How A Career Can Go Wrong: 5 Pitfalls To Avoid[1]

6 May 2011

Prepared by: Mark Thomas


How did it go so wrong? A career goes off the rails and the person doesn't know why. Worse still, the person doesn't learn from their experience. In this paper I outline 5 pitfalls to avoid for a rewarding career.

Some important comments up front:

  1. There are no guarantees in life or here! Avoiding these pitfalls does not mean that your career will be problem-free. You'll find your own pitfalls! Also, as you'll discover in this paper, that each pitfall is a matter of degrees. That is, the activity or characteristic that causes the pitfall actually can lead to success. But too much of a good thing can have the opposite effect.
  2. These comments are based on my observations and experience. Your experiences will be different. Think of the pitfalls outlined in this paper as warning signs that you can adapt to your own situation.
  3. Many of the points discussed are unconventional. I believe there is no point providing you with something you already know, because they should be obvious – don't be dishonest, and be diligent in discharging your duty; for example - or you would not be reading this paper. Rather, my objective is to outline five pitfalls that are new so you can keep them in your career toolkit[2].
  4. If you passionately disagree with the pitfalls described in this paper that is a terrific outcome! To be a success, you need to have passion. If you disagree with this paper you probably already have developed your own set of pitfalls that are to be avoided. Having passion and enthusiasm about yourself and your career will lead to success!

Pitfall 1: Cogito ego sum[3]

Having an ego in the workplace will help you go a long way in your career. Indeed, having an ego is essential for people in a sales role, leaders, and entrepreneurs. But you can have too much of a good thing; and too much ego becomes arrogance, or worse, hubris.

It's a matter of degree. Having an ego is essential to building your career! You need an ego to persuade others to your point of view. You need an ego to back yourself. For those readers who are in a sales role, having an ego often is a pre-requisite for the role. You even need to display more of your ego as your career develops. Arguably, the CEO has the largest ego of the firm, so that by shear force of will they can convince people to follow them and their strategy for the firm.

But the pitfall occurs when your ego gets in the way of making good decisions or when it blinds you from mistakes.

To demonstrate what I mean I'll use the example of the executive who had developed an offer she thought was superior to what was in the market. Arguably, it probably was a superior offer to her competitors; yet even though it was a superior offer this executive wasted several years, significant resources, and several opportunities trying to sell something nobody wanted. What was the problem? There was no problem in her sales approach; she was an accomplished salesperson who knew how to persuade people to her point of view. Was it the product? It probably wasn't the product, per se, although there always are some problems with every product. Arguably, there were two problems with the offer; firstly, there was no problem with the existing offer in the market, and therefore no compelling need to change; and secondly, although superior, it was a complicated product. Neither of these "problems" are fatal. However, what was fatal to this product, and in the end this person's career at that firm, was that she would not accept the deficiencies in her product design. She would argue that the market was flawed and that eventually market participants would see her wisdom and change their ways. Here is where it becomes a matter of degree. What was her reaction after the first couple of rejections? Nothing, she shrugged it off and went on to the next round of meetings. There is nothing wrong with that reaction, per se, depending upon the breadth or the depth of the market. If it is a deep market, with many participants, then it probably is correct to keep trying. But if the market is narrow, as this market was, then this executive should have started to question her product design. She had an ego the size of all outdoors, so she kept on trying to persuade the market. After about a year, she had met with nearly every participant in the market with a 100% rejection rate. Now instead of revisiting the design of the product, or even listening to the feedback from the market, or seeking feedback from her team; she rejected all criticism of her design and openly stated that market participants were not intelligent enough to understand the value of her superior product design. To me, this is where ego has crossed the line and become arrogance. Unfortunately, once she had crossed that line her arrogance would appear in meetings with prospects. Even at this point her career could have been salvaged. She could have admitted to the CEO and the Board that the market wasn't ready for her product and that it would take some time to educate market participants. But no, she persisted with her promises of significant revenue growth. Twelve months later she had sold none of her new product and the other products in her area were declining in volumes primarily due to lack of attention. Eventually, the Board and the CEO had had enough and this executive was asked to leave.

