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Is Failure a Dirty Word to You?

Failure. Sit on that word a moment, let it sink in. My educated guess is it doesn’t evoke happy thoughts or feelings for you. After all, we are programmed to win not fail, right?

Yes that’s right. Winning is what we are programmed for, but, I’ve discovered an incredibly interesting fact. Super successful people love the word failure. Not as in “You are a Failure”, which gives the word such a negative connotation, but as in “That Failed.”

One of my mentors, John C. Maxwell, headliner speaker at my next petro event, recently released what is now a NY Times best seller, “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn” all about failures and the good that comes from them.

I am such a fan of failure after numerous personal experiences that I now encourage my petro CEOs to reveal personal job failures weekly at their executive level meetings and have their top managers do the same.

My worst personal failures have been when I didn’t stay on track with my own business advice – embarrassing but true. Like when pre-recession I allowed 75% of my company’s revenues to become concentrated in our M&A area, which when fuel prices went screaming up, came to a complete income halt for about 12 months. Thankfully, we regrouped, strategized and survived. But it wasn’t fun for awhile.

Your business failures may not be as drastic as mine, but I’ve come to know from research and study that super successful companies embrace failure. The key to turning failure into massive success is to discuss failures religiously in company meetings, preferable weekly.

To be effective, however, those failure discussions should be from a position of radical self responsibility. You and your team should reveal personal failures (as opposed to pointing out someone else’s, which is unhealthy blame) and then what the person is going to personally do differently to avoid repeating the same failure.

This can be an uncomfortable practice at first for any autocratic and/or perfectionist leader. After all, we all want great companies without failures.   But as Jim Collins so brilliantly pointed out in his epic book Good to Great, the enemy of great is good!

As I’ve helped good companies become super successful, I’ve found that the definition of failure morphs over time, becoming more microscopic as the company reaches new levels of success. Let’s use trucking as an example.

In the beginning of one company embracing my failure exercise, failure was defined as a spill, mix or accident. Later, when none of these were occurring regularly anymore, failure was redefined as a committed delivery window missed. That was fun because it made everyone from sales to customer service, to dispatch, to drivers aware of commitments and reality.

Even further into the process, when delivery windows were going great, the company redefined failure as missing the targeted utilization rate, a predetermined percentage of total available hours (24 x # of vehicles x days in period being analyzed) set and tweaked over time. So failure, and it’s definition, becomes further and further fine tuned as a company moves from good to great.

I got bold in my quest to conquer failure and by promoting my 4-step CURE Meeting Success Formula with my M-Power™ coaching clients with great results. The CURE formula is as follows:

Celebrate Success

Unhide the Failure

Reveal the Needed Change

Execute the change Swiftly

I started with success celebration because business owners and managers are often so focused on fixing things that we forget to celebrate the wins. Every team needs celebration time and this gets everyone looking forward to weekly meetings.

Then it’s on to failures. Unhide them. Bring them out in the open and make them OK. Next figure out what needs to change to avoid repeats. And then the final kicker — the key to super-charging a company is that whatever is revealed as the needed change must be executed as fast as possible! All the admission of failure and good intentions doesn’t take a company from good to great. Only action does that.

A side benefit of embracing failure is that suddenly teams become less afraid of failure. This means they start taking calculated risks, trying new things that could fail, but if successful, have the potential to catapult the company forward. I literally see senior managers get “unstuck” and start trying new ideas and technology.

Some examples from my M-Power™ companies include:

  •  A 30 year sales manager veteran who finally tackled CRM implementation and now is delighted with his ability to forecast new sales and figure out if a salesman is “stuck” and needs his coaching to advance a prospect.
  • An office manager who lost her fear of automated EFT’s creating a 2 million reduction in the company’s average bank line balance as money come in faster.
  • An owner who finally felt confident letting his store area supervisors make tons more decisions as they began openly admitting the problem spots and he realized they were offering great solutions when he got out of their way!

If you are not having no-blame, productive failure discussions with your team weekly, give it a try, but don’t expect instant miracles. Some of the perfectionists on my team took months to get comfortable exposing their personal faux pas. It’s a vulnerable place and we live in a culture where people get fired for making mistakes.

If you sense some fear and trepidation from your team at the onset, I suggest sharing a story by Tom Watson, the brilliant former CEO of IBM. A researcher VP had made a mistake, a massive failure which cost IBM in the neighborhood of $10 million. When a colleague snickered about the researcher being out on the street looking for a job, Watson quickly corrected his erroneous conclusion, stating he had just invested $10 million into that man’s education, so why on earth should he fire him!

Reputedly, the researcher when called into Watson’s office shortly after the massive failure brought his resignation letter with him, which Watson promptly refused. The incident and the VP’s enthusiasm and loyalty is credited with infusing IBM with a new spirit of innovation that culminated in the birth of the PC.

Imagine what creativity my CURE Meeting Success Formula could unleash in your organization! Give it a try! I’m wishing you and your team the courage to tackle failures with a new and radical sense of self-responsibility that results in a massively better workplace and fatter bottom line. And that you too fall in love with the word failure.

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