Learn from Failures While Avoiding Disaster


Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, often spoke of his many failures.  When giving a talk to sixth-grade students, I paraphrased Edison’s message as, “For every success in the laboratory, I had ninety-nine failures.”  Then I asked, “What is the significance of that remark?”

One youngster promptly replied, “It shows what he might have been able to do if he hadn’t been so dumb.”   He had already learned that failure was a bad thing.

Yet, most great successes were preceded by many failures.  Henry Ford (The Ford Motor Company) was broke five times.  R. H. Macy (Macy’s Department Store) failed seven times.

Michael Jordan, the basketball icon, who was once cut from his high-school team said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  That’s why I succeed.”

Successful leaders do avoid annihilation such as experienced by Sears, Eastman Kodak, Studebaker and so on.

Author, Sam Walker, believes veteran leaders rarely fail dramatically simply because they have failed before.  They have learned to avoid the fatal error.

The challenge is to find the sweet spot between failures that lead to growth and those that take you out of the game.  When taking on a perilous assignment, for which you have little experience, seek counsel from those who have been there.

 

 

You Behavior at Holiday Parties Counts


“I guess I should not have had that last drink,” Fred commented.  “But it was a party.  We were having a good time.  The vice president was in worse shape than I was.  I don’t think anyone will hold it against me.”

At the annual holiday party, Fred a front-line manager, had apparently told a couple of off-color jokes and sang a karaoke tune loudly and badly.  And that was after he spilled his food dish into the lap of one of his staff member’s spouses.

Like it or not, you are the leader twenty-four-seven.  Your behavior off-the-job, on the weekend, at the grocery store or during annual celebrations impacts your leadership.

Whenever and wherever you make a fool of yourself, descriptions of the incident will get back to your workplace; it may even be on YouTube.  And you can bet that all unprofessional behaviors will negatively impact your leadership effectiveness.

Do attend your company events and use the experience to enhance your leadership.  Initiate greetings with your staff and family members.  Make it a point to say something nice.  Visit with people from other departments.  Express your appreciation for their contributions.  Ask others about their personal interests.  Minimize the alcohol.

 

Leaders Show Up and Speak Up


In describing his approach to problem-solving discussions, Felix said, “I like to sit back and listen to what others are thinking.”

“Not me,” countered Marilyn.  “I get my ideas on the table first and then I encourage others to challenge my views.  The give-and-take helps me clarify, and often improve, my suggestions.”

“Aren’t you afraid you will suppress others’ thoughts by speaking so quickly?” asked Flex.

Marilyn answered, “No.  I encourage others to chime in.  In short order, we get our adrenaline flowing with rapid-fire comments and counter points.  We get more creative suggestions.”

“I see it differently,” Felix said.  “I’m very cautious about putting forth suggestions.  I want my team to own the solution.  I don’t get that if I talk too much.”

Most of us can recall verbal colleagues who express views on everything–including topics they know nothing about.  These people do lose influence because they eventually expose their lack of preparation.

Still, leaders do talk more than most during meetings.  Managers overlook some very capable people because they are reluctant to express their opinions.  To increase your influence and your value to your company, prepare well for your next meeting then show up and speak up.

 

Is It Better to “Think” or “Act” When Problems Arise?


Adrian and Stephanie approach problems differently.

“First, I like to determine the root cause of the problem,” Adrian said.  “Then, I like to brainstorm alternatives, evaluate them and make a plan. During execution, I may adjust the plan.”

Stephanie said, “When a process erupts, I quickly put a patch on it.  If my first impulse fails, I try something else.  I just continue experimenting until a solution finds me.”

Adrian, by moving logically from one stage to the next, exercises linear thinking.   Stephanie’s approach is less logical and more iterative.  Which is better?

Tom Wujec gave many groups an assignment to build a tower out of spaghetti and tape to support a marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, the best performing teams in Wujec’s experiments were architects and engineers.  However, kindergartners consistently outperformed business school students.

Business students, relying on linear thinking, spent a lot of time methodically planning and assigning team member responsibilities.  When the plan failed during execution, they went back to the drawing board to regroup and revise.

Kindergartners simply began trying different actions without planning (an iterative approach). When an action failed, they quickly tried another.  Their “try it and fix it” approach produced a better product in less time.

 

Are You Teaching Your Employees to Fad Surf?


Prior to an all-hands meeting, an employee commented sarcastically to a peer, “What’s it going to be this time?”

“Whatever it is,” the peer responded, “the vice president will assure us that it will improve sales, cut costs and cure cancer.”

Rumors of a new program launch had been racing through departments like a grass fire in a wind storm.

Perhaps the employees should not have been so skeptical.  But they clearly remembered several previous aborted improvement efforts.

“Higher-ups” often are not fully aware of the extra work burden created by the latest catholicon.    And when managers are prone to latch on to the new “whatever,” employees quickly engage in what Professor Robert Sutton calls “fad surfing.”  That is, employees make minimum commitments to show cooperation but do not engage enough to ensure eye-popping success.

Program failures prompt managers to search for the next lever; starting a cycle of: (1) roll out a new program with great fanfare, (2) experience disappointing results, (3) regroup and center on another, even better, remedy.

When a new program flounders, management should not be so quick to search for lightening in another bottle.  A refocus on the fundamentals—hiring, training, supervision, recognition—might be the better cure.

 

Do “Solved” Problems Actually Generate More Problems?


Campbell and his team had just completed their assignment of selecting and installing a new software system.

“Great job and problem solved,” said the president.  “We can disband the project team and all can return full-time to your regular jobs.”

“Not so fast,” Campbell argued.  “The system supports newer, more robust analytical tools.  If we fail to make these tools available, we will be at a competitive disadvantage. Upgrades are already on the horizon. We’ve identified the need for more training.  We actually need to add a couple of staff.”

Studies by Harvard researcher, Daniel Gilbert and his team suggest that as problems become smaller, our conception of the problems expand.  Or, “When problems become rare, we see more things as problems.”

President Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes in 1938 to combat polo.   Thankfully, Jonas Salk’s vaccine to prevent polo became commercially available in 1962.  Rather than disbanding, the March of Dimes refocused its mission to address the issues of premature births.

During growth, many organizations add support personnel at a faster rate than production employees.  The opposite occurs during declines.

I understand that the proper use of support personnel adds value.  However, many leaders, I suggest, would be better off by erring on the side of caution when adding support staff.

Increase Your Influence via Reciprocity


(Part 1 of 5 on Increasing Influence)

“I have a dilemma,” Braylon confided to a friend.

“How so?”

“Araceli asked me to analyze three software programs for her department.”

“You are an expert on software.  What’s the dilemma?”

“Jaxson wants me to upgrade materials for his new-employee orientation program. I don’t have time to do a good job on both.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I think I’ll respond to Araceli’s request.  I’ll tell Jaxson my schedule is full.  He has something on file that he can use.”

“Are you sure that is the right priority?”

“I’m not sure but I can’t refuse Araceli’s request.  She saved my bacon last month.  She created very clever brochures that boosted attendance at our recognition dinner.”

Braylon is responding to the concept of reciprocity—responding to a positive action of another by repaying the person with a positive action.

Reciprocity is a powerful motivator.  To increase your influence, look for ways to help others.  Extend yourself to welcome new employees.  Be quick to share your skills with struggling team members.  Do not wait to be asked.  Anticipate and volunteer.

By adding value for others, you build a reservoir of goodwill.  When, in the future, you need to exert your influence, you are more likely to get “yes’s.”