Another example is the group of executives who had had some success with a strategy they had developed and believed they were invincible. Instead of recognising that they had been lucky, they put their achievement down to their superior capabilities. They had achieved academic honours. They had risen quickly through the ranks. They had achieved success beyond their dreams. In short, they thought that they were better than everyone else. In fact these executives had such inflated egos that if they were ever criticised they would not just argue their point, they would argue so hard as to belittle those who criticised them. Such hubris makes you a target. If you want to go down this path you can never make a mistake because your detractors will skewer you. Unfortunately, that's what happened to these executives. Market conditions shifted dramatically, very quickly. The decisions they made at this point did not take into consideration the changes that were happening around them. Faced with insurmountable evidence, they chose to ignore the signs. From their perspective, they had their view and everyone else was wrong! Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being a contrarian, or in being innovative. But you should have a basis for your decisions. You should accept input from others, which you can reject, but you should accept the input. You should be willing to acknowledge that you might be wrong and be willing to adapt your strategy as conditions change. These executives didn't admit the short-comings of their strategy and being at a level where they could have a significant impact on the firm, they nearly brought their company to its knees. The board tired of these executives and got rid of them!

My third example is something we see frequently on the public stage. I'm talking about the politician who lets her ego become over-inflated. Now an inflated ego is essential to being a politician! But an overly inflated ego can be disastrous. There always will be the political leader who at the end of their terms as leader will have formed the view that they were the only one who could lead their party and that it was their vision for the future of the nation that was the appropriate one. History is littered with examples where the voting electorate disagreed!

My message is that having an ego is important to building a successful career, but it is a matter of degree. Don't let your ego blind you to good decision-making or admitting a mistake.

Pitfall 2: "A man's gotta know his limitations"[4]

A wise friend once said to me that the secret to building a successful career was to "bight off more than you can chew and chew like mad". They are right of course. There will be times in your career when it will be essential to take on a project or accept a role that is beyond your capabilities, and over the course of the next few weeks / months through hard work you will develop the skills / expertise for that role / project. Every promotion means taking on responsibilities that are beyond your capabilities. The most notable example is the promotion to CEO. There is no training for this role, because it is a role that is unlike any other in an organisation. Many first-time CEOs find the first 12 to 24 months a challenging time, but they generally grow into the role, or they leave.

However, you will have limitations; and while you might bight off more than you can chew you can take too big a bite and choke, or in other words, fail. Again, it's a matter of degree.

Think of it as taking a single step up in a promotion versus jumping a level. Few people can jump a level and succeed. Most of us will be challenged enough just by the promotion by a single level. Taking this single step, you can build experience, expand your network of contacts or support, and then you are ready for the next move. However, by jumping a step, you miss out on valuable experience.

I think of my own career. My background is in Engineering. When I entered the finance industry I had no idea of sales, yet I have been successful in sales for over a decade. If I had jumped straight into the sales role I would have failed and I would be working in a different industry. However, I moved from a technical field into a "half-way" role; client service. In this role I spent five years developing my relationship management skills in a role where my technical skills were relevant and valued. Even though I was leading that client servicing business unit after a couple of years, I accepted a relatively junior position when I moved into sales. Why? I had never actually done any sales. I still needed time to develop my skills, and in a relatively lower position I had more breathing space to learn and develop, which I did very quickly. Again, within a couple of years I was the leader of that side of the business, and for me, I was ready to take the next step and become a "Head of" at another firm. I've since enjoyed several "Head of" roles. It's like my mother used to say "you've got to walk before you can run".

Another example is the person who has been promoted beyond their level of competence. If the role is new to them, there is a high probability that they do not know what they are doing. Now if their ego is too big, they won't seek advice from the people doing the tasks; ie their team, rather they will try to solve it themselves. The consequences are that without knowledge or experience they make mistakes. What is important though is if these people learn from their mistakes. Yet if they truly have been promoted to their level of incompetence they won't learn and they will keep on making mistakes.

