Sleeping with Failure? There’s Success Under the Covers. | Undaunted Leadership

under cover 2463007473_0a30db1690_mFailure happens in spite of our best efforts to avert it.

Fear of impending failure can be haunting, even crippling. It can drain our self-confidence, crush our optimism, and stress our every move. It can also ignite us to fight the good fight, motivating us to do whatever it takes to stop it.

But failure will come anyway. When it does, we often feel defeated, believing our personal brand is forever tarnished and our career promise dashed.

That thinking would be wrong-headed.

Failure is an enigmatic bedfellow.

The reality is: Lots of success generally precedes failure. Companies don’t get to failure unless they’ve had a string of earlier successes that ultimately can’t bear the weight of the missteps. The same is true for us, as employees.

Leaders are the linchpin between success and failure. They are expected to take on business challenges and overcome them, facing potentially failure-laden problems like:

  • Turning an underachieving work group into a productive one
  • Achieving profitability from an existing or new product
  • Influencing financial analysts to upgrade company ratings
  • Attracting more investors/donors or winning grants to stay afloat
  • Reducing costs to remain competitive
  • Changing the operating model to increase efficiency
  • Restoring lost customer loyalty and/or confidence

Each of these challenges has the potential to tank the organization and the leader spearheading it.

In truth, not facing these challenges will ultimately guarantee failure. Neglect  begets failure. Taking on risk is your most important career-enhancing opportunity.

Impending failure showcases the leader’s ability to lead in times of trial. The steps s/he takes essentially buy time, stave off the inevitable, provide opportunities for repositioning, and create more elegant transitions.

Success is between the sheets.

Organizational failures, whether large or small, are often for the best.

When a business ends up closing or a work group gets eliminated, it means that what they were offering wasn’t what the times required.

Business failures are generally the by-product of decisions that took place before you became the leader.  Failures are set up well in advance through a variety of causes like:

  • A series of weak leaders
  • Low accountability and productivity
  • Unreliable revenue streams and poor expense management
  • Technology deficiencies and ineffective processes
  • A weak economy and the inability to compete

Business “failures” are basically transitions. Successfully leading an organization through the fallout from failure is a significant leadership achievement. It’s the most effective way to recast yourself and your professional brand as you move on.

The road to an unwanted business outcome is paved with an array of leadership initiatives that deliver, albeit temporarily, promising results like:

  • Redesigned survival strategies
  • Redirected resources (people, equipment, dollars)
  • New or enriched programs
  • Reduced costs and enhanced revenue
  • Performance and process improvements
  • Expanded partnerships and collaborative relationships
  • Improved communication initiatives
  • Broader outreach to community and public officials

As you look under the covers after a career-based failure, remember that the story line is about   the leadership initiatives you demonstrated. The culmination of those efforts likely:

  • Created an effective transition to a new direction or to endings
  • Demonstrated leadership decisiveness and courage
  • Provided valuable lessons learned for future ventures
  • Convinced stakeholders of hard-to-swallow business realities
  • Revealed the leader’s capabilities to face adversity effectively

We don’t like the feeling of failure and shouldn’t. But we can appreciate its value and the courageous actions it extracts from us.

Lead undaunted.

It’s easy to lead when everything is rosy. However, it’s the leader who gets us through a ship wreck with minimal casualties who earns our esteem.

Too often leaders blame themselves when things start to go south, as though all the decisions that set that course came from their desks. That’s rarely the case.

When potential failure becomes your reality, it’s your opportunity to step up and take the reins. Your actions may or may not turn things around, but your efforts will reveal a leader’s heart.

Photo from arkworld via Flickr

Craving the Secret to Success? Words from the Wise Break the Code | Howard’s Gift

I’m on a constant quest for answers to big questions about the direction of my life and my work. When I was asked to blog about Eric C. Sinoway’s new book, Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work, I hesitated. I didn’t know anything about Howard Stevenson, the focus of the book. But I said “yes” anyway. I wish it had been written decades ago, when its insights would have spared me so many doubt-plagued hours as I struggled to figure things out for my career path. Fortunately, it’s now here for you.

