Learning from Failures

Failures are part of the learning process. You fail, you understand why you failed, and then you build on the lessons. Paying attention to failure, celebrating failures, or learning from failures have become very trendy concepts if you read management blogs and you catch them on Twitter.

Failure SuccessEdison said ”I failed my way to success”. As a scholar, I could not agree more. As a practitioner with over 20 years of business experience, I might tone down the messaging a bit. Some leaders might tell you that it is ok to fail but in reality they are quick at following up by saying “make sure you do not make the same mistake twice”. Failing might be a popular topic but in reality failing in the open and recognizing it widely is not yet fully accepted in most organizations. We are a long way from openly celebrating failures and giving people who took that risk a clean shot again. No all failures are created equal though. Failing in a R&D lab is perfectly acceptable. To develop a new technology, a scientist will have to formulate, experiment and create several prototypes. Most of them will not succeed supporting the perseverance message from Edison. Other failures, especially in the strategy or business model discipline, can have cataclysmic consequences for businesses. I recommend that you read more about the JC Penney recent strategy blunder. The company is still on the brink of collapse and might not survive in the long run. The lessons for JC Penney, Kodak, Polaroid and other failed strategy, are numerous for shareholders. Will they learn from these major failures?  I doubt very much they will celebrate these failures. I doubt Microsoft would celebrate the failures of Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and the Surface. It is clear that they are not learning from failures and they are staying the course in their unsuccessful innovation strategy. My strong recommendation is to avoid failures in the first place by doing the proper homework and by adopting modern leadership and management practices. In this context, learning from failure is possible. Mindful organizations learn from failures. They also pay attention to details and strive to avoid them.

Why are you in Leadership?

Over the past few years, I have been blessed to be able to teach and coach many students about business and leadership. Most of them have grand plans for their careers and many of them aspire to lead large teams and/or lead organizations. There is no doubt that accessing the highest ranks of leadership is in the mind of young graduates, aspiring new leaders, and more experienced executives in organizations. I have one question for all of them. Why do you want to be a leader? What attracts you in leadership? What is your intrinsic motivation? I would conjecture that, for most of them, the race to the top is driven by a desire to control, a desire to exercise greater influence or power, and finally a desire to reach greater income potentials.

My view is that leaders create hope in people and help transform them to become better human beings at home and at work.

For most of them, leadership is directly related to how many people report to them, to the size of the organization in dollars, or to the compensation level. How many times have people asked me, for example, how many people report to me or what are the sales revenue of the firm I managed as if these were critical indicators of my leadership stature. Too many times, people correlate leadership with authority, power, scope, size and income. On a rare occasion, you will find people driven to become leaders to help others, to influence communities, to generate hope in teams, or to transform organizations. They usually move into the non-for-profit world or end-up in specialized positions where they build their leadership legacy.

The leadership journey is a long and tenuous one. I am sure that the reasons people want to be in leadership evolve over time. With maturity, self-awareness and passion for people, growing leaders can turn their motivation towards helping people whether in communities, at home or in organizations. Leadership is about building a better place around you wherever you are. I have come to that realization personally in 2009 while doing my Ph.D. and being exposed to new concepts of resonant leadership. That truly influenced my leadership style and motivations.

I have crafted my leadership stand to reflect my motivation to lead and transform people: “I am a genuine, high-powered, and visionary leader, the source of energy and hope, achieving successful transformations”. My view is that leaders create hope in people and help transform them to become better human beings at home and at work. You can do that whether you have a large or small team, whether you have direct authority or no authority at all, or whether you run a $1 billion company or a $1 million business. Spend time reflecting about the true motivations behind your desire to be in leadership. Be honest with yourself.

Leadership & Workload

Some top leaders still associate being busy and overworked as a symbol of status and success. Being busy means I am worth what I am getting paid and I deserve the medals of true dedication to the firm. Being busy and buried is trendy especially on Twitter and other social media platforms (see HBR blog). But in management, I conjecture that there should be an inverse relationship between leadership responsibility and workload. In fact, I propose that the higher you move up the organizational ladder, the less busy you should be. Your time should be spent differently working on talent development, strategic visioning and change management. If you are a BU leader or a CEO working 80 hours+ per week, you might ask yourself some questions: Am I surrounded by the best people I can hire? Should I be getting involved in all the tactical decisions? Could someone else do some of my work? Am I a control freak?

