To be a good leader, you can't be afraid to fail.
All successful people have had their fair share of failures. For executives, experiencing failure is not only part of the job, but one of the biggest opportunities for you to prove how good of a leader you really are.
Here's how executives can use failure to their advantage, according to those who've been there before.
Steve Barriault, Global Technology Sales Leader
Failure is THE great teacher. We all know the inspiring stories of entrepreneurs, scientists, and other remarkable figures in our history that succeeded after a litany of failures.
Of course, failing is no fun. As leaders, we must try to avoid it. But not at any cost. See, if you are so conservative that you drill down the chances of failure to zero, you are likely missing on opportunities that may have otherwise propelled your organization to new levels.
And that is a failure all on its own.
So, it is all about situational awareness. Realize the risks you are about to take. Don't run headfirst into danger with half a plan. Do your due diligence. Stress-test your plan by encouraging constructive criticism.
But, don't fret failure either.
And if and (probably) when failure happens, don't play the blame game. If you do, the message you will give is the following: audacity and innovation are wrong and punishable.
Instead, learn from the failure and use it to highlight the path to success.
Let me illustrate with an example. My team once tried to sell one of our products in Telecom (not our strong suit). We put together the solution proposal for that new, large customer base on a few assumptions we made about the industry, and what the customer told us was essential to them.
Technical-wise, we based our solution on conventional wisdom. Things everyone knew to be true. And we would start with a limited proposal, so money-wise acceptance would be swift, and then build our presence in the account.
We prepared before the proof of concept, which turned out to be a bit tougher than expected but still reasonably successful.
But the customer perceived only marginal value in what we offered, and we failed at securing the account.
Fast forward a few months. Another Telecom player—an even bigger one—expressed interest in some testing solution to ensure their code behaved properly after a necessary hardware upgrade.
We could have played it safe again. And maybe fail again. Not this time!
My team discussed and came up with a more audacious plan. We threw conventional wisdom out of the window. We changed the mix of tools—radically. And the size of the contract went up significantly.
In other words, we did the opposite of conventional wisdom.
We ended up winning the client's trust and landing one of the largest deals to date. The client was successful and continued to invest in our technology to this day.
And, along the way, we learned a new way of selling our tools in a non-traditional market.
Sure, minimize the risks of failure. But take calculated risks. And when failure comes, learn from it.
Above all, remember: if this is a team plan which everyone executed in good faith, the team, not the individuals, own that failure. So, avoid the blaming game.
Steve Barriault is a global technology sales executive with 18+ years of experience in business development on three continents. He is currently serving in a 3,000 employee-strong company providing embedded software testing solutions in multiple industries such as automotive, avionics, industrial systems, telecom, and others. Multilingual, he holds advanced degrees in business, science, and computer science.
Chris Rankin, Marketing Executive
At the executive level, we shy away from the word failure because the size and impact of the goals we handle are business critical. Failure at this magnitude has impacts far larger than our own careers. But let's be completely honest and admit that leading people has distinct similarities to "herding cats," (which could explain the popularity of animal memes in the workplace). To compensate for that complexity, smart executives create margins for failure to ensure goals are delivered on time and on budget.
Today, organizations are having to do more with less and margins for error are shrinking. As executives, we need to apply margins of error to our advantage before those resources are completely gone. We need to rethink failure from a concept of reflection that comes after a deadline and start putting it to work before the deadline. Pain is motivational—it is the extra jolt that makes us take on the impossible. Marketing strategically leverages it in the back end of pricing models to motivate highly change-averse customers. Product stimulates innovation with it through intentional end-of-life dates.
It's time to apply these concepts internally to any of those pain points we have gotten used to living with. The ones we have labeled as "inefficiencies" or as a "nice to have" because there always seems to be something more pressing. The way we do this is to reevaluate how we plan for these marginal failures. The secret is to find a way for the audience with the ability to solve what is blocking change to experience it first-hand. Let's look at an example.
Streaming technology was spotty pre-COVID-19, resulting in dropped calls during demos and occasionally costing the company sales revenue. But getting the resources to address the failure took a back seat to more pressing business objectives. So, we planned a specific percentage of overage in filling the top of the sales funnel to accommodate the known failure. Then COVID-19 put the company's CEO and c-suite stakeholders in the front seat of experiencing that specific pain. Dropping the CEO off a few high-profile meetings made for an uncomfortable moment. But experiencing the problem was motivating in a way that hearing about it hadn't been.
Within the week, the technology problem was solved despite the organization being large, complex, and international. The change benefited several strategic business initiatives, increased sales closure rates, improved marketing lead conversion, streamlined customer support resolutions, and stabilized internal communications. It's human nature to deal with direct pain before addressing that of our colleagues. The resource planning executives deprioritized the improvements to the organization's streaming technology to respond to more immediate concerns, like the pain points they were experiencing firsthand. Experiencing something will always be more motivating than hearing about it, so use that to your advantage.
