When Things Go Wrong

Wednesday, June 29 2011

Many years ago, when I was a sales representative in the healthcare industry, I was asked to order a product that had a short shelf-life and was comparatively expensive.  The customer asked for ten packets of ten, less than one full case, but I shipped them ten cases, way more than they needed (or anyone else would have needed for that matter). When I discovered the mistake I was mortified. I had only been with the company a few weeks and was sure I would be fired. I will always remember how my boss, whose name I can still recall, dealt with the issue. He was understanding, and helped me resolve the situation the best we could. He asked me how the mistake happened and what I needed to do in the future to prevent a repeat error. I felt supported, and I never made that mistake again.

Great leaders embrace mistakes. They use them as an opportunity to coach and develop others. As leaders, you have choices to make. Do you prefer people working with you who never make a mistake, are always perfect, take time to make decisions, and who never challenge the status quo or take a risk? Or do you want people who are high achievers, and occasionally make a mistake because they are thinking outside the box? They make timely decisions, based on the knowledge they have, versus needing 100% of the facts. They will take calculated risks.

Obviously the real choice would be a blend of the two – perfect people who take calculated risks, when appropriate. However, this is not realistic. We can move closer to the desired result if, as leaders, we deal with mistakes in an effective and constructive manner while appreciating that there is a distinct difference between an individual making a number of different mistakes because they are learning and an individual repeating the same mistakes again and again.

Managing mistakes starts with a “Coaching for Success” attitude, one that inspires people, trusts them, supports and guides them toward achievement. A leader who is a great coach can help to minimize mistakes from the start. Some key actions are:

  • Set clear expectations, ensuring the individual understands and has agreed to the outcomes and the deadlines
  • Delegate effectively, stretching the individual but not overwhelming them
  • Ensure that people have the right skills
  • Determine what support is needed
  • Meet regularly to coach him or her
  • Be open-minded and listen to concerns
  • Give regular feedback on performance
  • Celebrate successes

When mistakes do happen, handle the situation by:

  • Constructively dealing with the issue and resolving the problem
  • Helping the individual take ownership and be part of the resolution
  • Determining with the person how the mistake happened in the first place
  • Creating a “Call to Action” to ensure that the same mistake won’t happen again

Plan to be the kind of leader whose name is remembered with respect more than 30 years later.