Tag Archives | leadership resilience

How to Recover from a Leadership Mistake

The issue is not whether we will make mistakes as leaders. The real issues are how we respond when they happen and what we learn as a result.

This four-step process will help you increase your credibility and retain your sanity when a leadership mistake occurs in spite of your best efforts:

How to recover from leadership mistakes

  • Perform triage to contain whatever has happened.
  • Create a system to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
  • Forgive yourself—and move on.
  • Share the mistake with others so they can avoid committing it themselves.

Jaime Richardson headed up marketing for a national manufacturing company. Her team produced an expensive printed calendar to send out to all customers. The theme of the calendar was quality, and the key message was about how the company embedded quality in everything they did. When the calendars arrived from the printer, Jaime grabbed one from the box, and as her team gathered around, she flipped through it, excited to see the finished product.

The calendar was beautiful, reflecting their quality message with vibrant color and images. But when Jaime got to August, her eyes opened wide. Instead of August 28, August 38 appeared in large black letters.

Her team was devastated. They’d worked so hard to produce a high-quality marketing piece to reinforce their commitment to quality—and the irony was that their customer gift contained a mistake. Jamie called the printer immediately, but the calendars had already been sent out to every customer on their list. Here’s how she followed the four-step leadership recovery process:

  • Perform triage to control what happened: The first thing Jaime did was inform her boss and propose a recovery plan. He was impressed with both her plan and how quickly she’d come up with it. He agreed. Jamie immediately asked the printer to correct and produce a new set of calendars and sent them out with a note from the CEO to all customers explaining that the first batch contained a mistake, and so they were sending out a correction. In the note, she also took the opportunity to reinforce that providing the highest level of quality was their commitment to customers and that they would always make things right. The CEO received notes from several customers thanking him, and in the end, the mistake turned out to increase their credibility with customers.
  • Create a system to avoid a similar mistake in the future: Jaime and a member of her team had carefully proofed that calendar more than once. Unfortunately, one of the executives had come down and requested a small, last-minute change. Because they only proofed the requested change, they didn’t see that somehow in the process a typo was entered for the August page. To avoid any similar mistakes in the future, Jamie and her team devised a new process for managing last-minute changes.
  • Forgive yourself and move on: When Jaime went in to apologize yet another time, her boss said, “Well, did any babies die?” Jaime was so surprised, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her boss just smiled and said, “Look, if you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’ll never be the leader I know you can be. This isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. Let it go.”
  • Share the mistake with others so they can avoid committing it themselves: Jaime used this story to help train new employees when they joined her team, and even more important to reinforce the fact that everyone makes mistakes. She also shared it during a speech she gave to her professional association, and the fact that she was so open about her department’s mistake caused others to share and everyone learned more in the process.

In order to grow, every one of us needs to reach and risk. Sometimes we will make mistakes. But as Marvin Weisbord said in his book, Productive Workplaces, “Unless we make our own mistakes and learn to forgive ourselves, we cannot learn at all.”

How have you recovered from the mistakes you have made on the job?

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Leadership Resilience: On Starting Over

Remember, you don’t have to be perfect. It’s never too late to start over with your team if you remember these Starting over with your teamfour things:

  • It’s more important to listen first and speak second.
  • Use everyone’s expertise to plan and get results.
  • When you are wrong, apologize.
  • Honor your team. and they will honor you.

When I was promoted to my first leadership job at Honeywell’s Systems and Research Center, I was committed to being the best leader I could be. One of the first things I learned from my team was that they felt like second-class citizens. I had lots of ideas about how we could become strategic partners to support our business, and I shared them all. I was passionate. I was animated. I talked a lot. I listened a little.

Then, shortly after I started, my mother died, my father-in-law died, my own father had a stroke, and my grandmother died—all within a sixteen-week period. The pain was devastating, but I ignored it, and charged on. I was the leader after all, right?  My job was to set an example, not be an example.

I was exhausted, not particularly coherent, and I was abrupt as I tried to hide my feelings. Finally, Mike, the senior member of our team asked if I would meet with everyone the next morning. When I walked into the conference room, all ten of my direct reports sat waiting for me around a long table. Mike sat at the foot, and the chair at the head of the table was empty, waiting for me.

Before I could say a word, Mike broke in. “First of all, we want you to know that we really care about you. But lately, Sher, you seem really curt, and we feel that you don’t have any faith in us.”

“Are you speaking for everyone when you say “we feel”?  My voice was clipped and short, and then my face started to burn. I’d just proven his point.

Rita spoke up. “You seem to want to know every detail about all of our projects. It feels like you don’t trust us. And, you have all these ideas about how to change things.”

Linda added in her soft voice, “You just seem so defensive, lately. What’s wrong?” Linda was one of the kindest, most honest women, I’d ever met, and if she said I was being defensive, then I had to believe her.

Something shifted inside of me. I could feel it as I slumped in my chair and forgot about being the perfect leader for the first time since I’d joined the team.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’d like to listen, really. I do want to understand what you’re thinking and feeling.”

Around the table, people visibly relaxed, and I realized for the first time they’d been as nervous as I was. For the next hour, I listened for a change, and they spoke. Looking back, I realize that they had no big complaints. They were sincere when they said they wanted to work with me. They just needed me to listen.

“Thank you for having the guts to speak up,” I said after everyone had gone around the table. “I have been curt and preoccupied, but it had nothing to do with you.” And, I finally shared why I’d been out of the office. They’d had no idea about all the deaths in my family. “I’m really sorry it seemed as though I was finding fault. I didn’t mean to come off that way. I’ve been talking a lot about my vision. Can we start over and instead talk about our vision?”

I got an enthusiastic “yes” from everyone around that table.

Over a three-year period, we worked hard, becoming serious business partners with all the science areas at the Systems and Research Center, and we moved well beyond our previous role of support staff. We doubled our productivity, we maintained a flat-line budget, and we had fun.

It’s been more than 20 years, and I still remember that team with love and honor them for the lessons they were so willing to help me learn. I went on and studied everything I could learn about leadership communication. Since then, I’ve led global and strategic change management communication teams at GE, American Express, Honeywell, and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders all over the world from the front line to the C-Suite, from high tech to financial services to manufacturing. And to this day, the four most important leadership lessons I’ve learned are:

  • It’s more important to listen first, speak second.
  • Use everyone’s expertise to plan and get results.
  • When you’re wrong, apologize.
  • Honor your team. and they will honor you.

It’s never too late to start over as a leader when things go awry. Have you ever started over? How did it go?

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