The secret to success hinges on making the right choices at the right time. Our challenge is to understand the effect our choices will have on us should we pursue them.

If only we had someone to ask, someone with the experience and wisdom to help us see the big picture, someone who can clear away the fog so we can chart the right course.

Enter Howard Stevenson, whose wisdom is the focus of Eric C. Sinoway’s book, Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work.

Howard spent 40 years as a highly respected professor at Harvard Business School, where his MBA  students included world leaders, corporate CEO’s, and entrepreneurs. He is also an innovator and entrepreneur in his own right, contributing to his distinction, according to Sinoway, as “the father of entrepreneurship at HBS….”

Howard’s books and teachings have created a following of “students” like Sinoway who committed to write this book after Howard’s heart attack, ensuring that Howard’s priceless wisdom would never be lost.

Antennas up

Our career and life choices involve our “inflection points.” We need to be keenly aware of them when they occur and committed to taking the right course of action.

So what is an inflection point? Sinoway writes:

It is a moment when–by choice or not–we pivot from the path down which we were traveling and head in an entirely different direction.

It’s easy to miss or ignore an inflection point, especially when it may not line up with the way we’d planned our course.

Sinoway shares Howard’s explanation:

Inflection points come in all forms: positive, negative, easy, hard, obvious, and subtle. The way you respond–whether you grab hold of a inflection point and leverage it for all it’s worth or just let it carry you along–is as important as the event itself.

In hot pursuit of success, we are frequently faced with inflection points that cause us inner conflict. Howard impresses on his students that “…success doesn’t always equal happiness….” I’ve certainly witnessed examples of that and suspect you have too.

Howard suggests approaching your career by thinking about it from a legacy perspective:

Starting at the end means investing time up front to develop an aspirational picture of your future–a guide for the decisions you make throughout your life.

Knowing what we value in a satisfying career and acting on it are often very different things. What we need to get a firm grip on is the way our notions of success and failure help us or get in our way.

Befriending success and failure

We tend to look at success as reward and failure as punishment for, well, just not being good enough. Our self-confidence, courage, optimism, and sense of self-worth are often held hostage by them both.

Howard removes the weight of success and failure when he says in the book:

You know, people throw around words like success and failure assuming they mean exactly the same thing to everyone–and they don’t….

Have you fallen into that trap?

He adds:

There is no standard metric for evaluating success or failure, in large part because our assessments are heavily affected by the expectations we bring into a situation…our definitions of success and failure change based on personal circumstance; they’re colored by what’s happening around us….

The next time someone tries to detract from your achievements based upon their own measure of success, think of Howard’s words:

 For me, the bottom line is: don’t put yourself in a definitional straitjacket, and don’t allow others to do it to you, either.

It’s inevitable that, from the time we’re very young, we are “shown the way” to success as defined by people around us and the media. No wonder finding our own way can feel confusing, particularly when things don’t go as expected.

Howard offers this perspective:

I prefer to expend my energy only on things that I can affect. What’s past is only useful to me insofar as it offers information to using going forward. ..What other people might call failures I simply see as situations laden with meaning–full of new data and new opportunities for assessing and recalibrating a strategy.

Breaking the code

If you need wise counsel on building your skills, finding mentors, facing your personal truths, attracting the right professional relationships, or achieving life-work balance, you’ll find invaluable perspectives from Howard.

This book reads like a conversation, where we get to listen in. We read about the trials and missteps of others, including Sinoway’s, and how Howard untangles complex career situations, just like the ones you’re facing, bringing important next steps into focus.

The secret to success lies within us. Words from the wise help us break the code.

Failure–Who Needs It? | You Do

We just don’t like it. We often fear it, dread it, struggle to avoid it, and sometimes succumb to it. Failure tests us. It makes us face up to what we’re made of.

