There is the story of a bright young man who got himself an opportunity to manage a $10 million project for a large company. To his horror, the effort failed, totally.
The guy was summoned to the office of the top man, and entered the presence burning with awareness of a disaster he could blame on no one but himself.
“Well, young man, what do you have to say for yourself?” said the executive.
“I want to apologize, sir, from the bottom of my heart,” he answered. “I know I’m going to be fired, and I know I deserve it.”
“Fire you? Why should we fire you?” the old man demanded. “We just invested $10 million in your education!”
Screwing up is not hard to do. We’ve all done it. And you know what? We’re all going to do it again. Serially, Continually. We can’t avoid it. Individually and in our various collective relationships, we can expect it to happen, and happen a lot.
The wrong words pop out at the worst possible time. I forget a commitment that turns out to have been very important. I thoughtlessly take on something I can’t handle. As sure as tomorrow, I’ll pull off something embarrassing – soon.
When I do, I can go through any one or more of several responses. There’s the Saturday Night Live one: “I hate when that happens,” as if it were an uncontrollable event, certainly not occasioned by me. There’s Problem Solving 101: Can I blame someone? Good. Problem solved. There’s denial: “Problem? What problem?” And there’s always avoidance: Just exit the neighborhood, virtually if not physically, and wait for it all to go away.
So what was going on in that little story we opened with – a veteran executive dismissing an expensive failure as a simple educational investment? What was he thinking of? What was the justification? What can we take from the example?
We don’t know the context in which the young man’s project was conducted. We do know that the organization’s leader was not taken aback by what happened, and had reason to see it in a positive light. And he was looking to the future, a future he fully expected to be successful.
That implies a culture of effective problem solving and talent development. As one important part of it, we suspect the organization’s decision-makers knew precisely what had gone on, and what it meant.
We need to adapt that understanding to our own career management. We can start with a personal policy toward our own screw-ups. I am not going to engage in any of the ineffective failure-response attitudes noted above. Instead, I can confront the situation directly, openly, motivated only by an intent to determine exactly what happened and why. Then, I immediately turn to what I’m going to do the next time. Specifically.
This is a matter of courage and discipline, especially when I caused or contributed to the disappointing event – or when people intent on pinning it on me are busily at work.
One essential truth to keep forever in mind: There never is a worthwhile success that is not preceded by multiple failures. Success is earned, not awarded.