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The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade

January 22, 2018


Carter Cast examines career derailment, advises on how to avoid it, and offers leaders and companies a look at how they can stop compounding the problem.

In an era when everyone gets a prize for participation and relying on one’s strengths is widely touted as the fastest way to succeed, comes a candid and contrarian look at what’s really happening in corporate America where an unprecedented number of talented people are falling by the wayside. In his new book, The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade (PublicAffairs; January 9, 2018), Carter Cast, an award-winning professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, venture capitalist and himself a former CEO, examines career derailment, advises on how to avoid it, and offers leaders and companies a look at how they can stop compounding the problem.

And the problem is very real—one study shows that half to two-thirds of all managers will be fired, demoted, or plateau at some point in their careers. Further, the cost of those derailments to companies can be more than twenty times that of the employee’s salary.

Twenty-five years ago, Cast was a young, well-educated, highly ambitious executive certain he was on the fast track at PepsiCo when was summoned to the boss’s office. There, he was told he was “unpromotable” because he was “obstinate,” “resistant,” and “insubordinate.”

Baffled, scared, and deeply embarrassed, that defining moment (from which he did recover), led him on a lifelong effort to understand why talented successful people fail. For the book, Cast examined extensive research on the problem and conducted an original survey of 100 derailed managers, aged 25-45 who had been fired, demoted, or whose careers had “flat-lined.” He then interviewed over 60 people in that group, from managers and leaders to executive coaches, recruiters, CEOs and C-suite executives.

What he uncovered is that what we don’t know about ourselves is the thing most likely to hurt us. “Derailment,” writes Cast, “often afflicts talented managers who are either unaware of a debilitating weakness or interpersonal blind spot or are arrogant enough to believe that developmental feedback doesn’t apply to them.”

Most of those who derail, says Cast, go wrong because of five major propensities, which he depicts as archetypes:

  • Captain Fantastic: With sharp elbows that bruise you on their quest for the Holy Grail of the corner office, these people form interpersonal issues due to their unbridled ego and dismal listening skills. As a result, they have poor working relationships with coworkers.
  • The Solo Flier: Often strong individual contributors, these folks are very good at executing their initiatives. But when promoted into managerial positions, they have difficulty building and leading teams. They tend to either micromanage or revert to trying to do the work themselves. Their teams become dissatisfied and eventually there’s a coup d’état.
  • Version 1.0: Comfortable in their routines and highly skeptical of change, these people resist learning new skills that would help them adapt to the rapidly changing business environment. Their attitude of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will not serve them well over time and eventually their dinosaur-like tendencies may lead to extinction.
  • The One-Trick Pony: This employee does a good job at some part of his or her job. But, that signature skill— over time, unbeknownst to them – make them one-dimensional and unpromotable.
  • The Whirling Dervish: Perhaps the most recognizable of all are those that run around the office like their hair is on fire, late for the next meeting and muttering to themselves about their workload. They lack planning and organizational skills and are known to overcommit and under deliver. Their boss and coworkers can’t count on them to complete their assigned tasks, and eventually people try to avoid working with them.

Cast’s research revealed that ninety-eight percent of us have a strength that, when overused, becomes a critical liability. In fact, it is this hubris, rather than a lack of talent, skill, intelligence, or even luck, that causes careers to crumble. To find out where your career might derail and how you can prevent it, Cast has developed an online assessment.

Companies are quite often complicit in an employee’s decline. Commonly, they ignore bad behavior if short term results are present, shy away from having hard but needed developmental conversations, and move talented people too quickly without offering them lateral, broadening experiences. Further, companies generally don’t require superiors to develop subordinates.

The overwhelmingly good news in Cast’s book is that the “right stuff” needed to succeed is something that can be learned and developed. Cast examined managers and leaders with the “right stuff” and found those who succeed are learners who develop themselves, who build strong relationships and enlist others, and who finish projects and take responsibility for the outcomes.

Weaving together substantive data with his own derailment story and those of dozens of others, Cast has created a pragmatic playbook for careerists—from cubicle to corner office.



Carter Cast, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, was selected by his students three years running to receive the Faculty Impact Award. When not teaching, Cast is a venture partner at Pritzker Group Venture Capital, where he invests in early stage technology companies such as the Dollar Shave Club and Honest Company. He is a lead mentor for TechStars Chicago, one of the country's leading technology start-up accelerators, and has been featured in "The Accelerators," a Wall Street Journal forum in which start-up mentors discuss strategies for and challenges of creating a new business. Cast's writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He has been a guest on shows on Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC and Fox. Prior to his academic and venture-capital career, Cast was the chief executive officer at During his tenure, became the third-highest-volume e-commerce company, behind Amazon and eBay. Before his career at Walmart, Cast was an officer and part of the launch team for Blue Nile, Inc., the leading online diamond and jewelry retailer, now a publicly traded company. Prior to that, he was vice president of product marketing for Electronic Arts, launching products such as The Sims. Cast started his career at PepsiCo, where he derailed early on before recovering to become director of marketing in the Frito-Lay division.

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