5 Lessons Learned from Failure
All the motivational quotes and leadership gurus will tell you that if you haven’t failed you haven’t really ever tried or gone out of your comfort zone. I won’t lie….for those of us who have stepped out onto the precipice and experienced failure….it doesn’t feel as good at the time as the books make it seem. What I can tell you is…upon reflection…what I learned along the way of one of my EPIC career failures. In fact, that time in my career will go down in history as the toughest gig I will ever have and the cornerstone of my “turn around” story.
As the story goes……
When I left Keane in Halifax in 2005 to open up the Toronto office and at the helm of our first Canadian Client as well as the biggest client we had from the USA, I felt that I was ready…this was my moment to shine... and that everything I had done to date had led to this moment. As it turns out…it was not the fairy tale ending I had dreamed it would be and led to my being “fired” (reassigned within Keane). As I left that assignment and packed our bags to come to Phoenix I was completely burnt out and disheartened. Not only that – but I quit on that team and situation as I desperately tried to hold things together until I was officially relieved of duty. Here are the high level lessons learned….
1) Don't Let Time Manage YOU
This one was probably the biggest contributor to my downfall. I have always been a person who believed that if I worked hard enough, put in enough hours and demonstrated my commitment to the cause that I could turn anything around. As a result, I hit the ground running and was working around the clock. Nights, weekends, travel to India, back and forth to Halifax. My plan was to come in hot and when I had turned the team around and had the credibility of the client I could throttle back. As it turned out, there was NO throttling back. In fact, things went from bad to worse as I dug in and realized how messed-up things truly were. At that point I had already over spent on my time and there was no more to give…I just had to keep up the break neck pace I had set. To pile onto the “time managing me” band wagon – I had very little time for my family with the pace I had set and the girls had a really rough time adjusting to Toronto…the new school, no friends, new house, no family support and a Mom that was too busy to spend time helping them through it – it all fell on my husband’s shoulders. The train had left the station and all I could do was hang on and do the best I could to keep up.
Lesson Learned: Working round the clock and setting that pace for yourself, your team and your family is a recipe for disaster. You have to take time to relax, reflect, exercise, eat right, sleep…smell the roses. This enables you as a leader to see things more clearly, let calmer heads prevail, and people ultimately respect you more for your calm, confident approach. It is what ultimately gives you the courage to get through the tough experiences and deal with all the other lessons learned below. If you manage your calendar and your time - it will most likely give you the best fighting chance for all the other pitfalls
2) Be honest about your team.
The team I walked into when I arrived in Toronto was in crisis. Not only my team on the ground but also the client. To set the stage…Keane had struck a deal with the client to do a staff acquisition and WE promised them efficiency, process improvement and ultimately…cost savings. I wasn’t long into my time in Toronto and I clearly remember heading to the airport to go back to Halifax despondent and unable to see the way forward. The team hated Keane for acquiring them and hated the client for giving them away. There were very few believers in the group and to make matters worse – my leadership team had signed an agreement for the first two years of the engagement that we could not release any of them (due to their business and technical expertise). In this case – I was honest about my team but powerless to do anything about it – other than to try and get everyone on board. As I wondered through the airport gift shop, killing time before the flight and seeking inspiration…any hope…I happened upon a book by Patrick Lencioni called “The 5 Dysfunctions of a team”. I devoured it on the two hour flight home and walked off the plane with hope and a plan. The book accurately described my situation and my best bet was to put in a structured process to get them to turn around or convince them to leave and find their happiness somewhere else. I couldn’t release them…but nothing said I couldn’t coach them up or coach them out.
Lesson Learned: You are only a leader when you have a team willing to follow you. This takes time, a concerted effort and your “go to” tactics to build relationships won’t always work with everyone. You have to be prepared to face the truth about your team and the limitations that you may be faced with and the moves you can make. In that year – I got really good at working with teammates and making it very clear that I was willing to be one of their biggest champions if they were willing to work with me. Otherwise – I was very happy to work with them to find their next position somewhere else. We could work out the transition plan and they could spend as much time as they needed looking for their next role. I tried to help them see how they could be part of an epic turn around but if they could not see their way clear - that I was not going to tolerate their bad behavior any more. I grew up a lot in that year….”do not mistake tolerance for weakness”
3) Don’t let your boss off the hook.
