work through other people, other people are not there for this person, because he’s bombastic, he’s self-serving, he’s not empathetic, he lacks compassion, and he ends up derailing. That is the number one reason. As I wrote this, I would get letters and emails from people who would say, “Hey, I was Captain Fantastic, and I felt the lash of being Captain Fantastic.” And then I would contact them back and I’d say, “Well, what have you learned of what happened?” What’s interesting is 80 some percent of the time, if somebody owns their derailment trait: “I have lacked empathy, I’ve been pressing to my advantage and not listening and not really trying to help cross functional teams get their work done…” When people own it, 80 some percent of the time, they end up alleviating or mitigating that trait and getting back on track. So it was so nice to hear from people who said, “I have that. What should I do about it? I have that, I want to get past it.” And I would say you will get past it if you want to. But the first thing is you got to own it.

One of the biggest derailment reasons – and I think this is on the rise today, given all the devices and all the technological changes we’re going through – is an archetype I call Version 1.0. People that are stuck, they’re not embracing new technologies, they’re not current, and as a result of that, they’re falling behind. How do you use generative AI to your advantage, machine learning, big data sets? How are you thinking about the seismic shifts? Are you in front of them? Do you have advisers around you that can counsel you on the best uses of some of these change technologies? And when people deny that and say, “I know how to sell, sales is a contact sport, I don’t need to understand these fancy software lead generation tools”. Well, actually, these tools could help you be even better in selling. So that is one that I’m really on the lookout for. Are you a learner? And are you adapting to changing environment, especially with all these new technologies that are coming?

Another reason for derailment that has happened more lately is this person that doesn’t deliver on promises. They say yes to too many things, they get overextended, they don’t have good prioritization methods, they don’t have a good way of moving through their tasks, they don’t have organizing procedures for their day. And they end up dropping balls as they’re juggling and juggling, and people end up pulling away from this person, because their word is not their bond. At the root of this one, I found that either people that don’t have a good system to organize their day and their work, they don’t prioritize well, or they have trouble saying no. There are books and methods to actually learn to say no, with tact and with compassion. It’s really important because in this day and age where this device (showing his mobile phone) is just interrupting us all the time, we have to know how to block our day, spend our time on our important initiatives, and not get distracted by everything that comes along. The number one reason self-reported that people derail is they say, they get distracted and can’t get their work done, which I think is this inability to deliver because of letting outside distractions get in your way.

To order Carter’s book The Right—and Wrong—Stuff

Carter’s LinkedIn profile

To listen to the entire interview of Carter

Sign up

Sign up to receive regular insightful news and advice on managing your career and receive a free gift. Inspiration delivered straight to your Inbox!

    By clicking, you agree to receive our newsletter