Friday, April 22, 2011

Failure and your development as a leader (Part 1)


The April 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review was an inspiring issue for me - surprising since the main theme was Failure. I think HBR did an amazing job by taking a wide-angle view of failure, covering everything from operations to innovation. They provided numerous stories from very successful executives who've failed, and subsequently lived to tell about their experiences. I would highly recommend buying a copy while it's still on the shelves, and studying the lessons in depth.

Failure is an issue that makes us uncomfortable, especially when it's a failure that we own, or contributed to in some way. We generally don't talk about failure unless it involves someone else and we weren't involved in the outcome. That said, failure is a fact of life. If you haven't failed at something, or many things, you probably are not stretching yourself in your personal / professional development. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, even when those around us may see the outcome otherwise. As I've spoken about in previous posts, many young managers seek "the right way" to do something via a checklist or guidebook, and forget to learn from the experiences right in front of them - both good and bad.

As you think of failures and how they relate to your career management, please consider the following key points;

1) Demonstrating that you've failed, but that you've learned from failure is absolutely required during any interview process: Companies want to hire talent with a few "battle scars" who've learned from failure, and have proven that they're not afraid to stretch themselves in meaningful ways. If you can't effectively communicate a time you've failed and then learned, you will not be successful in the interview process.

2) Failure provides opportunity to create your personal development plan: As you fail, you should learn. As you learn you may realize that you are missing key experiences or skills that will help you succeed in the future. Capture these insights and create a plan to develop yourself in the future - maybe a class, assignment, experience, etc. A thoughtful development plan enables you to communicate to current and / or future employers that you are on top of developing yourself.

3) Failure is a good chance to practice reflective management: Conducting regular After Action Reviews (AARs) is a key way to learn, both for yourself and your organization. As mentioned above, failures are generally contain wonderful insights on what to do, and not to do in the future. But there's a catch - you must have an active process to learn from the failures. Conduct regular AARs, or reflection sessions with yourself to get the most from the experience.

Ultimately, failure provides an opportunity to demonstrate what type of leader you are. Are you someone that hides failure or doesn't own up to times you've fallen short, or are you someone that fully owns your experiences and can communicate how you've grown from them productively? How you handle failure in your life communicates a ton about your Personal Brand.

Tom Peters is one of my favorite management thinkers. He released a wonderful series of videos in support of his Little Big Things book. I'd like to leave you with a short video of his entitled "Don't Fear Failure" in which he discusses Sam Walton and his attitude towards failure.

I'm interested if you've learned from failure. How have you processed the experience? What helped you to communicate your growth to others?

In Part 2 I'll cover the concept of Mindset from Carol Dweck.


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