Harvard Business Online

How Successful CEOs Respond to Failure


Posted on Words at Work: October 21, 2009 2:29 PM

Failure. We don't like to talk about it. But we all worry about it.

We worry about it in the present: Why am I not doing better in my career? Do my coworkers think I'm messing up? Is my boss unhappy with me?

We worry about it in the past: Why didn't I speak up at that meeting? Is it my fault I got laid off last year? What if I hadn't left that job ten years ago?

And we worry about it in the future: What if I don't get the project done on time? Will I end up without a bonus? Am I going to get fired?

I've recently been talking to CEOs as part of a project I'm working on documenting how people recover from their careers taking unexpected dips. I've met people who've seen their hopes dashed when they were passed over for promotion, others whose vast fortunes were erased by accounting scandals, those who've had their comfortable lives upended when their parents lost their savings, and even people who've simply and terrifyingly slipped and fell, putting them out of work and nearly into paralysis.

In all these stories, the common thread has been that while the failure was, theoretically, avoidable, since the cause always came from an unexpected direction it wasn't really preventable. One man, walking to a doctor's appointment while worrying about overseas competition for his manufacturing business and political intrigue involving investors, was hit by a car. He literally did not see it coming.

I can empathize with these managers. I once mismanaged my own company into ruin. I had an (initially unknown to me) alcoholic business partner and my trust and faith in him brought us both down. In my case, "only" 200 people lost their jobs and I ended deeply in debt. More difficult to cope with, both my business partner and father died during the crash of the company.

At one point I found myself standing on a Manhattan street, totally motionless, my body unwilling to move forward or backward. Wracked with doubt about every decision I'd ever made, I must have stood there for a half hour.

And here's where the CEOs I've talked with are different than me. Faced with failure, they stayed in motion. They quit the bad job, they separated from investors they conflicted with, they got up off the sidewalk and went back to work.

They suffered as much as I did from doubt and worry, but they kept at it. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they didn't. As Tom Watson, the founder of IBM said:

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It's quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn't at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that's where you will find success.

Here's another way to think about it. Once I was trying to fix a toilet and water began to blast upward from a fitting. The building Super, who was watching me, commented, "You know the difference between a professional plumber and an amateur?"

"No," I said, frantically searching for a towel.

"The professional makes as many mistakes as the amateur," he said, swinging a wrench onto the main valve and closing off the fountain, "The difference is, a professional fixes them faster."
David Silverman is the author of Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars (Soft Skull Press, 2007).

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