Along our personal and professional journey failure will happen. Sometimes failure may be the result of not stretching far enough. Failures and setbacks are part of your story and should help enrich your learning and growth.

As we enter the new normal that COVID-19 has delivered, both organizations and individuals alike need to improve their resiliency. Resiliency requires learning. As leaders, we need to think about scaling for learning, versus scaling for efficiency. We all need to build our learning capabilities and that starts with creating an environment, mindset and culture where it is safe to explore failure and allow it to broaden our knowledge. The fear of failure only minimizes your ability, and your organization’s ability, to grow. 

This week I welcome my friend and colleague, Russ Kliman to share his perspective on how we learn from failure.

We’ve all had those moments in our careers — it’s the proverbial train wreck, but only this time you’re inside the train. Sometimes it feels like it’s in super-slow motion happening over weeks or even months, while other times it happens so quickly and unexpectedly that you’re not sure where the bloody nose came from. But when it does happen, the emotions and feelings are the same. That pit in your stomach, your mind flashing to images and conversations of what led to all of this, and that undeniable question that gnaws at you when you’re back at your desk, in your car on the drive home or while staring at the ceiling before you go to sleep — what about my reputation as a business leader? 

Failure is part of your professional journey

PB-US-Blog-Inline-learning-from-failureThe first thing you need to learn as a professional is that failures — both micro and macro ones — are part of your career journey. They will happen. Period. The key is to accept this as part of the reality of being a business leader, but also to equally accept that the vast majority of failures are not fatal. You are human, you will miss things, you don’t know everything and you are continuously learning. Your judgements are based upon your experiences, and your experiences so far may not have given you the context you needed. More importantly, understand that it’s the learning you take from those failures and how you apply them in the future that will set you up for success.  

Can you control failure?

One question I always ask of myself is, did I set myself up for success or failure? What I mean by that is, did I do or not do things that put me in a position to succeed or fail? 

Here’s a great example that I learned from my CEO. I was helping him evolve some content for an executive meeting. He was seeking to communicate some key themes and ideas, and was looking for his leadership team to weigh in. In the process of helping evolve the content, I offered to help pull the themes and ideas into a slide deck. Since I’m a perfectionist, this deck was completely “in SEI brand,” formatted with the correct colors, icons and fonts. 

I was excited to share with him how our iterative sketches and notes had transformed into a cohesive message in the completed, perfected deck. But his reaction took me by surprise. He smiled, shook his head and said, “It looks too good. I can’t use this.” Confused, I asked why not? His response gave me some fantastic insight. He said because it looked so good, it equally looked finished and complete. It looked like the final answer was already there and that he wasn’t open to evolving or open to feedback. In short, it looked “done.”

The learning and message I took away was that he knew how his audience would see the content. He had “been there, done that” many times, and he wanted the collaborative process to unveil itself with his leaders. And something as simple as a well-done, well-prepared and formal-looking slide deck would have set him up for failure. 

Do the things that set you up for success

Here are some key lessons I’ve learned over the years. They are not a guarantee, but they certainly fall into the category of things that will help set you up for success:

  • Be open – First and foremost, to be successful you need to be open to the fact that the way you see things, the way you might want to approach something, or the way something has worked previously might not be the best way to set yourself up for success in a given situation. Listen, question, and converse. If you’re not willing to be open, then the rest of these bullets are moot. 
  • Learn from those who’ve been there and done that – People who have been successful at your company, especially those for a long period of time, have done something right. More importantly, they have certainly failed many times along the way. Set up time to run things by them, and listen to their experiences and guidance. They will provide insights, tangible examples and tips that will help set you up for success.
  • Iterative collaboration vs. presentation – I have often found that many executive leaders prefer to be involved in the process of creation and shaping, as opposed to being pitched to and reacting. Involving your leader with an idea that’s still evolving allows them to provide guidance and shaping, and a feeling of ownership. Too often we wait until a meeting to present the big reveal, only to learn key items were missed or misaligned to the leader’s vision or thought process.
  • Float trial balloons – When you are introducing something new, potentially controversial, or just something that doesn’t fit the norms of your company, it can be helpful to informally float a trial balloon with certain leaders to gauge their reactions and get their questions. Then use this insight to calibrate your approach and language going forward. Remember this is informal and conversational, and usually starts with the phrase, “I wanted to run something by you and get your thoughts.”
  • Pre-sell to key constituents – Different than running a trial balloon, the pre-sell meeting is a one-on-one session with select individuals who will be in the room when you pitch. It provides the opportunity hear their feedback, gain their buy-in and support, and incorporate their language into your overall story. Experience has taught me that “pre-selling” is critical to success, and conversely, relying solely on a diligently prepared, well-rehearsed, and “perfect” presentation without the pre-sell is a recipe for failure.
  • Run test pitches with peers or other leaders – Find people you trust and run your pitch by them. Listen to their questions, how they probe, what they see or hear and the insights they offer. Remember you are testing to learn from them, not convince them.
  • Read your audience and be ready to make an audible – When you are making a pitch, running through a project update, or recommending a strategy, make sure you keep your head up, read whom you are pitching to, and be ready to make an audible on your approach. If you’re making your pitch and you sense disagreement or disengagement, you’ve got to be able to course correct quickly.

Final thoughts

One of the key things I’ve learned throughout my career is that diligent preparation and a perfect plan does not guarantee success. Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s true that being unprepared or not having a plan is a guarantee for failure, but it’s not symbiotic. You need to do those things that will set you up for success beyond preparation and planning. Seeking out those things will go a long way in helping you drive to a successful career.

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