Chris Rankin is a marketing executive who specializes in brand and digital strategy. Her specialty is in reimagining e-commerce to deliver digital branding experiences that augment a customer's real world. She believes social influencers are the content creators brands should partner with and enable to achieve better targeting and authenticity. She holds 20 years in marketing experience for health, technology, and fashion with an MFA from the Academy of Art University and a BA from Principia College. She believes learning from each other is the fastest path to growth and she welcomes anyone interested in swapping stories.
Karen Doerr, Business Development And Healthcare Sales Leader
It happens to all of us. We make decisions that we feel certain of only to discover months later that our decision was a failure. We missed a revenue target, didn't close an account with high probability, or lost a key client because we were too focused on building back up a threadbare pipeline. The challenge is we all think we are expert critical thinkers, great at analysis, and strategic in our planning. Even with those necessary skills, we are not infallible and must find a path forward from our failures.
What I have found helpful in moving forward from failure are the following:
• Be self-aware. Be objective in monitoring your own progress or lack thereof to goals. If you see that it is possible that you won't meet a goal or a quota, acknowledge that possibility and start to identify what might be done.
• Take ownership of your mistakes. Give your team and your boss an early heads up that things are likely not going to turn out as planned and have an alternative strategy or process identified to help mitigate the loss. Listen to input they may have to help correct the current trajectory.
• Know which KPIs you need to monitor to validate your progress toward goals. Make sure the metrics are accessible and easy to report on. Monitor these KPIs faithfully and, when possible, have someone else on your team reviewing these metrics concurrently.
• Pause and reflect. Try to be objective in thinking through all the components that led to your decision and dissect those to see which variables you may have missed or which assumptions you made that contributed to the failure.
• Don't be afraid to not talk about your mistakes with others. Recognize that things will go wrong. The executive who told you they intend to sign your contract before the end of the year is recruited by a competitor and leaves their post early. Or state funds get redirected to a different division and your largest YTD sale is now only 1/3 of its forecasted value.
People are drawn to a leader who is humble, authentic, and vulnerable enough to share when they make a mistake especially when done so to help prevent that same mistake being made by others. Use failure to your advantage to build an environment of trust and cohesiveness. Openly discuss failure and use those learnings to create true innovation where mistakes and risks are encouraged and learned from. Listen to other ideas or solutions that might enhance or replace yours.
Learn from your failure, forgive yourself, and move forward. Recognize the past but look to the future.
Karen Doerr is a business development and healthcare sales leader who enjoys introducing new tools and services to payers and providers that increase patient access and eliminate waste in healthcare delivery. Karen has helped start-ups and medium-size companies establish national brand awareness and accelerate revenues exploiting gaps in the complicated healthcare ecosystem. In her last leadership role, she led sales and marketing efforts for a digital healthcare start-up targeting chronic disease and is most impactful at the intersection of primary care, technology, and care management.
Rosanne Mao, CFO/Finance Director
Using failure as an advantage requires resilience and mental strength. Optimism inspires executives to bounce back from failure. People tend to see each failure as a building block to the ultimate success because of the learning experience. Optimism is a feeling of positivity. Persistent people's optimism never dies, which makes them great at rising from failure. Persistent people shake off those failures and keep going.
Fear of failure is worse than failure itself because it condemns a life of unrealized potential. Success in the face of failure comes from focusing on results to achieve, rather than trying not to fail. Winston Churchill stated, "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." The resilient and authentic executives identify skills, ideas, and life lessons that can be learned from failure. Each stumble pushes them outside of their comfort zones and leads to self-growth.
In most cases, these "overnight successes" stories don't reveal the missteps behind the eventual achievements. Economic uncertainty, negligence of some basic market research, and inadequate cash flow are the top failure reasons for entrepreneurship. Failure is a stepping stone on the pathway to success. Failure is an option. Without all that trial and error, it's highly unlikely that Google could have built the algorithm-based juggernaut so familiar today.
Failure coupled with fear can mean the end of the business. Failure coupled with motivation leads to success. If people had never started a venture, they couldn't be failing at all. Use that perspective to approach the future goals and obstacles. Checking the emotions, examining the failure, and taking the time to gain perspective will help to find the positive aspects of the problem.
Modern finance leaders are required to embrace digital technologies and use data analytics to drive consistent and measurable growth for the business. They are increasingly expected to be key drivers of business innovation. Failure, not initial success, is the key to successfully innovate. Albert Einstein said, "If you've never failed, you've never tried something new." Traditional finance executives are risk-averse and failure-fearing. The modern finance executives are capable of driving innovation, and experimenting new ways to drive efficiency and productivity.
Although failure is not good, organizations can't possibly undertake the risks necessary for innovation and growth if they could not accept the failures. In many cases, consider them experiments rather than failures. In order to innovate, executives have got to take risks. How can we design organizations to manage, mitigate and learn from failures? The article "Learning Through Failure: The Strategy of Small Losses" states that if the organization can adopt the concept of intelligent failure, it will become more agile, better at risk taking, and more adept at organizational learning.
Create an environment in which failures are discussable. The kind of culture building should happen at all levels of the organization. Executives need to create a climate that encourages intelligent risk taking and doesn't punish any failures that result.
