Three reasons your career has stalled

Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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For those who are curious about why they haven’t risen to the rank they feel worthy of at work, it may be time to start pointing fingers at pandas.

Yes, pandas. That’s the term Elena Lytkina Botelho and Katie Creagh of the management consulting firm ghSMART have given to problems that on the surface seem small and are likely easy to fix (think body odor, or a speaking style that colleagues find off-putting, for example) but can end up stalling a person’s career.

“Pandas look innocent, but their powerful jaws deliver a bite stronger than a jaguars’,” Botelho and Creagh wrote in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review. When they examined the cases of 113 candidates who got shortlisted for C-suite roles but didn’t get the job, they found that 62% of them “had at least one ‘panda’ issue and 10% had more than one.”

They also found that 93% of the so-called panda traits hampering the candidates’ prospects fell into one the following categories: 

Poor executive presence

The largest bucket, executive presence, is an amorphous concept, but 36% of the criticisms the consultants identified fit under this label.

To lack executive presence could mean you’re missing that je ne sais quoi that gives off leadership vibes. You may not be carrying yourself “in a way consistent with company culture,” Botelho and Creagh write. Or you simply may not come across as confident.

Gatekeepers who rejected the job candidates in the sample often commented on how a person failed to appear confident and, therefore, had a “lackluster executive presence.” Applicants who were perceived as self-assured applicants, on the other hand, were 2.5 times more likely to be hired, relative to others in the sample group.

An imperfect communication style  

How a person communicates can also boost or sink a career. Sometimes people don’t speak clearly, or tend to take the floor too often, or are just too quiet on topics that matter. Botelho and Creagh found that 28% of the “panda” problems in the candidates’ reviews were related to the way a person delivered information.

The authors describe one executive who was deserving of a CFO job on paper, but who had “a long-winded, almost philosophical communication style” that the company feared would not go over well with investors. As a general rule, they found people who used colloquial language rather than esoteric terms were more likely to be hired.

Unfortunately, people who spoke with a foreign accent were also frequently found by US companies to have a substandard communication style, and were 12% less likely to be hired. “We found that at least for some of these executives their insufficient language fluency lead them to be perceived as less competent than they were,” the authors note.

In analyzing candidates’ conversations, they found the weakest applicants were more focused on their own narrative versus that of their team: they used “I” twice as often as the rest of the sample. In contrast, talking in an interview about what your team has accomplished, without over-stressing your own contribution, telegraphs social intelligence befitting a leader, the review suggests.

Inferior peer-level relationships

Finally, people who were suited for a role on paper, and even well-liked by their managers, didn’t always receive the best reviews from their peers, raising red flags with employers and accounting for about 30% of the panda issues afflicting the candidates. An executive who is viewed as too self-interested, for instance, is a gamble—they may not be respected in a higher level role if they can’t build relationships and consensus.

Arguably, of the three trouble zones, this one, which speaks to one’s ability to relate to and have empathy for others, seems to be the least fixable. But for middle managers, the structure of corporate incentives may be part of the problem. For example, division leaders may be pitted against each other for corporate resources or rewards, the authors note.

Nonetheless, the best candidates find a way to connect with others across the company, even in a survival-of-the-fittest environment.

Pinpointing your pandas

Assessing your strengths and weaknesses against the three buckets that Botelho and Creagh identify is probably a useful exercise to build some self-awareness. Are you obviously insecure or always indecisive when you speak to large groups? Could you learn to be more succinct and direct when you’re giving people instructions? Do you balance your personal ambition with the goals of the group? Have you been looking and acting the part for the role you’d like to step into?

The next obvious question is: Do you care?

Maybe work doesn’t have to be an eternal self-improvement project. Perhaps climbing the rungs isn’t as essential as honing your skills or taking on trickier projects—and perhaps it isn’t your goal at all. In that case, your energy might be better devoted to developing the core skills required of your craft.

The ego-damaging details that you’re oblivious to, your “pandas,” may be awkward topics to address in a culture that —at least for now—accepts only faint accents, fetishizes confidence, and celebrates a certain cliched model of leadership.

But should you feel determined to scale the hierarchy, and you’re not sure why it hasn’t happened sooner, you may need to ask trusted colleagues for their most brutal feedback and brace yourself for the responses.