I like articles about career success. It is enjoyable to read about the highs people reach after a good decision. This is not one of those articles. Instead, I want to talk about failure. The cold hard truth is you will sometimes fail before you succeed.
No one wants to fail, but a paralyzing fear of it is unhealthy. Fear of failure has a profound downside for individuals and organizations. In a fearful environment, good ideas often go unheard and innovation is stifled from a lack of risk taking.
Nevertheless, failure is a painful process. I know this because I have failed at times in my career.
One of my biggest failures was when I worked hard to implement a new IT solution for the Americas. I was the leader, the coach and the mentor of a group who looked up to me for direction. And we failed miserably. The costs were high — wasted time, money and a loss of confidence in myself.
This setback felt devastating so early in my career. After a failure though, the best choice is to pick yourself up, identify what went wrong, change path, and then keep walking forward. So, that is what I did.
Failure is like learning to walk
In business, we can’t avoid failure. McKinsey & Company shows that 70 percent of all transformations in organizations fail, and studies also show that roughly 75 percent of start-up ventures fail within 10 years. So, there is a good chance that over the course of your career you will experience failure in some form.
I like to think of it as learning to walk. When you are a child, you learn to walk by starting to crawl. You get up, you take a couple steps, and then you fall. You get up, you try something different. It is a repetitive system. The only way you get to a point of running some day is by failing along that process.
I believe how you react to failure is more important than the failure itself. As Bill Gates said, “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure”. I could have taken that early failure of mine, pointed fingers, said it was somebody else’s fault, and come up with a whole host of reasons. What I ended up doing instead was looking at myself and my leadership style, reflecting on how I could ensure it did not happen again and how I could learn from it.
Did I have to take a step back? Absolutely. Was I put in the penalty box for a while? Hell yeah, I deserved it, I cost the company quite a bit of money. I had a lot of reflection and mending to do, but when I came back not too long after, I was much stronger.
Embrace failure, reject stupidity
I truly believe that every great leader has failed, not once, but several times in their career. If they haven’t, they are not a great leader. Unless you go through a failure, which can be devastating, you’re not going to learn, and it’s those lessons that make people. It is failure that has shaped me into the person and leader I am today.
A study from Stanford from the mid-20th century showed that seeing others overcome their failures can help decrease your own fears and show you how to find the plus side of your own mistakes more easily. Every leader has to walk the talk and become what Harvard Business Review calls a ‘failure-tolerant leader’, one who creates an environment and culture where it is okay to fail as long as you learn from that failure, change course and move forward. If you fail the same thing twice, you could jeopardize your job. You must ensure that while failure is accepted and risk is rewarded, stupidity, failing that second or third time, is not something you accept. That is the line in the sand.
Accept the risk for the reward
You must be open to people taking risks. If there is a risk taken and there is a failure, you still have to reward the behavior. You can’t look at failure so negatively, you sometimes must take the risk to get the most out of it. That risk could move the needle for your organization significantly, much more than not taking the risk in the first place.
We need to learn from the past. In the dotcom era, there were companies that were very risk averse and as soon as the environment they operated in became risky, those companies started to implode. They did not adhere to the philosophy of learning from your mistakes and to not make the same mistake twice.
Fear of failure not only stops us from taking risks, it is also a barrier to innovation. A 2015 Boston Consulting Group survey found that 31 percent of respondents identified a risk-averse culture as a key obstacle to innovation. The McKinsey & Company article, Overcoming a bias against risk, authored by Tim Koller, Dan Lovallo and Zane Williams, concurs:
“People fear losses more than they value equivalent gains. When organizations become overly risk-averse in their decision-making, they can actually squander reasonable opportunities to grow and achieve enterprise objectives.”
Should we fear failure to some extent? I think so, but it is not the end of the world when it happens. It can teach us a lot and propel us forward — I am proof of that. My question for organizations today is how do we harness this pervasive fear and turn it into something positive that helps us all move forward?
About the Author
Renée Ure is Vice President, Global Supply Chain for Lenovo and leads a global organization responsible for Planning, Procurement, Fulfillment, Operations, Manufacturing, Logistics, and Engineering for the Data Center Group. Start a conversation with her here, or on LinkedIn and Twitter.