Most leaders have 1 of these 3 career-derailing blind spots

Daily Briefing

Most leaders have 1 of these 3 career-derailing blind spots


of candidates who got shortlisted for C-suite roles had at least one blind spot
of candidates who got shortlisted for C-suite roles had at least one blind spot

Many higher ed professionals have their sights set on someday becoming a vice president, provost, or president.

But if, despite your best efforts, you still haven’t been able to break into a senior leadership role, your problem may be a “panda.” That’s the term management consultants Elena Lytkina Botelho and Katie Creagh use to describe flaws that seem small but can derail your career.

“Pandas look innocent, but their powerful jaws deliver a bite stronger than a jaguars,” Botelho and Creagh write in the Harvard Business Review. These blind spots stall an individual’s career and hurt both that person and the organization that is unable to help their talent reach its full potential.

Botelho and Creagh examined the cases of 113 candidates who got shortlisted for C-suite roles but didn’t get the job. They found that 62% of these candidates “had at least one ‘panda’ issue and 10% had more than one.”

Most the flaws (93%) the consultants identified fell into one of the following categories:

1: Executive presence

More than a third (36%) of the criticisms the consultants identified were related to how candidates presented themselves.

Leaders who struggle with executive presence may not carry themselves in a way that fits the institution’s culture or may not seem confident enough. The consultants found that leaders who seemed highly confident were 2.5 times more likely to be hired than those who did not.

2: Communication style

About 28% of criticisms were related to how candidates speak. For example, Botelho and Creagh found that candidates who used esoteric language were eight times less likely to be hired than those who spoke simply.

Candidates who didn’t sound like a team player during interviews were also less likely to get the job, the consultants found. For example, weak candidates used “I” at twice the rate of their peers, while the strongest candidates played up their team’s accomplishments without over-stressing their own contributions.

Frustratingly, even a leader’s accent can affect her chances of getting the job. The consultants found that candidates who spoke with a significant accent were 12 times less likely to get hired.

3: Peer relationships

Candidates who receive great reviews from their boss and direct reports can still lose senior leadership positions if they have poor peer relationships, the consultants found.

If your peers believe you’re more interested in your advancement than institution-wide wins, it raises a red flag that you won’t be able to act in the campus’s best interest as a senior leader. Botelho and Creagh note that an institution’s incentive system may push leaders to act in their department’s interest over the campus’s, especially if leaders need to compete for resources and rewards.

How to uncover your blind spots


of leaders have a flaw they aren't aware of
of leaders have a flaw they aren’t aware of

Nearly a third (30%) of leaders have a flaw they aren’t aware of, according to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s analysis of 360-degree feedback survey data.

Zenger and Folkman theorize that strengths are easier to identify because they are often seen as direct outcomes of specific behavior. For example, great problem solvers can recall specific problems they helped solve. Weaknesses and flaws, however, are the result of inaction. These flaws lead to “a project that doesn’t exist,” write Zenger and Folkman.

To uncover these blind spots, leaders need to seek out feedback from their peers, bosses, and direct reports. When you receive feedback, ask clarifying questions to understand the issue and how it affects your performance and others’ perception of your performance.

Higher ed leaders can build their self-awareness through 360-degree reviews—as long as they listen to the constructive criticism, says Allison Vaillancourt, the University of Arizona‘s vice president for business affairs and human resources.

Instead of addressing negative feedback, some leaders flaunt their flaws in an effort to ward off further criticism. Criticism can sting, but truly effective leaders are willing to address their weaknesses directly, says Vaillancourt.

Sources: MacLellan, Quartz, 11/12/18; Botelho/Creagh, Harvard Business Review, 11/9/18; Zenger/Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 2/26;18; Vaillancourt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/26/17

Become a better campus leader

About the Webconference To turn the tide and increase the performance of advancement teams and consequentially retain staff (even if only for a year or two more), CAOs must elevate professional development to a strategic priority. Over the last several years, EAB has seen institutions making this shift, allocating resources for strategic talent management positions […]

A collection of leadership development materials, which were compiled during over 100 research interviews with senior academic leaders, association heads, and directors of on-campus and external programs.

EAB asks you to accept cookies for authorization purposes, as well as to track usage data and for marketing purposes. To get more information about these cookies and the processing of your personal information, please see our Privacy Policy. Do you accept these cookies and the processing of your personal information involved?