I got 99 problems but failure ain’t one

Jason Lauritsen wrote this thought-provoking post on how we approach the concept of failure and why it has such a stigma in our society.  He argues that failure doesn’t need to be something we fear – we should embrace it and move forward from it.  (It’s a good post – go read it!)

This got me thinking about how we as a society in the US approach failure in general….particularly in the newer generations of workers. You hear the jokes about “everyone gets a trophy” or soccer games where no one keeps score.  Because we don’t want our precious children to feel the sting of defeat “too soon”.  Unfortunately, “too soon” easily turns into “ever”…and helicopter parents who earned an indulgent chuckle when their children are in kindergarten solicit anger and frustration from bosses who see the results in their employees. (Kathy Caprino expertly addresses the parenting aspect of business in this article on Forbes.com.)

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Consider these things THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED IN A REAL COMPANY.  WITH ADULTS.

  • A mother calls her 25-year-old son in sick at work, “because he needs his sleep.”
  • Parents of an intern call the HR department to ask what clothes they should buy their 21-year-old daughter for her summer at the company, even though the information was sent to the intern.
  • An employee calls his mother in the middle of a meeting with an HR manager to talk about what is going on…not once, but TWICE. (Seriously.  This one amazes me.)

These rather extreme examples are a moment in the life of a person who has not yet learned how to cope with the demands of a corporate environment.  But the fallout extends beyond these one-off situations, and it’s not just the Millennials displaying an inability to handle failure.  Do any of these sound familiar?

  • A senior manager refuses to “rock the boat” and speak out against an initiative that he knows will damage the culture because he’s afraid of risk.
  • A vice president insists on full consensus for every single decision she makes because she doesn’t trust her own judgement.
  • A CEO yells and screams at his executive team when the stock goes down because he’s surrounded by idiots who can’t do anything right (or so he thinks).
  • An entry-level employee hates her job because she doesn’t get a promotion in the first 6 months.

We are a society of instant gratification.  We are a society of limiting risk (unless we know we have substantial backup).  We are a society that lacks perseverance in the face of repeated adversity.  We are a society of people who think “Failure is not an option” is a rallying cry.

I’m here to tell you – failure is ALWAYS an option.  Without failure, we would never be able to celebrate success.  Without failure, we would never appreciate a job well done.  Without failure, we would never be motivated to better ourselves. Without failure, we would never learn anything.

Failure drives us forward – but only if we approach it correctly.  Here are some thoughts on how managers and employees (and yes, parents!) alike can harness the power of failure:

  • Acknowledge failure WILL happen: The idea that if you can go without a mistake for 60 seconds, you can go forever without one is ridiculous.  Accept that failure at some point will occur and give yourself (and others) permission to fail.
  • Talk about failure: Talking about something helps to remove the stigma of that thing.  By talking openly about failure, you help to create a culture where such transparency is expected and welcomed.  There is nothing more powerful than a leader who admits his/her vulnerability, shares his/her failures, and then shares what he/she learned from it.
  • Bring options to the table: If you goof up, figure out how you’re going to make it better.  Don’t just wallow in self pity (or freak out and hide).  Start a dialogue about the situation so you can move on. Own up, share what you think contributed to the mistake, offer some options to rectify the issue, and solicit ideas from your stakeholder.
  • Fail once – and learn from it: While failure is a part of the process, repeated failure can be a sign of something else.  I don’t mind an employee who keeps trying new things, isn’t 100% success the first time, but applies what he/she has learned to the next thing.  I do mind an employee who makes the same mistakes over and over again and blames others for his/her inability to change.

If you spend any time in the working world, you’re going to experience failure, from either your actions or the actions of others.  And some of those failures are gonna be doosies.  Failure is not a problem to solve.  It’s a lesson to learn.  Our reaction to failure is what ultimately drives  success.  So will you seize failure as an opportunity?  Or will you hide behind your inability to embrace what failure can do for you?