Failure and fear are ominous bedfellows. They feed each other and us too in ways that can be crushing.

Embracing failure

If we want to succeed, we need to welcome failure. It’s our greatest teacher.

If it weren’t, we wouldn’t remember our failures more keenly than our successes.

Our failures have a habit of sticking, and because they do, they become the essential reference point that we need to grasp.

Failures in our careers come in all shapes and sizes:

  • the blown interview
  • unmet performance goals
  • a failed project, product, or software application
  • an ineffective presentation or rejected proposal
  • job loss or business failure

Faced with any of these, you might choose to:

  • give up, become inconsolably disgruntled or retaliatory
  • blame others, the company, or some policy
  • berate yourself, lose all confidence, or backslide

But, if you’re smart, you’ll stop and say, “I need to figure out what I need to do to get better, so I can avoid failures like this in the future.”

Tune in

No matter how great they are, professional athletes continuously experience failure. Every contest does not end up in a win and they know it.

Pro baseball players fail at bat more than they succeed. Pro golfers can compete for years and never win a tournament. (They may get a paycheck, but their ultimate measure of success is wins.)

As a result, athletes use every failure to learn something about themselves, ways to improve their skills, and insights to sharpen their game sense.

Lolo Jones is an American track and field athlete. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she was favored to win the 100 meter hurdles, but she tripped on the second to last hurdle, finishing seventh. It was a crushing failure for a competitor who had overcome a life of poverty through hard work and determination to reach such a pinnacle moment.

Lolo is competing in the 2012 Olympics in London where she will pursue gold in the same race. After four years learning from  her 2008 failure, she sees that by fighting her way back to the Olympics, she has already won. She said on NBC’s Today Show (8/7/12), “For me, it will be like facing my fears.” Facing them means she has already overcome that old failure.

Kerri Strug, retired American gymnast and member of the Magnificent Seven gold medal team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, is famous for her performance on the vault to win the all-around, despite having severely injured her ankle. Early on, as a gymnast, she was considered mentally and emotionally frail in her performances during times of competitive stress. So with everything on the line in 1996, Kerri demonstrated what she has now come to realize: “It’s your failures that catapult you forward” (from a 2012 interview on NBC).

Exploit your failures

It’s time to take hold of your failures and exploit them for your own success. Face them. Embrace them. That’s how you will free yourself from the hold they may have on you and turn them into an asset.

Make those failures clear by writing them down. State what you see as the failure and make sure you’ve got it right. Then start listing what the failure has taught you about:

  • your skills and knowledge
  • your attitude, point of view, understanding of the situation
  • your commitment, standards, work ethic, courage
  • confidence, relationships, honesty

Then write an action plan for yourself. What are you going to do to be better prepared to minimize the chances of failure next time. Find someone you trust to help you. Then get on with it. The only one who can overcome failure is you. So please make failure your friend!

Photo from nataliebehring.com via Flicker

4 Causes of Colossal Failure and How to Recover

Failure is a bummer. Too often we fret about the prospects, relying on preparation and readiness to get us through our challenges unscathed. But still potential failure always lurks.

The case of Kyle Stanley

You don’t have to know anything about professional golf to identify with Kyle’s story. In 2011 he debuted on the PGA tour, recording four top ten finishes, his career off to a great start.

On Sunday, January 29, 2011, Kyle was playing the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. With a 3-shot lead, he was 77 yards from the pin on the par-5 final hole, poised for his first win.

Scott Bordow, sports writer for The Republic captured what came next:

… his 3rd shot hit the green and spun back into the water. Moments later, he …wrote a triple-bogey 8 on his scorecard. Within 30 minutes he was shaking the hand of the winner, Brandt Snedeker, who bested him in a two-hole playoff.

This wasn’t just the loss of a golf tournament and the $1,080,000 winner’s check. It cost Stanley an invitation to the coveted Masters Tournament and a two-year qualifying exemption on the PGA Tour. It also pointed a glaring public spotlight on him. Never again would commentators mention his name without referring to his collapse at Torrey Pines.

