Wednesday, August 18th, I was driving while listening to the news briefing of Defense secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley as they discuss the withdrawal of US military from Afghanistan.
In the days and weeks leading up to this day, you may recall that we witnessed the unfolding of this event, and it was so apparent that this exit strategy was filled with mistakes as the opposition regime engulfed Afghanistan in a fraction of the time than what was planned for.
I couldn’t help but think, how is this possible? We have leadership strengths. We have vast resources. We have specialized intelligence. Yet here we are in this awful situation.
This got me thinking about you, my listeners, the high achiever with executive ambitions. You’ve done big things! Like earning degrees from top-tier institutions, leading initiatives and projects that have made significant impact, you possibly even negotiated multimillion-dollar deals oh, and it is highly likely that you are recognized as a star performer who is being groomed for the c-suite or senior leadership roles.
And I think……you have leadership strengths. You have access to resources. You have specialized intelligence, and it is very likely that you have experienced or will experience the hollowness you feel when you realize - - that you have made a mistake.
You are human and making mistakes is part of the human life experience. To err is human.
I'm a glass-half-full person, it is very natural for me to move quickly in looking for the positive in most situations as I try to discover the learning opportunities on the other side of a mistake. Truth be told - - making mistakes is like an unwritten aspect of professional development.
The thing about mistakes is, 1) they can happen to anyone at any time (nano second or cultivated over days, months or years), 2) they can be external and due to some unforeseen event or they can be self-imposed and internal, 3) however, most importantly the key to recovering from a mistake it to have a plan so that you can unpack what happened, learned from you and not repeat it again.
Thinking back to that news briefing with Defense Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley, what stood out to me was the frequent reference to an after-action review (AAR) and that it was in this after-action review where they and all of the appropriate participants will come together for a structured debrief to analyze what happened. Why it happened? How there could have been a more favorable outcome, etc.
Now in the business world I'm familiar with the use of the term debrief. And it is in the debrief that follows the launch of a product or big initiative, or proposal that all participants come together and debrief the successes and the shortcomings in an effort to improve upon either the process or the possible results.
And, so similar for you, consider the debrief process you will use to examine a mistake you have made.
And when it comes to professional making mistakes it's very important that in order to appropriately recover you must understand what happened and how you got to that place.
In today's podcast I'm going to share what I believe are the components of a debrief for you to do on your own or with others. But, before I do this, I'm going to share with you stories of mistakes made by some of my coaching clients over the years.
And, what these stories have in common is that they are all self-imposed. So, we’re not talking about mistakes made that are beyond your control, like an unforeseen technology flaw, but mistakes that individuals made which required a recovery plan of sorts to ensure the advancement of their career. Look we all benefit from hindsight 20/20 perspective!
First, let’s establish some basic points about Mistakes.
They can vary far and wide. "Not all mistakes are created equal"
They can occur within nanoseconds; like with the push of a button (or wrong button) or they can be nurtured over a period while slowing growing; like cells in a petri dish
the consequences of a mistake can range from a hit to your reputation, your performance at work, your self-image, undermine valuable relationships or possibly even result in -- job loss.
Take for example Jonathon, who was social media manager at a successful start-up. He told me ‘The mistake I made was not speaking up when I felt I was not being compensated for the work I was being asked to do and that began to affect my attitude." As a new hire in his late 20’s, Jonathan was so excited having made the pivot from a global telecom company to a startup tech fir. He knew going in that his job responsibilities would be broad and varied recognizing this was the nature of being in a startup. However, after 9 months on the job, his boss, who was a director, left the company and Jonathan was asked to step in and take on many of her responsibilities. However, months passed and there was no mention of replacing someone in the director’s role and there was no discussion of adjustment in Jonathon's compensation with the expanded responsibilities. After working non-stop and sacrificing exercise, time with friends, or essentially doing anything outside of work, he said, “I ended up yelling at one of the founders out of my frustration, when, in retrospect, I should have found a way to raise the issue instead of letting my feelings reach a boiling point. My relationship with that founder hasn’t been the same since that day.”
And then there was Catherine, a no-nonsense leader in her mid-30’s and finance director in a California state government agency. Catherine said, “I made the mistake of blaming others for the lack of structure and accountability for money management in my organization." You see while in a performance review with her boss, Catherine learned that she had developed a reputation as a complainer. She went on to say “I was shocked that I became known as ‘the complainer’ I’ve always had a solid reputation for getting things done with a high degree of perfection. I now know that I was just as responsible as the other leaders for fixing the internal problems I knew existed instead of complaining about them."
