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Fail Forward

by Jeff Gau on September 22, 2011

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  Remember those words? How often do we tell it to our employees or live it ourselves as leaders?

Building a culture of innovation and calculated risk taking is essential in a high-performing organization of any size. We certainly are going to make mistakes to achieve success. At Marco, we have failed many times to get where we are today. I believe it’s that courageous and entrepreneurial spirit that gives us an edge in the marketplace.

I was just laughing with a member of our company’s leadership team the other day as we reminisced about some of our absolute blunders. I remember when we decided to sell early child care products in our retail office supply store. Yes, we had everything from pacifiers and potty chairs to crayons and construction paper. We saw an opportunity; there didn’t seem to be a lot of competition. But it failed. We apparently weren’t good at it, and we certainly weren’t focused on our core customer.

Here are a few lessons I have learned from failures:

Accept responsibility.
All good leaders experience failure at some point in their careers. How they respond to the setback can often define their future. Do you accept responsibility and move on, or do you look for a scapegoat to avoid the perception of failure? While I’ve had my fair share of setbacks, I do not dwell on the past and remind myself that our future depends on fresh ideas and new opportunities.

Try, try again.
Sometimes ideas don’t take off because of timing, leadership or execution. Just because something failed does not mean it is a failure – and you should never try it again. You often hear people say “been there, done that.” Well, I add: “yes, and we’re going to do it again.”

There are quite a few examples at Marco of products, services or initiatives that failed at one point and we have tried again. I recall when we established our first customer help desk back in the 80’s. For a variety of reasons it was unsuccessful, and ultimately we discontinued the service. But here we are almost 25 years later, with a growth segment of our business called Managed Services. This is essentially the same thing. So why did it work better this time? Better leadership? Better tools? Market acceptance? Stronger commitment? These all may be contributing factors to the success of our Managed Services offering today.  So the old adage, “try, try again” is still relevant.

Lessons to be learned. 
There is a lesson to be learned from every failure. Every time we fail, I see it as an opportunity to assess and refine our strategy. For example, when the child care product line failed, it reminded us who our customer was, and probably just as important who our customer was not. The lesson we learned led to the beginning of our exit from retail sales and focus exclusively on direct business to business clients.

I challenge you to go back in your organization’s history and revisit some of the failures of your past. Are there some lessons to be learned from those? Just because they didn’t work then, may not mean they couldn’t successfully be applied now.

Some of the failed initiatives from our past that we are working on ‘again’ are telesales, sales training, and as mentioned, help desk support. If we subscribed to the “been there, done that” mentality, we would have missed opportunities today. Don’t be afraid to dust off your failures of the past.

Topics: Leadership, Lessons

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