Colossal failures are memorable and often unshakable.

Protecting yourself

Remember, it’s colossal failure, we’re talking about here–those instances where something out of the ordinary and often unpredictable happens when the stakes are high.

Jaw-dropping failure can be credited to:

1. Mistakes in execution and/or judgment–We simply don’t apply our knowledge or showcase our skills as well as we usually do.
Stanley chipped his ball onto the 18th green on a down slope without enough spin to hold it. So it rolled into the water.
2. Changed conditions–We’re suddenly facing unexpected situations and don’t quite know what to do.
With the pressure of a penalty stroke weighing on him, Stanley wasn’t able to figure out how to win.
3. Unmanaged emotions–We let our confidence crack under the weight of the pressure, allowing doubt and negative self-talk to creep into our present.
Stanley seemed outwardly calm as he went about his pre-shot routine on the 18th green, but his missed putts were indications that his concentration had been shaken.
4. Bad luck–There are forces beyond our control that we can’t successfully address.

Stanley’s ball could have stopped before it reached the water but it didn’t.  Such is life.

The road to recovery

Colossal failures don’t define you negatively unless you let them. It takes courage to take on a colossal challenge and equal courage to deal with failure.

To recover from failure you need to:

Stop second-guessing or berating yourself–According to Bordow, Stanley said, “You can either let it get you down…or you can focus on the positive. I did way too many good things last week to dwell on one shot or one hole or one putt.”

Take support to heart–Family, friends, and other golfers came to Stanley’s side, sharing what they’d learned from their own big failure experiences and reinforcing his talents.

Commit to becoming stronger–Refocus on your success goals and what it takes to achieve them. Turn the failure experience into a springboard to renewed commitment to the work you need to do. That’s what Stanley has already started.

The big finish

You can’t fail big unless you’re darn good at what you do. Why? Because you don’t get a chance to be center stage unless you’ve already distinguished yourself.

Bordow writes about Stanley: “…only in losing in such devastating fashion did he finally understand that he was good enough to win.”

The same is true for you. The big stage and the potential for colossal failure are measures of what you’ve already achieved and what you will achieve. The downside of failure is only as big as you make it. If you’re smart, you’ll face it bravely when it comes and then turn it to your advantage. That’s what winners do.

Photo from squaylor via Flickr

Ready for the Big Stage or Too Freaked Out? | Handling Pressure

A some point you’ll likely ask yourself: “Do I have what it takes to be really successful at what I do?”

Role models provide clues to the answer. Look hard at what they’ve achieve and you’ll see they were willing to put themselves “out there.”

Now ask yourself, “Can I handle it when all eyes are on me?” Your answer either makes your blood run cold or excites you. In either case, it’s time to get prepared.

Understanding the big stage                                                                                        

Many of us go merrily along in our careers as part of a work group or team. We do our part but always in the context of others.

If we want our careers to grow, we need to demonstrate our unique talents and leadership to a broader audience.

You know you’re on the big stage when you look around and realize, at that moment, you’re alone with all the responsibility to perform exceptionally. There’s no one to lean on, save the day, or absorb the consequences.

It’s up to you alone to deliver your best and deal with the outcome.

Examples of big stage performers are everywhere:

  • Singles tennis players facing an opponent across the net in front of 10,000 spectators, many of whom are not rooting for them; they’re on their own–no coach, no trainer, no teammate
  • Live TV news anchors who carry their programs, changing gears seamlessly as updates are communicated through their ear pieces; there’s no stopping to catch their breaths, no one to bail them out.
  • Keynote speakers who need show up and then hold the attention of diverse audiences while delivering a meaningful message; there’s no one to step in when it’s not going well
  • Surgeons who literally have the lives and/or future well-being of patients in their hands, while other medical professionals watch; all accountability for the outcome is on them

There’s a big stage in every profession whether you’re a teacher/trainer, attorney, dancer, project manager, business owner, sales executive, or community leader.

