My brilliant friend Morra Aarons-Mele, creator of the podcast “Hiding in the Bathroom” and author of a book by the same name subtitled “An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You Would Rather Stay Home),” recently posted the poignant question “How do you stop obsessing over a f-up?” on Facebook.
I responded to her post:
Here’s how I TRY to put f-ups behind me. 1. Write it down 2. Identify lessons learned, if any. 3. Share my mistakes with team members and mentees.
At our company The Loyalty Group, we hosted annual Experience Sharing Conferences with the management teams of our sister companies from around the world. A highlight was always the presentations by each CEO on the biggest mistakes made over the past year. One of our Operating Principles was “Learn from you mistakes, don’t dwell on them. Identify the lessons learned, share them and move on.”
Morra’s question and several recent experiences with leaders who seem hesitant to ever admit – much less promote – their mistakes stimulated this article.
Here’s what you can do to use your mistakes to add value to the missions you pursue and the teams you lead:
- Be ruthlessly self-candid about the mistakes you have made. Recognize them.
- After you recover, think about the lessons learned. What – in hindsight – could you have done before the moment of your mistake to have prevented it? I have often found this simple matrix from Chapter 3 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People helpful:
In his book, Covey makes the important point that leaders often find their days consumed with responding to and managing both work and personal “emergencies” and “crisis.” They live in Quadrant 1, spending their time on critically important and urgent issues. His more important insight is that many of these crisis could have been avoided if leaders focused more on and invested in Quadrant 2 activities and issues:
One of the challenges of this paradox is – in most cases – if you don’t invest in Quadrant 2 initiatives today, you likely won’t lose a customer, key employee or experience other professional or personal pain today. E.g. If you don’t get some exercise today, it’s unlikely that will lead to a heart attack. Another challenge is we often find it difficult to find the time to prioritize Quadrant 2 activities because we end up spending all of our time putting out Quadrant 1 fires. This analysis may be helpful as you think through the lessons learned from your most recent mistake. One of our insights was that we needed to make Quadrant 2 initiatives mandatory and – on the rare occasion when all else failed – give them same “nights and weekends” priority we would Quadrant 1 emergencies.
- Share – and even consider promoting – the mistakes you have made with your colleagues, the teams you lead and the people you mentor. In order to successfully do this, you need to both lead by example – share your own mistakes – and ensure you have created a consistent culture and a work environment where employees feel safe sharing their own mistakes. One way we did this at The Loyalty Group (now Alliance Data’s LoyaltyOne division) was to incorporate the company’s 10 Operating Principles into to our bi-annual employee feedback survey. One section of the survey asked employees to rate their manager’s performance re “leading by each of the Operating Principles” over the past six months on a one to 10 scale. And we put some teeth in our commitment to leading by our Operating Principles by basing 10% of all managers’ annual bonus on their team members’ responses to these questions. Perhaps more importantly, I am sure we fired more managers for not leading by our Operating Principles than for any other reason.
- Continuously analyze the root causes of mistakes and make sure you are investing in training, capabilities, programs and other resources to decrease the probability of repeating them.
- Although we all try to not make the same mistake twice and thereby modeling Einstein’s axiom “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different results is the definition of insanity,” mistakes will inevitably happen. Sometimes more than once. If this happens, repeat steps 1-5 and keep moving forward. I’s OK to cut yourself some slack.
Please share your experiences with learning by and leading from your mistakes.