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.
– Michael Jordan

[Author’s Note: I know there are a lot of people who DO handle failure well.  And that we all know of someone who has persevered, regardless of the odds.  And to those people, I say “you rock.”]

I’m a peacock!!! (what to do when your boss won’t let you flap your wings and fly)

Development.  Growth.  Character building.  Resume expansion.  Skillz.

As employees, we are looking for more than a paycheck when we come to work.  We  hope the job is some sort of means to an end, whether it’s fulfilling our lifelong dream of being a CEO, or simply a chance to “pay our dues” or “learn something new” on the way to that mythical “perfect” job out there.

So when our manager keeps us from growing on the job, it gets us miffed.  Some might even say snippy. Or, in extreme cases, terribly vexed.

There’s data that support the general annoyance felt by employees whose growth has been stymied.  Engagement studies continue to indicate that career development is a key engagement factor for most employees.  In fact, less than half of all employees believe they have career opportunities with their current employer.  Interestingly enough, another key engagement factor is trust in leadership…so if you have a manager who lied about the development opportunities your position offers, you’re probably not terribly engaged at the moment.   And now we’re backed to being terribly vexed.

The good news is that you don’t need 100% buy-in from your manager in order to grow.  I happen to subscribe to the belief that employees should own their own development, and as such, it is up to us to find ways to demand a chance to flap our wings and fly.  (It’s a reference to The Other Guys.  You’re welcome.)

See?  He's not flying.  And he's sad.
See? He’s not flying. And he’s sad.

Without further ado, here are some suggestions on how you can “encourage” an uncooperative boss into helping you grow and develop:

  • Be specific about your requests: This is slightly more than just “ask for it” (which is still good advice, but may not work with this type of boss).  You need to know what it is you want to accomplish with your development.  If you say to me, “I want to develop.  Develop me.”, I wouldn’t want to help you either.  It’s too vague!  Get some specificity.  If you are looking for more budgeting experience, ask your boss if you can sit in on a financial review meeting.  If you want eventually to be a manager, volunteer to lead a few projects.  Just mapping out some specific development goals for yourself will help move you in the right direction.
  • Help your coworkers on projects outside of your skill set: This is an awesome way to grow…and to get brownie points for “teamwork”.  Yes, you’ll have to figure out the best way to prioritize your time so you still get your work done if your boss isn’t fully on board, but you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn from your teammates.  Each of us brings unique skills and experience to the table, and there is no cost to learning from each other.
  • Seek out a mentor in another department: Let’s face it – sometimes you take a job that isn’t the greatest because of the opportunity to work for a certain company.  But now you’re stuck in that department because your boss doesn’t care about your career development.  Unless you are physically chained to the desk, you can move about the office, building relationships in different departments and asking for advice and guidance from others.  (If you ARE physically chained to a desk, you may want to call HR.)  Seek out the people who already are what you want to be when you grow up and learn from them.
  • Volunteer with a local industry-specialized membership chapter: An excellent way to build your network within your industry is to belong to and volunteer with a local chapter of that industry’s organization (e.g., SHRM).  This will allow you to stay current in the latest and greatest within your chosen profession, you’ll meet lots of amazing people, make some great friends, and build your brand.  And you get to brag about the fact you volunteered.
  • Read: And that means more than just browsing the headlines on Yahoo! or glancing at your Twitter feed.  Pick a topic you’re interested in, that’s relevant to your development goals, and hunt down some great books…and commit to reading them!  (Here’s a list to get you started.)  I LOVE to read, so this one seems like a no brainer to me…but I know some folks would rather gouge their eyes out then sit still and read a book.  I get that.  So try an audio book (you can get them from libraries, iTunes, whatever).  If they make a movie from it, watch that (worked for Freakonomics).  Subscribe to some industry magazines.  Just find a way to stay up to date in a meaningful way that makes you think.

