Don’t sweep failure under the rug, confront it


Most people have a hard time admitting they are wrong, but it’s even harder when you’re the role model, the leader, the chief. Yet, admitting failure will position you and your company for success.  

Here are some strategies for checking your ego at the door and learning from failures in your company:

1. Fail Your Way to Success

While many people believe they can’t admit failure because it makes them look weak or vulnerable, the truth is that a leader actually makes him or herself weaker by not acknowledging mistakes. Face it: if you’ve made a mistake, chances are your direct reports have already seen the failure – it’s out there in the open. The question is what you end up doing with it. If you try to pretend it didn’t happen, that creates an ego-driven environment that encourages others that make mistakes to run for the hills and hide the ball. But, if you confront failure, ask what went wrong and get the issue on the table for discussion and dissection, the entire organisation can learn from it – and this gets you and the company on the path to creating a learning environment. This leads to the next tip for success…

2. Ask for Critiques

Too often, some of the most important feedback – that regarding one’s own performance – is overlooked. As a CEO it’s essential to get feedback, but it’s not easy. Employees aren’t likely to proactively approach you regarding problems with your performance. They assume you want to hear only the good news. That’s why all C-level executives, and CEOs in particular, should conduct 360 degree reviews that allow those familiar with their work to provide feedback, both anonymously and for attribution. How you react to that feedback is critical (refer back to the first strategy, which concerns admitting fault). You have to make a conscious effort to let people know you’re glad they brought the issue to your attention, and then discuss how or why it occurred, and how it can be avoided in the future. Then take steps toward improvement.

3. Know What You Don’t Know

It’s impossible to know everything needed to successfully run a company; the key is to know what you don’t know and ask for help. Surround yourself – in your company and in your external network – with smart people that have a variety of skills and backgrounds. When you don’t understand how to solve a problem, whether it’s a cultural issue, an execution challenge or a market strategy problem, find someone that does. If the issue is episodic, then you can call in an external resource, such as a consultant or even a mentor. A recurring need may require you to create a full-time position that embodies that skill set.

External resources are especially valuable when you’re challenged by a unique or new problem. By reaching outside the company you may discover a solution already exists and save yourself from reinventing the wheel. Or, you may learn that everyone is struggling with similar issues, in which case you shouldn’t be shy about putting your innovation cap on and developing a solution on your own. Just remember, there’s no sin in employing a solution that already exists if it fits the task. Knowing when to innovate is just as important as knowing when not to.

The bottom line

One of the greatest mistakes a CEO can make is to pretend to be perfect. Admitting mistakes and showing that you’re vulnerable helps both you and your organisation become stronger. Too often, individuals or organisations attribute failure to something other than substandard performance or poor execution. But playing the blame game doesn’t drive growth or improvement. Admit to mistakes, and examine them through regular reviews of, and discussions around wins and losses.  Honest, constructive reviews of mistakes can help your organisation identify its strengths and weaknesses, help set benchmarks for improvement and create a learning environment that leads to success.


About the author

Mike Tuchen is the CEO of  Talend, the open source leader of integration software.