It can be a lonely place or an exhilarating one. If you want to rise, you need to be able to take the stage when called upon and handle the inevitable heat.

Preparing for your role

Only a fool willingly steps onto the big stage before s/he’s ready.

When it’s our turn for the spotlight, we need to be equipped to handle the pressure. Advanced preparation is essential. We need to hone our skills, make a plan, practice, and visualize what success looks like.

We also need to be ready for the unexpected.

So, take a readiness assessment by asking yourself, “While all eyes are on me, will be I able to:”

  • Deliver the goods
  • Switch gears when I need to
  • Deal with or ignore distractions
  • Be mentally tough enough to stay on track
  • Use humor to defuse or deflect a misstep or issue
  • Trust what I know and my ability to execute my skills
  • Take advantage of opportunities to hit a home run
  • Draw on the energy of the moment to maintain motivation

Then work on things that need strengthening.

It’s easy to get freaked out about the big stage. We let ourselves get paralyzed by the pressure and the irrational belief that we might fail in such a big way that our careers will be ruined.

Don’t let that be you. Winners avoid beating themselves.

Pressure is your friend.

It wakes up your brain and gives it something exciting to process.

If you don’t believe that think of all the people who have failed at one business only to succeed at another, lost one election and won a bigger one, finished out of the money in numerous golf tournaments and then won a championship.

If you don’t work to get on the big stage and take your place when it’s offered, you’ll have no chance of grabbing your brass ring. You must play to win.

Succumbing to the fear of failure invites failure. Learning how to contend with pressure on the big stage is the path to career success and a special pride in yourself. Let the show go on!

Photo from loop_oh via Flickr

Not Getting the Jobs You Want? Let Rejection Be Your Guide.

Rejection feels bad, even when we’re braced for it. No wonder we hesitate applying for certain jobs, fearing statements like: 

  • “You were not the successful candidate.”
  • “We’ve selected someone we need to develop.”
  • “We’ve decided not to fill the position now.” 

When we don’t get jobs we want, it wears on our psyche. Rejection feels like a punch in the gut, releasing doubts about our abilities, value, and likelihood for success. 

Rejection is information.  

Each time we fail to get that job, promotion, or assignment, there are real lessons to learn so we can increase our chances next time. 

We need to ask ourselves these questions: 

  • Where did my skills fall short?
  • What more must I do/learn/experience?
  • How can I improve my approach in the interview?
  • What political factors/realities did I miss?
  • Was I really prepared and ready for that job? If not, what next?
  • Where can I get feedback and mentoring help?

 Rejection is only a negative if we don’t use it to strengthen ourselves. 

One door closes, another opens 

I’d been teaching high school for 10 years before I decided to apply for what I believed was my dream job with Purina Mills. I wrote to the sales VP and waited. 

To my surprise, I got a call for an interview on what turned out to be the day of a forecasted blizzard. 

I figured, “How can I be a candidate for a sales job and cancel because of bad weather?” So the day before, I set out in my VW Beetle in the blowing snow, headed for a motel near the Purina offices. 

Here’s how it went: 

  • Interview is cancelled because the VP couldn’t get out of his driveway; I stay over another night
  • My next day interview with two VPs goes great
  • Sales VP arranges for me to spend a day in the field with a metro market (pet stores, feed mills) salesman several weeks later; goes great
  • VP arranges a day with their head farm sales rep; I’m in my glory
  • VP arranges a meeting with their veterinary rep; went okay
  • Two VPs invite me to breakfast 

At this point, I’ve had a major education on the challenges facing sales reps for this huge company. Everyone has treated me generously with kindness and respect. The farm sales rep volunteered to train and mentor me,  if hired. 

But at that breakfast meeting, I was rejected. To say I was crushed is an understatement. To keep from crying, I bit the inside of my cheek until it bled. 

