When was the last time you failed? I don’t mean a little mistake. When was the last time you experienced a bona-fide, gut-wrenching, FUBAR failure? I used to be afraid to fail. I think I spent much of my twenties and my early thirties trying hard not to fail. Back then, I had serious perfectionist tendencies and worked hard not to make a mistake. I look back at how naive I was then. As much success as I’ve encountered in my career since those early days, I sometimes wonder how much further I’d be if I’d allowed myself to embrace and learn from my failures earlier in life. I started thinking about failure when the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review arrived in my mailbox. The entire issue is dedicated to the topic of failure -recognizing it, learning from it and recovering from it.
My own turning point with failure finally came when I was working as an expatriate in Shanghai, China as a PR agency executive nearly 10 years ago. Fresh off a successful career in New York, I took on the daunting task of managing several high-profile multi-national clients expanding their presence in China. My very first assignment was managing a well-known CEO of a European bank’s visit to a prominent Chinese business school. As a expert event planner, I had done my due diligence and thought I had covered off any potential issues that would mar this event. The CEO was scheduled to lecture to the business students (most of whom would be future prominent Chinese business and political leaders) on pension reform. Less than a day before the CEO was scheduled to arrive the business school staff intimated that the president of the school might not be able to personally greet the CEO when he arrived on campus – a huge break in protocol. I also discovered that a competing lecture had been scheduled at the same time as the CEO’s talk, which would greatly diminish attendance for his lecture. In less than 24 hours things began to quickly spiral downward. While we were able to get the competing lecture cancelled, the business school’s PR team informed me that the president would indeed be attending a fundraising dinner in Europe and therefore would not be able to personally greet the CEO. He would send a lower-ranking surrogate instead. Disaster. While the CEO’s lecture went well, the overall visit was a bust. The CEO was so offended he was not personally greeted by the school president, he withheld a six-figure donation he had intended to make to the school.
To say I was sick to my stomach is an understatement. For a while I even contemplated packing my bags and returning to the States, so upset was I over this failed event. While one could have argued that many of the events that transpired were out of my control, in hindsight there were some warning signs that I clearly ignored. Thankfully, I didn’t lose my job over that event and the experience actually made me a better professional. I’m glad I experienced that monumental failure because it helped to season and mature me in a way that success couldn’t. Over the years, I’ve developed my own short list of rules for dealing with failure:
- Fail early and often. Entrepreneurs are great at this. They know the secret to refining their ideas is to try and try again knowing that each failure helps them to refine their thinking, make new discoveries ultimately leading to success.
- Admit it when you screw up. There is a reason people say “Success has many parents but failure is an orphan.” It’s true. You have to be able to publicly admit when you’ve taken a wrong turn. This is fundamental for leaders. It’s easy to take the credit when things go well but you gain credibility and respect for a being able to admit a mistake.
- Always conduct a debrief while the event is fresh in your mind. When you fail it’s tempting to want to put the whole mess behind you. But not so fast. The debrief or post-mortem (especially with the entire team) is especially effective in helping to analyze the event from multiple perspectives to glean lessons learned.
- Learn to depersonalize your failures. I’ll generalize here and say that men tend to be better at this than women. Resist the urge to flog yourself in perpetuity for your failure. If you can’t learn to move on then you’ll be stuck in a state of constant fear.
- Dump your perfectionist tendencies to reduce your fear of failure. My own experience is that being a perfectionist early in my career made me more risk-averse and afraid of failure. After much self-reflection (and lots of feedback from friends and colleagues), I’ve gotten over my perfectionist tendencies and am a much more effective leader.
- Develop a spiritual core to help buffer you from setbacks. I’ve written in other posts about the importance of developing a spiritual life. Having an spiritual anchor helps protect you from the ups and downs of life’s stresses.
These small steps have helped me to manage failure in a much more mature and healthy way. While I’m still a work in progress, it’s made a difference for me thus far. How have you managed failure in your life? What advice do you have for others who wrestle with the fear of failure?