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Andrea Plotnick

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Want to Succeed in Business? Make Sure to Fail First

Posted: 12/13/2012 5:42 pm

I went to a parenting lecture the other day and couldn't help thinking how many of us have been caught up in the turbulent rotor wash created by "helicopter parents."

For those not familiar with the term, it refers to well-intentioned parents who literally hover over their kids, ensuring only positive experiences and keeping them safe and secure. Perhaps this would be fine if it stopped after toddlerhood, or even primary school, but somehow it has gone haywire, and this behaviour is continuing into young adulthood and beyond. When did this happen? When did the definition of "protecting children" evolve into including protecting them from bad grades, not being selected as part of a team, not getting into your first choice school, not getting the job you wanted and so on?

The larger issue is that by protecting our kids, we are preventing them from developing a number of key capabilities they need not only as adults, but as employees and most importantly future leaders. These include: finding the strength within to regroup and embrace adversity; handling disappointing situations with grace and optimism; taking calculated risks and stretching beyond one's comfort zone; differentiating the big issues, from the small and gauging your response appropriately; learning how to get along with others (even if you don't like them); and perhaps most importantly -- understanding that actions have consequences.

These are all capabilities we should want to nurture in the workplace. And yet we don't. The normal interview process focuses on potential candidates' successes. One of the most critical questions we don't ask is: "Tell me about a time when you experienced a failure, and what happened?"

We should look to hire people who fail, not just those who succeed.

If you look at most successful CEOs, many of them have had significant failures in their past. But, what makes them successful is what happened after. They learned from mistakes, gained new insight and tried again. If you aren't pushing beyond your comfort zone, then you are perpetuating the status quo. You will likely minimize falls, but you aren't likely to grow significantly either. If you aren't failing, you aren't creating the opportunities for learning.

Likewise, we should be looking at people who can take risks -- not foolhardy risks, but calculated risks. People who have never had the opportunity to weigh decisions and take risks are more likely to overspend inordinate amounts of time mulling over every decision -- minute and significant. Conversely, they may make rash decisions, if they have never had the opportunity to feel the true consequences of their actions.

If we are not hiring for these competencies, how do we as leaders encourage risk taking and learning? How do we truly hold people accountable -- giving them what they need in terms of responsibility, flexibility, and context, but then holding them accountable for their results, so that they feel the consequences?

The common belief is that as leaders we should remove obstacles and barriers in front of our teams. But wouldn't the learning and satisfaction for our team members be greater if they did it themselves, despite enormous challenges?

I am not promoting abdicating a leadership role, but carefully considering whether we are becoming "helicopter leaders." This may mean providing support and guidance as needed, but making it your team members' responsibility to ask for it, after they have tried on their own.

There are messages here for all parties. For parents: allow your children to fail and let them develop the skills they will need to cope. By doing so, you are inoculating them for the future. For entrants to the job market: think about where you have failed. If nothing comes to mind, think about whether there is an opportunity for you to stretch. If you do have your first failure under your belt, think about how much less you have to lose, having experienced it already when the stakes are lower, and how much you have gained. Practice that story line. Don't hide or gloss over your failures, but point to them with pride.

Finally, as leaders: think about how you can build resilience in your organizations: encourage risk taking, independence and self reflection, and create the conditions where failure is a badge of honour.

 
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