These two VPs were amazing gentlemen who could have just sent me a “no thank you” letter. Instead they drove 90 miles to tell me in person. 

Lessons Learned 

Purina didn’t hire me for two reasons:

  • Women were just breaking into sales in this industry, so earning customer acceptance was uncharted territory
  • All of their sales people had agri-business degrees and/or extensive farm backgrounds: I had neither. 

Even though I had the interpersonal skills, interest, and ability to learn, these VPs didn’t want to risk failure for me or for the company. 

But here’s what else I realized once my disappointment subsided: 

  • I was basically a thought-leader, not a salesperson
  • As an influencer, I thrived on complex problem solving and collaborative engagement
  • I had the tolerance for and ability to navigate office politics, so an organizational environment would be a better fit for me
  • I wanted to stay located where I had a strong support system 

Ten months after my adventure with Purina, I was hired as an energy education coordinator for the electric utility company where I lived. My career there drew on my strengths and lasted over 20 years. My “rejection” lessons learned paid off. 

When many people get rejected, they don’t think to make changes. It takes courage to face rejection and dig out the gems buried in it. 

When you have a minute, make a list of what you’ve learned from your career rejections. You might find a diamond there.

Failure Is Inevitable. Ready to Handle It? | Career Strife Repositioned

“Be careful,” we’re told as kids. “You don’t want to make a mess.” 

“Double check your answers,” we’re told in school. “You don’t want a bad grade.” 

“Better achieve your performance goals,” we’re told at work. “You don’t want to get a poor rating or low raise, be demoted or lose your job.” 

Failure seems to come with negative consequences. Really? Always? 

The fallacy of playing it safe 

So much is written about success and how to achieve it. Virtually nothing is written about failure and how to exploit it. 

Failure is the bogeyman. (I don’t think there ever was a bogeywoman, but I can’t be sure!) We’re taught to hide from him, stay out of his way, dodge the bullets he fires at us, and to try our best to outwit him. 

Fearing failure is like playing not to lose. Sports commentators criticize teams on the verge of victory that try to hang on to their leads through conservative play, safe shot making, and “killing the clock.” Fans don’t like it either. 

Why? Because most of the time, when teams play not to lose, they end up losing. 

Winners go for broke. They sense the moment when everything is set up for a make or break effort. Then they go for it. When they’re right, everyone cheers. When wrong, heartbreak! 

You don’t have to be an athlete to share in this experience. Every time you accept a new job, take on a project, or recommend an initiative, you put your career on the line. As a result, you position yourself to play to win or not to lose.   

Failure and success are both the bedfellows of risk. 

One day after failure  Imagine this: It’s day one after you: 

  • Lost your job or didn’t get hired
  • Got a poor evaluation or no raise
  • Had your program turned down or your funding request rejected
  • Realized your product didn’t sell or your business went belly up 

People do a lot of unhelpful things to dull the pain of failure like: 

  • Getting loaded or sleeping for hours
  • Moping, railing, and beating themselves up
  • Giving up on their goals
  • Selling themselves on the futility of regaining what was lost 

What we should do is simple but challenging: 

  • Self-assess (or re-assess)
  • Refocus
  • Regroup
  • Get going 

When we’re at our lowest, we’re in the best position to consider work that makes us happy and then go for it. After all, there’s not much left to lose when we’re at the bottom. 

Stay in the game 

J. K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, talked about her own experiences with abject failure (poverty, depression, loneliness, and rejection) during her Commencement Address at Harvard in 2008. 

Her advice about the fringe benefits of failure is invaluable: She says, 

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” 

“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. “

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

Like Rowling, we need to accept that we can move from any low point to a higher one. To do that, we must continue to stay in the game, playing hard to win. Our business fitness gives us a platform to build from. On any given day, we may lose a game or a challenge, but if we continue to contend, we can achieve what we’ve set out to do. Now it’s time to suit up!

What has been your most disappointing career failure? How did you deal with it? Any tips for us? Thanks.