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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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