How to succeed, after failing

A former executive of a large Southern African company loves telling the story about how an employee once cost his company millions. The employee was caught in traffic on her way to submitting a massive (and probably sure-fire) public sector tender, and missed the deadline by five minutes. 

Mortified, she tendered her resignation. He rejected it. “How could I fire someone who has just received the most expensive training in the company’s history? If there’s one person I can rely on to never make a mistake with a tender again, it’s her.”

In recent years, failure has become all the rage in corporate culture. Much has been written about why companies should embrace mistakes and encourage employees to be open about their failures. Many firms now have official policies to encourage this, including the Indian conglomerate Tata, which dedicates an annual award to an employee who had the best failed idea.

The hope is that employees who are not afraid to make (and admit to) mistakes will be more inclined to innovate. Fear of failure and humiliation stifles experimentation and steers workers towards the tried and tested – away from bold ideas and solving challenges with new thinking.

Instead of trying to sweep failure under the rug, a company can benefit greatly by sharing what was learned, and preventing a repeat.

Also, it’s often not failure itself that wreaks havoc on organisations, but the covering up of mistakes, and the protracted blame game that follows. Creating the space for employees to confess, and move on, can save your company a lot of money.

But for all the theory, failure is not glamorous. Whether it is big (losing your company or your job) or small (losing your temper), most often it’s a demeaning process that requires resilience and perseverance to bounce back.

South Africans, especially male executives, typically take a very hard line on making mistakes, says Stanford Payne, a chartered accountant and executive coach in Stellenbosch. “They simply do not allow themselves to fail, which is not realistic, and not helpful to learning.”

How do you lose your fear of failure?

Find your focus 

When approaching a daunting task, don’t get distracted by the risks or panicky about the potential for disaster. The big problem with fearing failure is that you start focusing on the wrong things, says Dr David Hendry, an executive coach in Johannesburg.

“It is a bit like sitting on your bike at the top of a steep descent, and instead of focusing on how to navigate your way down, you turn around and consult your backside about the potential consequences of a crash.”

Instead of obsessing about the possible downside of your actions, decide what you want from the situation, and focus on that to guide you through the insecurity.

Dedicate all your efforts and attention to the details of the venture, and don’t get side-tracked by negative self-talk. “You cannot hit what you don’t aim at,” says Hendry.

Learn from your mistakes

There is only one rule in embracing failure: you can’t make the same mistake twice, says Payne.

After things go wrong, make sure you have thought through all the reasons for the misstep, and what you can learn from it. Sometimes a mistake can open up new ways of thinking.

After all, an estimated half of all healthcare breakthroughs (including the discovery of penicillin) were the results of sloppiness or faults, writes Paul Schoemaker in his book Brilliant Mistakes. Even the ATM and personal copier were judged mistakes at the time of invention.

Learn from other people’s mistakes

There isn’t a shortage of business literature detailing the mistakes of ultimately successful people in their first ventures. Common among these are overpromising, not pulling the plug early enough on disastrous products and hiring the wrong people (or waiting too long to fire them).

Don’t shift the blame

A recent Harvard Business School study showed that people who take personal ownership of their mistakes (instead of blaming the system or a third party) are less likely to make the same mistake again, and will work harder in getting it right the next time.

However, also recognise that sometimes you have zero control over a situation, says Payne. “Recognise that disruption comes from all sides; it has never been this hard to predict market events that can break your business.”

Embrace second changes

An SMME business consultant in Cape Town says that in his experience banks would much rather finance entrepreneurs who have seen a couple of flops, than those with an unblemished record, but no experience.

Recognise that failure isn’t the end of the road and that, often, those who make a lot of money have also lost a lot of money along the way, says Payne.

Recognise real failures

If your long-term goal is to start your own company, being promoted to a position that you don’t want, in a company you don’t like, isn’t success. Be very clear about what you want from life and what would constitute real failure for your personal ambitions.

This article originally appeared in the 10 March 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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