There are a lot of metaphors for career progress and career setbacks. In my lectures, I like comparing managing your career to being a new driver in a stick shift car. The shifting is the tough part. Since most careers have only a few major changes, none of us ever gets really good at shifting gears.
Invincible executives do not necessarily shift smoothly, but they accomplish their shifts successfully. Here is how they seem to do it. First, they sense when it is time to make a major career shift. They know when they cannot sustain their current momentum in the job that they have now. Indeed, there will likely be two or three times in your career when you sense that you are running out of room to operate in the current gear. You have to be attuned enough to what is going on around you in your organization to know when you are in that situation (we'll discuss how to do that a little later). When you determine that you are at the limit of the current position that you are in, you have two options. One, you can hit the brakes so that you can continue in your current gear. That is the equivalent of resigning yourself to a plateau in your career—deciding that there are more important things in life than progressing professionally. That is fine, but it means never becoming the invincible executive. You then become focused on protecting what you have.
Your other choice is to try to work the clutch to shift into the next higher level. That brief period of time when you are at the end of the capability of your current gear and are contemplating how and when to use the clutch is the time when career setbacks are most likely. You might go into overdrive; you might grind the gears; you might have a halting, sputtering transition into the next gear.
For example, you may not get the promotion that you wanted. You are all revved up; the organization isn't taking advantage of the RPMs that you are offering. It can be devastating. Or you may grind the gears a little as you move to a new job—as occurred with Ashcroft. You may not time the switch perfectly, which can mean a period of unemployment or a tense situation on the job. When you are grinding, it is an awful feeling of being neither here nor there, and suffering for it.
There may be economic or corporate circumstances beyond your control that change the direction of your career. For example, a software executive told me about the time he decided to move to a new company and immediately learned that the company had been unable to raise the money it expected to raise to continue its start-up operation. Within two weeks of his starting on the job, it was unclear if the company would have the cash to survive. The executive saw this setback as an opportunity. He jumped right into the middle of the matter and used his credibility with lenders to assist the company in finding new sources of financing. He was CEO two years later, and the company is still doing well.
When invincible executives make difficult gear shifts, they are driven by their commitment to change to a higher gear rather than slow down. That thought allows them to suppress unproductive, even self-destructive, conduct. The only option is to consider the pending or actual setback as an opportunity to improve the situation. Don't try just to hold on to what you have; look for the way to move ahead.