Rosanne Mao is a CFO/finance director with more than 20 years of financial management experience in a multinational company. She's helped the company enhance cash flow, maximize corporate profitability, improve investor relationship, and reduce risk. Her leadership strategy has successfully driven company EBIT to increase by 15%. She has strategically led the enterprise digital transformation with 37% improvement in financial productivity.
Dr. Jan Urbahn, Automotive & Shared Mobility Executive
First of all, when you think you are experiencing failure, you should give yourself a pat on the back because it means that you had a goal in mind and you went out and tried to achieve it. Too often ideas just stay ideas and their creators never take the next step to try implementing them.
There is a great video by the early Steve Jobs on this topic in which he tells the story of how he got parts as a 12-year-old boy from Bill Hewlett to build a frequency counter. Steve Jobs was so successful because he failed so often. As another example, Michael Jordan, said to the same effect, that he missed 9,000 shots, he lost 300 games, that is why he was so successful. These statements on failure by some of the most successful people we know are inspiration and encouragement to act on your ideas.
For practical implementation, it is important to be able to identify failure. Failure means that I haven't achieved my goal. What was my goal?
Actually, all my tasks and projects are broken down into an agile backlog and I execute, even my home-related projects, in Scrum sprints, and I try to keep all my projects broken down into small sub-projects. With that, I have plenty of goals for the week and I can keep measuring how many are achieved to what grade. With the Scrum element of the weekly review (the retrospective) I can take the learnings and think about improvements for the next sprints coming up. With agile processes, every failure becomes an opportunity for improvement, delivering potentially big rewards in the future.
Dr. Jan Urbahn is an automotive executive with 20+ years of experience in product development, safety engineering, and operations in automotive and shared mobility business. He helped launch 3 new businesses with up to 1,500 shared cars in fleet size. His most recent leadership position is within the shared mobility space, where he helped develop a new EV battery and guided the coronavirus response.
James Wheaton, HR Professional & Business Coach
How many of you remember growing up being unsuccessful at winning a board game, striking out in a softball or baseball game, or losing your first running race on the schoolyard? Behind each great failure growing up, most likely, there was a parent, teacher, or coach who would state, "If you lose, try, try again."
Off we went with that unenviable phrase securely latched in the back of our minds. Keep on trying, don't give up, or next time will be better, all dangling off that first phrase like little magnets.
Guess what? All those people from your formidable days were spot on!
Now you're out in the workforce of a company managing a department, division, heck maybe the CEO of a company. Do you remember those halcyon days of your youth? Is every decision made going to be correct? Will every deal signed become gold? Have you experienced the jubilation of success only to have the agony of crisis chase after you when an uncontrollable factor catches up to you, like COVID?
The word sometimes used is "failure"—an all too unforgiving word that has many meanings, contexts, perceptions, and clarifications. How can all of us turn a failure into an advantage?
First and foremost, it is an opportunity to LEARN.
Any time our intended success is found falling well behind, it provides an opportunity to learn and assess how to correct and move forward. Not learning from something less than successful will lead to further setbacks. Taking advantage of the opportunity to correct the course is an invaluable component to learning.
Learning Becomes Growth
"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking." — Albert Einstein.
By changing our thinking, we are, in fact, allowing ourselves to grow. Few could argue that Albert Einstein was a failure, yet every day his curiosity waded into the deep waters of physics to find his theories tested. His outcomes were not always met. However, his failures led to his successes, and from that, his growth led him to be at the forefront of science.
Failure Can Inspire
Failure is also about being honest with yourself. Allowing experiences, good, bad, or indifferent, to shape future decisions. I have found that honesty allows for congruence, and others will notice that congruence between your actions and your reactions. Besides that, who doesn't appreciate a good comeback story?
How can "failure" be advantageous? It can help define how you learn and rebound, what your growth path becomes, lastly, how you use what you have learned, and your growth to inspire to stretch their capabilities and opportunities continually.
James Wheaton is a human resource professional, as well as a business coach. His passion is optimizing business performance and people's performance. He has experience in large and small public companies supporting a broad spectrum of human resource functions with particular depth in compensation in both internal and external consulting roles.
Melodie Turk, Organizational Development Executive
Everyone blunders, makes mistakes, or fails—the key is to learn and grow through it.
It's also an opportune time to display our leadership skills and strengthen our reputation. By publicly acknowledging our mistake, seeking input to correct it, and sharing the solution for it, we not only set an example for how we deal with failure, but how others can deal with failure as well.
When we acknowledge our failure and seek input to correct it, we display humility. This is our chance to be real, to be authentic, and to show our vulnerable side. When we follow through with the correction of the mistake, it shows integrity. Humility and integrity will build trust with those we lead—strengthening our reputation.
Melodie Turk has a passion for transforming people and organizations. With her 15+ years of experience in change management, making a difference in tomorrow is always the goal. Recently, she led talent development strategy and implementation for 1600+ employees—adding learning hours, training sessions, and diversity and inclusion conversations—all which increased employee engagement, enhanced culture, and promoted workplace satisfaction.
All good leaders aren't afraid to fail. They know it's an opportunity to learn, an opportunity for self-growth. Everyone, not just executives, can use failure to their advantage. Your potential success is counting on it.
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