Another example is one organisation I have observed where once people are promoted to a certain level, seemingly everything they say is accepted without question; even if they have no basis for the comment. I call this "the blind leading the deaf mute[5]". It makes no sense at all! How does promotion increase knowledge? It doesn't. In my experience it is the other way around; knowledge leads to promotion. The problem occurs when the promoted person begins to believe that they are knowledgeable about all things. The odd thing though is that this happens often in organisations. The pitfall is the wasted opportunity. So much time, energy and resources are wasted by people who don't know what they are doing. But it is not just the executives and the business that suffer; it's also the people who work at this firm because their career is being wasted!

My point is it is one of degree, you won't know everything and sometimes you have to make a judgement call, but you have got to know your limitations too.

Pitfall 3: Today's success is the source of tomorrow's downfall

This pitfall can also be described as mistaking luck for skill. What are you going to do if you have some success? It's perfectly rational to repeat what you did to achieve the recent success to achieve even more success. That's the basis of process design, which is the development of an efficient process that is then repeated. The production line, which was invented by Henry Ford, and is the basis of many manufacturing processes, is a very efficient way to manufacture goods.

But what happens when people are involved? The problem is that everyone is an individual; and every day they are a little bit different. So something that worked yesterday with one person or a group of people may not work with that same group of people tomorrow, although it might. The behavioural psychologists will be able to explain such behaviours, but I agree with my 11 year old son who explains it thus; "they are random". That makes sense to me. That is, collectively there is some sense to the behaviour of people, but at the individual level it tends to be random.

What does that mean? It means you need to keep evolving. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow; and what did not work yesterday, may work tomorrow, or it might not. Viva la difference!

The problem is that some people extrapolate yesterday's success into the future, with expected results ever increasing without taking the helicopter view and asking why they expect that to occur.

An interesting example is someone I met many years ago. At our first meeting we got to chatting about our career background. It turned out that we were once employed by the same steel manufacturer in the early 1980's. In fact, the coincidence was even spookier, in that we were stationed on the same blast furnace for the same two year period. Why I had never met this person before was because she was an accountant and I was an engineer. Anyway, this blast furnace was very old. It was near the end of its useful life and was nearing decommissioning. It also happened to be the most efficient blast furnace in the world! I remember seeing senior engineers from steelworks in Japan, India, Korea, America and the UK visit this blast furnace and spend weeks climbing over it to learn its secrets. I expect there also were papers published in the journals explaining the wonders of this blast furnace. Then one day, the visitors stopped coming and the blast furnace was decommissioned soon after. I got to talking to my new acquaintance about this episode in our mutual careers, and she was able to shed some light on it because she was at its centre. It turns out that on her first day on the job, she was given the monthly production report to prepare. As part of her training she was informed where to get the information for each line item of that report. Importantly, she was told that the "Total Production" figure was the sum of the daily production over that month and the value for "Total Production" from the previous month. That is, she was stating the monthly production figure as the cumulative of many months of production. No wonder that blast furnace was efficient! The fascinating thing was that nobody noticed the error. In fact, careers were advanced over the next two years because of the "success" of that blast furnace. Again, this is something that fascinates me, why nobody asks questions when things go better than expected. When the error was discovered this junior accountant was shunted off.

Another example is the person diligently doing what has always been done even though the business has moved on and that task is no longer required. I expect the reader witnesses this event often. There is a process or a report that is regularly undertaken / prepared which (unfortunately) all too often takes up valuable resources and time to complete and is of such a high priority that it excludes other tasks. Over time, new people come into that role and they are trained on this task and so it goes on. When asked why they are undertaking this task, the person generally explains "we have always done it this way". The sad thing is that task once was important, but over time, conditions and requirements change and the task is no longer required. In one situation I witnessed the Head of a division leave because they had a Department that was doing things "the way they always had been done".

My message is just because you had some success in the past it doesn't mean you will enjoy success into the future. Always be thinking and testing for improvements.

Pitfall 4: A career built on sand is unsustainable

The star that burns the brightest also burns the quickest.

The modern career is a portfolio of roles that you are responsible for creating. Unlike the baby boomers which tended to retire early, the modern career should last a lifetime. In other words, the concept of retirement will be very different 10 years from now. Unlike today, where the concept of retirement is ceasing employment and spending your retirement savings, the retirement of the near future will be one of reduced working hours or fewer working days a week or working only nine months a year[6].  My point is that a career is no longer limited to 45 years. Think of a career that has the potential to last 60 years!

