• 4th May 2007 - By proteman

    Job Objective: To obtain a position where I can leverage my significant failures.

    Key Accomplishments:

    • Lost a major account to the competition because I got too comfortable and assumed that the customer was happy, when they weren’t.
    • Hired the wrong person for a leadership position and as a result, employee engagement dropped 2% over the prior year.
    • Risked $1.5 million on a new product launch that failed.

    Fastcompany.com recently had a fascinating two-part interview with Sir James Dyson, founder of Dyson, the maker of the best selling vacuum cleaners in the U.S. by revenues. (Article part 1, part 2 ). Dyson describes himself as an inventor, who created 5127 prototypes of his vacuum over 15 years before getting it right.

    Dyson says, “I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.”

    What a refreshing perspective on failure!

    Another Fastcompany.com article by Richard Watson , CEO of Global Innovation Network, talks about Celebrating Failure. In the article, Watson says “Most companies — indeed, most people — fail more often than they succeed. It is the proverbial elephant-in-the-boardroom. And yet by being scared of failure, we are missing a great opportunity. The point about failure is not that it happens but what we do when it happens. “

    Both Dyson and Watson are talking about failure in the context of invention and innovation. They argue that creativity relies on failure – and learning from those mistakes. I’ll go a step further. It’s not just inventors and product development specialists that need to embrace failure. Everyone in today’s organization has the right, and the need, to fail. Sometimes miserably.

    Unfortunately, our society encourages hiding failure. When we fail in a job, career coaches often teach us how to put a positive spin on it…or bury it all together. When politicians or corporate executives make big mistakes, their first reaction is often “I didn’t know about it”, “I wasn’t involved” or “Someone (or something) else was to blame.”

    I am not afraid to say that I have failed, sometimes miserably. But one thing I can say with confidence is that I learn from my mistakes. Rarely do I make the same mistake twice. And I always use what I learn from the failure to propel me forward in other directions. Sometimes it does take two steps back to take three steps forward.

    In job interviews, one of the questions I teach managers to ask is, “Tell me about a big mistake or failure you’ve had recently that had significant consequences.” The responses you get are fascinating. Often candidates claim that they can’t recall any examples (the Alberto Gonzalez defense)…or that they haven’t made any big mistakes with significant consequences. These candidates are either: a) Fibbing b) Guilty of having a very bad memory (unlikely) or c) Very risk-adverse individuals who always do exactly what they’re told to stay safe…and never any more.

    In any case, the “I haven’t had major failures” answer raises huge red flags about a candidate. I’ll take the candidate that smiles and coolly tells me in great detail about a major misstep or failure…and what he/she did about it. The person that turned the situation around and landed on his/her feet, smelling like a rose, is the candidate that interests me most. This is usually the same candidate who has a track record of stellar accomplishments and success throughout his/her career.

    Of course, failure has to be balanced with good judgment, forward movement and ultimately success. Here are some of my ground rules for failing successfully, with grace and brains.

    • Fail quickly and cheaply if you can.
    • Know the risks. When you fail, you shouldn’t be blindsided by the consequences.
    • Cut and run when you need to (don’t hang on too long…which goes with the first bullet).
    • Don’t be bitter. If you lose a promotion because you failed, accept it and move on.
    • Take time to think after failure. Failing to learn from failure is the only REAL failure.

    What’s the failure you’re proudest of…and why? What good came from it?

    © 2007. Phyllis Roteman, The Loyalty Group. All Rights Reserved.

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