You are going to have moments of failure in your career. The bigger the risk, the bigger the failure. Here’s the thing…
It’s not about your failure. It’s about what you do in the moments after you fail.
Your colleagues, mentors, and leaders all know you will have a failure. They know because they have gone through it themselves. While I am not saying failure is acceptable, I am saying it is inevitable. What you do next, what you take with you, the lessons you learn; those are what everyone will notice and remember.
I was early in my career when I had my biggest failure and greatest lesson. Our team was going to be merging with another team. There were the typical territory wars, land grabs, and politicking to be the top dog across the leaders. None of that mattered to me much. I wanted to work hard, fight for the results, and have people recognize my good work. One major issue… I am a creative problem solver. I am an innovator.
Through the transition to consolidate our teams, I was moved to a new manager. I had been given more challenging work and more autonomy with my work. This was a great time to implement some of my innovative ideas to address the challenges. The work I had been given was disorganized and needed to be reworked. I proceeded with an approach that is much like cleaning out a closet. Where you pull everything out, look at it, and then put things back in places that make sense.
I was about halfway through putting things back together when I had my first one on one with my new boss. I was excited to show him what I had been doing. I wanted to share the long-term vision with him. I knew I was doing the right things and was ready to have a good discussion. I had thought I was going to be recognized for my creativity, innovation, and plan.
But… This story is about failure. This is not about the big success of a naive employee. I was so wrong.
I walked into his office and sat down at the table across from him. I could tell by his demeanor this was not going to be the uplifting meeting I thought it would be. I stayed quiet and just listened to assess the situation. This is a person I had utmost respect for. This is a person I wanted see potential in me. He asked me to give him my current metrics. Fact based answers.
As I started to explain that he was seeing the result of the closet having been pulled apart and I hadn’t started to put everything back the way it needed to be, he cut me off.
“This portfolio of work looks worse than it ever has. It is the worst performing group of work in the company.”
I sat quiet, again. I listened.
“You were given this work as a challenge to see if you were capable of doing this work. Looking at these numbers, I am not sure you are.”
Yikes! He doesn’t see potential. He does even think I can do the job.
He proceeded to ask me questions from an angle I had not even considered. He wanted to know how I was doing certain steps. He wanted to know what my plan was when those steps didn’t work. He was not asking about my plan, my approach, or my vision. I had no answers.
“I am not sure I can even trust you to work on my team.”
Crushed. My boss did not trust me. He did not think I could do my job. And I was not showing any results for the hard work I had put in.
I’m not even sure how the meeting ended. I don’t remember how I got out of his office and to the restroom. But there I was standing at the sink and looking at myself in the mirror. I went through so many emotions as my mind raised trying to understand what just happened. Maybe you have gone through these too.
“I am the worst employee in the whole company and will never be good at anything.”
“He is wrong. He has no idea what he’s talking about.”
“I’m going to quit. I don’t need this kind of negative energy.”
“None of it matters. It’s just a job. Go back to work and collect your paycheck.”
“You will never be good at this.”
And then… Another voice spoke up.
“What if you try it differently? What if you can show him, you can do it? What if you try it his way and then explain your approach? What if…”
I went back to my desk. I cleared my mind, and I wrote down every question he asked me that I could not answer. Then, I wrote down what I would need to do to get those answers by the time I had my next one on one meeting. And then, I had to remain true to who I am.
Remember, I had everything halfway in and halfway out of the closet. It all had to come back together before I could move forward. I needed to decide if I was going to take the risk and put it back my way or just leave it as it was. Another deep breath. I was going to take the risk. I was just going to have to do it quicker.
I reorganized the work and had everything flowing the way I knew it could in two weeks. This was an effort I thought would take me months. But I was motivated in a way I hadn’t known was possible. I needed to do my approach AND his. I had to see my vision through while I completed the tasks my boss expected. The next one on one meeting was very different.
I didn’t go in with any expectations. I was more focused on being prepared to answer his questions. I had the answers this time. I was prepared to discuss the results. They looked much better. He started with the results. Then the questions. I answered each with fact-based responses.
He sat quiet. Then, asked the question I was hoping for.
“How did you turn this around so quickly?”
I had explained that I had reworked the flow and process while doing the things he expected. I explained why and what I expected to show in next month's metrics. I explained the better engagement I was getting from clients and internal partners. I also talked about what I learned from his questions and expectations. His point of view made it all come together.
He listened. He was open to my creativity and innovative plan. He did remind me that we couldn’t have a regression in performance. He was encouraged that I as taking his coaching. And then I left his office. This time, I was proud and excited.
Not all bosses are going to listen. Not all of them will be receptive. I had a choice in that moment alone in the bathroom looking the mirror. I had several choices. None of them were wrong, but only one got me to the moment of turning my failure into success.
If you’re curious that boss became my mentor and greatest professional advocate. We reach out to each other today for feedback, counsel, and to bounce ideas off one another. We have encouraged each other to take risks in our career.
You are going to fail. It’s not about your failure. It’s about what you do in the moments after you fail. It’s about taking the lesson and turning it around.