My view is that top leaders should focus on making the critical decisions and on making sure the strategy is getting deployed across the organization. A CEO is a “chief energizing officer” or a “chief encouragement officer”. I was once working for a CEO who thought that we should have 15-hour work days, travel on weekends, spend endless hours in meeting to control what people are doing, work during our vacations, and take calls in the middle of the night. He, himself, was doing this because he thought it was in his job description to appear busy and overworked. What is wrong with this picture? A CEO should be an agent of stability, charisma and a calming force in the organization. He or she should make sure that none of his or her people fall in this sacrifice syndrome. When I was in this position, I made it a point to delegate, empower and encourage. I was determined to break the pattern of stress that I had developed moving up the rank. As a CEO, I had three priorities: people, innovation, strategy. Not control, compliance, and micro-management. How busy is your CEO? How talented is his or her management team? Slow down and pay attention for a second.

Titles

We are in love with titles. Titles reflect our status in the organization and in society. For some it gives prestige and a sense of belonging. Have you ever wondered what is the difference between a Director of Marketing and a Senior Director of Marketing? What makes a professional “senior”? Who came up with this classification system? In my career, I have spent long hours discussing, arguing over, and crafting new titles. My main objective was to keep things simple, logical, and structured across the organization. In some organizations, you can find severe differences in title descriptions and how someone’s title relates to his or her job description. In others, some bosses were too cheap to pay what people are really worth and they always try to minimize titles to avoid paying people too much. “Let us call that person Supervisor so that they do not ask for too much money”. Nuts.

Let us call that person Supervisor so that they do not ask for too much money

Then you find members of the C-suite who care about their own titles but cannot agree on the right titles for their people that inspire and truly represent what their people are doing in the organization. That type of behavior really gets me going!! Yes titles are important in an organization. They reflect hierarchy and status, But they are also evil in a way that can create tensions, instill a culture of over-competition and kill the innovative spirit. A culture that worships both hierarchy and title can smother innovation and deter people from embracing a collaborative approach.

You have read my tweets about titles. A CEO should be a Chief Energizing Officer. I prefer “Head of Lettuce” or “King of My Office”. So I propose that we should take title seriously but also have some fun. That is why today I have named myself an Agent of Disruption. This is what I am and what I do when I interact with people and organizations. I disrupt their thinking, wake up their creative spirit and bring hope in the possibilities ahead of them. My title is on my business card and it is a great ice breaker!

If you could choose a fun title for what you are and what you would really like to be, what would it be? Share that with us using Twitter or LinkedIn. Let us have some fun. Life is too short!

Loyalty Versus Performance

Have you ever wonder how some people get to be in top management or get to the C-suite? Have you ever wondered how some top leaders keep their job despite poor performance? Sometimes I do too. I have worked in several organizations and have consulted for many others.

LoyaltyI am puzzled by the lack of skills of some top managers and I am wondering how they got there. Many of them lack intellectual power, overall credibility and are not at all charismatic. I call them as “charismatic as a table”. Yet, they lead real companies and do not seem to be deterred. Well, one of the reasons they are there is that they conform well and act as “yes man” or “yes woman”. Some CEO’s like to surround themselves with loyal soldiers who will not question their authority or deviate from the instructions they receive. By promoting based on loyalty and not based on real performance, these top leaders encourage mediocrity in favor of compliance. They end up being surrounded by “mediocre automats” who act without thinking and lack general courage, a backbone or creativity to do anything different. I have been exposed to this situation time after time. The “yes men” or “yes women” do get promoted and they are rewarded for loyalty. You think I am delusional? Look around and up in your organization. Look at how your CEO or “top dog” surrounds himself or herself. What is the quality of the C-suite? You can quickly conclude if that person promotes for loyalty or for performance. You might be surprised. The issue is that promoting based on loyalty leads to mediocrity and a tolerance for it. That is bad news for the organization.

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