This one is absolutely critical and can be the hill you die on. Again…I have been a self-professed "pleaser" my whole career and I do have a strong respect for chain of command. Mid-way through my time on the account it became painfully clear that I needed my boss to actively jump in…participate and have my back. He had helped to negotiate the contract with the client and had set us on the path we were on. Given that he was responsible and seemingly had no idea why things were so bad…he just kept flying in to tell me to fix things faster. I won’t go into all the gory details…but after a series of straight forward…and uncomfortable conversations my boss was asked to leave the company. It was a lot tougher and painful than I could have imagined.
Lesson Learned: I am now a lot more straight-forward with my bosses and comfortable talking about the uncomfortable. I also have a much better handle on the hill I am willing to die on and what conversations/actions need to happen that may lead to that moment. I don’t pretend for a minute that I relish it, look for it or want to deal with it. Having said that – I should have taken a stronger stance in coaching and managing up without fear. I bit my lip too long and I should have “grown a set” and in a calm, straightforward manner – given him the feedback rather than letting it get to the critical point that it did. As a result (with support and coaching from people I trust) – I am better at having conversations like that.
4) Don’t avoid conflict
The year in Toronto was a fun filled cornucopia of conflict everywhere I turned. I believe due to not only poorly managing my time, having a team that was miserable, working with a client that was even more miserable and very little executive support, I spent more time looking for, embracing and dealing with conflict for a LIFETIME! Every day was a new day of conflict. My stress levels were through the roof, I couldn’t dig my way out of the pain, and so all I could do was get a tough skin and ride it out.
Lesson Learned: Again…exercise, eating right, getting enough sleep, reflection, relaxation are key elements to not only build strategies so that you are not constantly in conflict but how you can manage it better. Conflict (or speaking the truth) is always the best way…but conflict with emotion and confrontation only makes YOU look like the issue instead of having everyone focus on the issue at hand. It is a challenging balance…you cannot let up on dealing with what you believe is right…but you have to do it in a manner that is effective. You also have to manage the stakeholders and have others helping you move the needle through the conflict so there are multiple supporters.
5) Focus on Execution
I have to say that focusing on execution was the one thing that saved my bacon. Despite everything else – I knew that I had to get the numbers right (meet service level agreements (SLAs)) and that no matter what the team thought, or what the client thought, they could not deny results. In hind sight – this is what ultimately burned me out but what gave me a chance to be reassigned rather than just being flat out fired. When I took over the team we were missing our SLAs and owed the client a lot of money in penalties and we were in breach of contract for not meeting our CMMI Level 5 certifications. By the time I left we were hitting all of our SLAs and we were no longer in breach. They didn’t like me…but they could not deny the outcome. As a result…that team is still surviving and thriving today. The guy that came in and took over for me won the top global account manager award at our annual meeting two months after I left for his work on turning the account around. I knew what we did, and I had no regrets. He smoothed over the relationship pieces with the client – but he could only do it because the team was executing and hitting the numbers.
Lesson Learned: Once you choose your path – be proud of what you accomplish – even if you are the only one who knows. Being able to execute is something no one can take from you. Being able to follow successful people around and take credit for their work is not always going to pan out…I have to believe it eventually catches up with those guys…just not in my lifetime.
No matter how much we learn or how much experience we gain we will be faced with times in our career that despite the fact that we know better we get swept up in the sea. I am under no illusions that despite the fact that I know better that I won’t make the same (but different) mistakes. Hindsight and history always make things seem more obvious. The playing field changes, the players change, the weather is not consistent….there are a lot of factors that can cause us to not see (or feel powerless to see) the way forward or what should be obvious to us based on our experience. We have to be in control of our lives (personal and professional) and follow our “true north”. Meeting the commitments to ourselves and our families is what will ultimately be the best cure to NOT find ourselves in a situation to say “if I could do it all over again”. Life is the no regrets tour and we will make mistakes along the way and the best we can do is to reflect in the moment and embrace the wonderful gift of our imperfections. What we cannot regret is the commitments we make to ourselves. It is the greatest gift we can give to those that choose to follow us and love us.
Leadership Questions of the week for YOU: Take a few minutes to think about YOUR failure story (big or small). Write it down and fit it into the context of the 5 lessons learned like I did above. Now….what do you think of the 5 lessons learned? Are there any you would add or change based on YOUR story?
Thanks for reading….and remember…YOU make a difference!
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