So if you have 60 years of work ahead of you, how do you want to spend it? Do you want to race ahead, achieve premature success and suffer a crushing failure because of your lack of experience when you need it and then have to rebuild? Or would you prefer a slower progression where you gain expertise and knowledge about yourself and your capabilities and spend a very long time (half your career) at the top? You might be one of the few highly gifted individuals who can jump career stages and enjoy a successful rise to the top and succeed. But most of us need to build our portfolio of experience and knowledge to be successful – we can't all be better than average! My point is build a sustainable career.

Often, however, there are those who are not prepared to develop their skills and experiences. What happens to them?

One person I know is a perfect example. She is gifted! She completed high school at the age of 14 and university at the age of 16. She was recruited by a major management consulting firm and was very successful. By the age of 24 she was burnt out. She then spent the next couple of years drifting and obtained a senior role in a manufacturing organisation. The next couple of years were a nightmare for her and she left without achieving her potential. What happened? It's one thing to provide advice but execution of the advice is something completely different and requires a portfolio of skills. While knowing the theory very well and the nature of the tasks, she lacked the experience of dealing with people because she had not developed those skills earlier in her career.

Another example is the list of the 10 most influential people, or the 10 rising stars. I always chuckle whenever I see these lists because generally these people exit the industry within the next two years. I don't have a definitive answer as to why these "influential rising stars" disappear. I put it down to misinterpreting luck for skill. It was luck that found them at the centre of their industry for a brief period; long enough for a journalist to recognise them, and they believed what was written about them only to fail to deliver on the promise. To me, the real influencers tend to be in the background. Publicity is a very bright light indeed and every mistake or misgiving is displayed for all to see.

I think of the institutional investment management industry. In Australia there are several hundred sales people in the institutional investment management industry. Institutional funds management is a long lead time business, with lead times of a minimum of two years. However, I find that sales people generally spend less than 5 years in the industry. Why? I believe it's because they jump too quickly. It goes something like this. Samantha enters the investment industry in a junior sales role at a firm. She is given a contact list or a territory and over time she may be introduced around her market, or she has to cold call. Anyway, over next two years she gets some success. Why? It might be because of Samantha's superior sales skills, but it probably is because her predecessor had done all the hard work over the previous period and Samantha is there to answer the phone and enjoy the spoils of success. It's not long after she clocks up two years in her role that a headhunter calls Samantha and suggests that she is undervalued by her current employer and that she should move to another firm for a promotion and a much bigger salary. Again, over the next two years Samantha enjoys some success. She has her contacts and she does well. Just like before, some of this success is due to Samantha's skills, but a lot of it will be due to her predecessor. And just like before, after two years a headhunter calls her and again tells her how undervalued she is and that there is a "Head of" role going at another firm and that the headhunter has managed to negotiate a big sign-on payment. Samantha jumps at the opportunity. Twelve months later, Samantha disappears from the industry. Why? There was no predecessor for the latest role. With a two year lead time, it would take at least this long to get a nibble. Yet her big sign-on payment and her track record of success have worked against her and she has not delivered quickly enough. Samantha's employer cuts their losses.

The pitfall is a career built without a solid foundation is unstable.

Pitfall 5: Kill your Facebook page or change your name

Just about everyone has an internet fingerprint. It's surprising the amount of information that is on the internet. Before I meet with anyone I look them up. Most of the time it will be their professional details, previous employment, etc – after all I am researching people in their 40's and older - but sometimes their Facebook page will come up. Then I find out who they really are.

The first time I learnt about the importance of the personal information that is on the internet occurred in 2005 in Hong Kong. It was my first visit to that city on business. At one of my meetings the person whom I was meeting had a piece of paper in front of him. Although he took notes, he never wrote on that piece of paper. In fact he hardly referred to it, until we got to the end of the meeting when he picked it up and started reading from it. It was a brief biography on me that he had managed to piece together from the internet. I was stunned and felt a little violated because I had not posted anything about myself on the internet. Rather, it was information gathered from corporate, industry association, and conference websites. From that point on I have always used the internet to learn as much as I can about the people I am to meet. I also have been careful about what I have on the internet. What surprises me still is the number of people who post careless messages on their Facebook page after friending their employer, or post pictures of themselves in compromising situations.

