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Avoid Derailing Your Own Career: A Q&A With Carter Cast

Furious boss scolding young frustrated interns with bad work results.

In 1995, Carter Cast had risen to the title of senior product manager at Frito-Lay Inc. when the carpet was abruptly pulled from under his senior management–ready feet. Blindsided with the worst performance review he had ever received, Cast’s nine-year career was derailed with the descriptors “uncooperative,” “resistant,” and “unmanageable.” Bewilderment turned into self-reflection as Cast examined the negative feedback and realized his boss was right. The look within reset the course of his professional life and allowed him to achieve success and true career happiness. Now he’s a clinical professor at the Kellogg School of Management and a venture capitalist.

Cast used his life-changing review as the introduction to his new book, The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made—and Unmade. After years of interviews and research, Cast wrote this well-organized and easy-to-read book (published by Public Affairs) on how to avoid career derailment and the pangs of an embarrassing performance review. In it, he identifies five archetypes that encompass most of the vulnerabilities people succumb to in the workplace. You may find yourself nodding as you read his descriptions of a mix of interpersonal and intrapersonal vulnerabilities—because you recognize them either in yourself, or in co-workers or superiors you’ve had. In the second half of the book, Cast offers up solutions and tips on how to overcome your vulnerabilities and encourage your own growth to find your career fit.
I spoke with Cast over the phone and dove into some of the advice he presented.

ATD: You list five archetypes in your book (Captain Fantastic, the Solo Flier, Version 1.0, the One-Trick Pony, and the Whirling Dervish) and the self-defeating traits that go along with each. Do you see people as being essentially one archetype, or can people be a true blend of two or more? Do certain industries attract more of one archetype than another?

Cast: Yes! And you can be a different archetype at different times in your career. Early on in your career, when moving ahead from an individual worker to manager, you have go from doing to planning and enabling and coaching. That’s why early on, you could identify as the Solo Flier (trying to do it all yourself, not empowering your team) then later in your career as a Version 1.0.—where you are good at your job, but you become complacent, the learning curve drops down, and you don’t stay abreast of changes.

If one is involved in startups, one has to have a little bit of Captain Fantastic (the type who is high in ego drive) in them to birth something that’s never been birthed before. You’d have to have a little swagger and a lot of self-confidence, but you’d also have to learn how to rein it in. Be assertive and bold and mix that in with listening to feedback. If you are at a big organization and you like security and all the pieces set before you, there’s more of a chance you’ll be a Version 1.0. and not as adaptable—so yes, some of the personas fit different organizational cultures.

We also did an assessment at the back of the book—and it’s online as well—which thousands have taken, and the number-one self-reported archetype is the Whirling Dervish (who over-commits and under-develops). Everyone is inundated with text messages, emails, social media . . . it’s hard to concentrate. A premium is placed on those who can stay focused and ignore the noise.

The minute you get into a job, you have to ask yourself, “What skills and competencies do I have?”

ATD: You talk about finding your passion and interests, but what if you haven’t discovered any undying passions or interests?

Cast: If what you’re passionate about is unclear to you, figure out where you have good skills or natural abilities and become very proficient in that area. Get good at what you do, and leverage that skill to find the right place to do it in. Sometimes the passion comes not from the functional area, but the industry you are in.

ATD: In the book, you mention it takes about three years to really make an impact at an organization. When should you start to examine your skills?

Cast: The minute you get into a job, you have to ask yourself, “What skills and competencies do I have?” Ask people who have been in the job before and were successful what made them successful. You need eight to 10 of them. Right away you should assess: Where am I now? What does competency look like? What experience do I have or can I obtain to get me there? And, what does success look like?

ATD: You talk about finding a career coach in the book. How does one pick the right coach for them?

Cast: Start by asking people you trust if they ever had a career coach, talk to your talent development office or HR, and ask friends of yours who had a coach. Your network can find the right coach for you. It’s a lot like finding a psychiatrist—if it doesn’t feel like a good fit, you can’t be afraid to try someone else. Chemistry is important in coaching.

ATD: If you could sum up in two sentences or less your advice on avoiding career derailment, what would it be?

Cast: Know thyself and stay curious!


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