This is just a short list of things you can do to keep you growing and learning even if your boss seems determined to keep you stagnant.   Hopefully you see that it doesn’t take much to overcome the perceived obstacle of an uncooperative manager – each of us makes a choice about our own engagement.  Don’t settle for whining about your lack of growth – flap your own damn wings and fly!

Have a suggestion on how to harness your inner peacock?  Share in the comments!

10 (-ish) things leaders do that make me sad: Part 2

As I said in Part 1, I’m sure there are more than what’s on this list. But come on, I already had to break the post up into two articles because of the length – give me a break!

And now, the thrilling conclusion of my list (in no particular order):

  1. Ignore evidence: Sometimes super smart people can’t see the forest for the trees. Or they already have their mind made up and look for confirmatory “facts”. Or they refuse to admit that a pattern of circumstantial evidence trumps a smoking gun. Whatever it is, it can be very frustrating for a team that perceives its leader as someone who ignores what they see as “obvious” – this is how grumbling starts. Yes, I acknowledge that there is often evidence a leader has that can’t be shared with others. So tell them that. I’m more concerned with a leader who explains away evidence because it’s inconvenient to acknowledge it.
  2. Have trust issues: Ah, trust. That oh-so-important-yet-rarely-mastered element of a highly functioning team. When a leader trusts too much or too little, the balance of the organization can be completely thrown off. I tend to think that trusting too little is a bit more damaging as I’ve seen its impact first hand, but trusting too much can lead to a number of the other behaviors on this list and can also damage a leader’s credibility. Trust is a combination of character and competence – once you’ve figured that out, leaders, you can go from there.
  3. Busad-pandally others / allow bullying: Yes – bullies are often insecure and act out because of fear. I don’t care – they’re still jerks who harm others and kill a culture. If you are a bully, stop it. If you know a bully, stop them. I don’t care how great the results this person might bring to the organization – I can tell you that in the long run, it is NEVER worth it. (SHRM members, check out this article on why bullies thrive at work.)
  4. Think “me first”: One of the more difficult aspects of leadership to wrap one’d mind around is that it’s not about you and your abilities any more – it’s about your team and their results. Some leaders aren’t able to make that leap, and it makes me sad because it robs a team of an opportunity to spread its wings, and it limits a leader’s ability to positively impact a greater part of the organization. It should always be about the team and about the company for leaders. (Oh, and guess what – if you’re an executive, your team is the executive team…not your organization.)
  5. Focus too much on who likes them: The reality is that at any given time, there are dozens of people who don’t like you. In fact, it could be in the hundreds or more, depending on your company’s size and industry. Get over it. USA Today recently shared this fantastic quote from Eleanor Roosevelt – “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.” You’re never going to get everyone to like you, so focus more on making the right decision and feel confident you can stand by it for the right reasons.
  6. Don’t develop their people: Shame on you. Your people hunger for growth and thirst for knowledge. You’re unwillingness to develop your people is either lazy, petty, or both. I’ve always told leaders that their job is to train their replacement and/or find a way to help their people reach their full potential. If you don’t want to do that, then don’t be a leader. (By the way, read this post by Mike Figliuolo on becoming a talent exporter – great stuff!)
  7. Play favorites: We know…you love all your children equally, blah blah blah. Oh please – we all have a favorite or two. Some employees are special and you want to help develop them. That’s okay. What’s not okay is BLATANT favoritism – especially when it’s unwarranted and/or based on personal friendship. Leaders who blatantly play favorites put the whole organization in jeopardy because the wrong people are sometimes promoted or otherwise rewarded…and the good employees see that and leave. And that makes me sad.

Well, there you have it. My Top Ten (-ish) Leadership Behaviors that make me sad. Agree? Disagree? Think I missed a few? Let me know! Share in the comments or send me a note.

[Sad Panda graphic respectfully grabbed off the internet because I LOVE that South Park episode!!]