Once it is up there it is there forever. A person may forget but the internet remembers for eternity. Every employer you will ever approach will look you up on the internet. Every person you will work for or with, every client, every head hunter, every person you will have contact with for the rest of your life will look you up at some time.

My message is simple, if it's compromised, kill your Facebook page and change your name.


In this paper I have highlighted five potential career pitfalls. Be watchful, lest you fall into the trap of one of these:

  • Don't let your ego blind you to good decision-making;
  • Recognise your limitations;
  • Today's success is the source of tomorrow's downfall;
  • A career built on sand is unsustainable; and
  • Kill your Facebook page or change your name.


There are many pitfalls that can befall a career. In this paper I have set out five common pitfalls that I have seen people fall into. But be careful. As I have stated many times, it is a matter of degree. You need to be sensitive to your impact on those around you. You need to push the boundaries a little to build your career, but pushing too hard can cut a career prematurely short.

Even if you are sensitive to your impact on those around you, don't fret, I'm confident that you will discover even more pitfalls. To paraphrase someone whom I respect very highly "I have been in business for many years and have learnt few ways to develop my career, but every day I have learnt a new way to hurt my career"[7].


Inspirational Leaders

At Inspirational Leaders we help individuals & organisations to become inspirational. We work intensively with:

  • Entrepreneurs; to give them focus to help them realise their dream;
  • Individuals; to kick-start their career by giving them focus & purpose; and
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About the Author

Mark Thomas, SF Fin, MHKSI, MAppFin, GDipFinPlanning, GradDipAppFin, BE. Since the 1990's, Mark has built businesses and careers. More recently, Mark has actively pursued opportunities to help businesses and individuals to gain focus, communicate their message, and achieve their goals. Mark's current area of focus is developing newly established firms and firms that have had better times. In his career, Mark has worked in many roles, including; futures trader, portfolio manager, relationship management, and more recently business leadership. Prior to entering the finance industry Mark enjoyed a career as a Chemical Engineer. Mark is a regular speaker at industry events, a lecturer, a mentor, and is actively involved with several industry bodies.


[1] I am grateful to the people I have worked with over the years, for the experience of learning from you, and from watching and learning from your career mistakes. The examples in this paper are real although the people and the facts have been amended to protect the guilty. If the reader recognises any of the people used in the examples you are mistaken!

[2] The Career toolkit is a concept I have developed throughout my career. It describes the skills and knowledge that you carry with you at all times that are essential to building a rewarding career.

[3] I think therefore I am

[4] This is the Harry Callahan tag line from the 2nd Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, which stars Clint Eastwood. Most people remember the tag line from the 4th Dirty Harry movie, Sudden Impact, which is "Go ahead, make my day", whereas I believe the tag lines from the 1st and 2nd movies are more relevant to building a career. The tag line from the 1st Dirty Harry movie, Dirty Harry, is "Do you feel lucky?" The relevance of luck in a career is touched on below and is the subject of a forthcoming paper.

[5] You can call it the blind leading the blind, but at least the blind are able to communicate sensibly with each other.

[6] One does not need to be a fortune teller to come to this conclusion. The underlying facts leave few other options. Life expectancy is increasing! Today, life expectancy in Australia is mid-80's. Improvements in medical science and improvements in health and physical well-being may increase life expectancy further. In addition, people in their 70's are more mobile and in better physical condition than the generation before them. That means that instead of staying at home and gardening, retirement is an active and adventurous phase of life, with world trips and adventure holidays on the agenda. These pursuits do not come cheaply! To fund an active and adventurous lifestyle requires a sizeable nest-egg or a source of income. Moreover, because of the increased life expectancy and the sedentary nature of work in the knowledge economy, people in their 70's will wish to, and be capable of, continuing to contribute to society.

[7] I attribute the original quote to Paul Harris, who was an early employer of mine. The actual quote was "I have been in this industry for very long time and have learnt few ways to make money, but every day I have learnt a new way to lose money". This quote refers to trading in the financial markets. Paul was right of course, and I agree thoroughly. I also believe that his statement is equally applicable to career development.