Failure can be an invaluable experience

Here's a riddle:

What group of business people report that 66% of them have missed promotions, been exiled to peer jobs, been caught in a major conflict with the boss, contributed to a business failure, or simply been overwhelmed by their job?

What answer comes to mind? Terminated employees? Unsuccessful managers?

You may be surprised to learn that the answer is eighty-six highly successful Fortune 500 executives interviewed by Fortune magazine (November 1984). "It's easy for them to say," you're probably musing. "Their failures just weren't band enough to get them into serious trouble.

Not so. Their mistakes were just as serious as those committed by so-called "derailed" executives, with one important difference.

Where the (eventually) shelved or fired executives had typically tried to hide their mistakes, deny they existed, or blame them on others, the successful managers had owned up to their mistakes - forewarning colleagues, trying to solve the resulting problems caused, and after the lesson had been learned, moving on to think about something else.

Failure is a powerful teacher. The lessons learned stay with you forever. The trick seems to be constructively using what you've learned and bouncing back.

In a study recently conducted for a new book. "Leaders: The Strategies of Taking Charge," by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus (Harper & Row), it was found that successful leaders don't even use the word "failure." They rely instead on such synonyms as "mistake," "false start" and "setback."

Obviously, a great deal depends on the specific situation. For example, how forgiving the organization is willing to be, how seriously others were hurt and how early in the career the mistake occurred.

Much is written about the need for entrepreneurial spirit in business. To create the right climate, companies must resist tying a can to the tail of a manager who has made (and worked hard to fix) a mistake.

To inspire risk taking and true innovation, a company must tolerate some failure.

Several years ago, a promising IBM junior executive lost the company several million dollars in a risky venture. Thomas J. Watson Sr., IBM's founder, called the executive to his office. The young man blurted out, "I guess you want my resignation?" Watson replied, "You can't be serious. We've just spent millions of dollars educating you!"

It's that willingness to take risks that has kept IBM a front-runner and leader in innovation.

This can be translated to any business and to any manager. Praise and rewards given to a creative idea and hard work - in spite of the outcome - will light a fire under other ideas.

On the flip side, here are some suggestions offered by Walter Kiechel III in his article, "When a Manager Stumble," (Fortune, November) to help you rebound if you find yourself in the middle of a mistake:

Use the experience to reassure yourself about your ability to cope with adversity. Use self-talk like: "I've been in jams before and always been able to figure out what to do."

Admit to the mistake and put all your focus on how to fix or blunt the results.

Don't get emotionally tied to an idea, issue or decision. Always stay open to new data.

Use the failure as an opportunity for self-examination, not self-incrimination. Although gut wrenching, this experience is likely to give you a keener sense of your strengths and weaknesses. It way also make you a better manager of other people - having blown it once yourself.

Take control of any part of the problem you can and try to figure out how you were responsible. If necessary, warn others - including your boss.

Talk to others about what you should learn from the reverse, especially what you should learn about yourself. Initiating such conversations isn't easy but the payoff may be more enduring than the crisis itself.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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