Everyone makes mistakes. But what is particularly difficult for high achievers, is that they tend to stand out from the crowd as the near-perfect human being. Typically deemed popular throughout high school and college Years. You are the leader among leaders you always performed well in school received numerous Awards and recognition. And so, the first big workplace mistake can certainly take a toll. Leaving some to think that they are now a failure. Life as they know it has come to an end. When the truth is the mistake resulted from a bad choice that was made not that you have somehow become a bad person, 'to err is human' and there are no perfect persons.
In the book Brilliant Mistakes, author Paul Schoemaker makes the case for why mistakes often open new vistas that may result in innovation and discovery. He also makes an argument for managers and organizations to make more mistakes. Schoemaker said, ‘I have to say that, of course, with a caveat. You must do it carefully and strategically. Most people are risk averse, which means that they play it quite safe, and they don’t explore as widely around their assumptions, or their mental models, as they perhaps should. Organizations exacerbate this because they reward people for results most of the time, and not so often on good intentions or good process for exploration.”
After hearing this, I started to wonder how many people ‘vet’ a prospective employer on their ‘mistake tolerance?’ Asking a question such as ‘what is recent mistake made by someone on your team and what happened as a result?’ Or ‘How do you describe your company’s tolerance for mistakes made by employees?’
Here are a couple of examples of mid-career professionals who offered some perspective on mistakes they made
Anita, IBM's sales director who said, “I made the mistake of not asking for help sooner." Anita suddenly found herself divorced with two young children in a big sales job at IBM and although she produced impressive results at work, her mental health and wellbeing took a significant hit. She went on to say “I became paralyzed with fear and II become bitter, angry inside as I tried to keep it all together. My friends noticed; my children noticed. I used to think that asking for help made me look weak. Now I know that was a false narrative I was telling myself.”
In her debrief, she discovered that in addition for seeking help, she shifted her mindset of what it meant to be a divorced mother or two children, she was deliberate in distinguishing between what was urgent and what was important in order to achieve balance she wanted, and she discovered her ‘value’ in terms of what she brought to the company. By doing this, she released the feelings of guilt and when she was home, she was fully present for her children and when she was at work, she established boundaries and increased her focused productivity.
Kevin, project manager at Lockheed Martin who failed to build an effective relationship with this hard-charging boss. Kevin said, “I was an outsider who was hired from federal government into a high-profile position that was newly created. I made the mistake of not managing up" He said “I was placed on a team where my boss was not part of the hiring process. I learned she had a strong reputation as results-driven and is known to apply pressure to her team. Since our very first meeting we had opposing views on how I was to do my job. I also felt she never tried to get to know me. In retrospect, I didn’t make much effort to get to know her. We never seemed to gain traction on expectations for my role. I saw my work one way and she saw it very differently. Working in private industry is very different from the government. In retrospect, my lack of knowledge about the culture, lack of relationships across the organization, and an unsatisfactory relationship with my boss created a very stressful situation for me.”
Kevin left that company after only 18 months on the job. He said “I now know that I have to be deliberate and creating space for relationship building in order to build a trusting relationship after. I really struggled in that role.”
And if you consider an organization without mistakes keeps people playing small and afraid to assert themselves to take risks. And so, it's interesting to gauge and organizations tolerance 4 business mistakes that have been thought out and fully considered.
By doing something wrong, you may have learned something right that ultimately will contribute to a future success.
Components for debriefing a mistake:
1. Make the time to examine what has occurred. Being able to unilaterally determine this will be directly related to the scale and scope of the mistake made. Be certain to establish a time when you have the mental capacity to think clearly.
2. Clarify the problem. Determine what are the facts or evidence. What were the assumptions made?
3. Zoom out by getting additional perspectives. Who else has perspective on what happened? This will help in filling-in some potential blind spots that you may be missing. This is not an attempt to validate your version of what happened but help to broaden the scope of possibilities of what was going on.
4. Create a plan to avoid repeating the mistake. Invite accountability Partners tell them what you need from them how you want them to engage when you want them to engage. This may include your boss, Mentor, colleagues, family members, coach.
5. Establish a habit of reflective practice. Weekly or monthly, make the time to reflect. The outcome ultimately becomes the personal growth that you desire.
Ray Dalio, investor, and entrepreneur, said in his work Principles that Pain + Reflection = Progress.
He drew the parallel between having a reflective practice and exercise. Exercise becomes pleasurable for those who are hardwired with the connection between exercise and its benefits. In essence the same can be true for establishing a reflective practice.
When you discover that you have made a mistake, take accountability, engage in a process of debrief such that you learn and grow.
You are still a high achiever, so continue to be a strong leader who delivers quality work. Whatever the mistake, it will become a thing of the past and you are equipped to excel and achieve the future you desire. No one is perfect and learning through your experience is preparing you on the road to fulfill your executive ambitions.