September 1, 2021

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Failure gets a bad rap. To many, it’s a loaded word, packed with a negative connotation. Failure means something we wanted to happen didn’t, and all we’re left with are feelings of disappointment and self-doubt.

However, if we stop processing failure at that point, we do ourselves a disservice. Beyond the disappointment and doubt, there is an opportunity for reflection, learning, and growth. History has incredible examples of growth from failure, and yet the default negativity stubbornly remains.

Clark Nuber has many successes to celebrate over our nearly 70 years in business, but we have also been blessed with failures from which we can reflect, learn, and grow. The following are personal lessons I’ve learned from failure, and how I integrated those lessons into our business.

Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

Fear is a powerful force that could prevent you from reaching your greatest heights.

As a relatively new employee at Clark Nuber, I remember watching the partners engage in practice development conversations and assist clients with such ease. I thought I could never be as adept in those moments as they were. And when it came to my first solo discussion with a prospective client, I was visibly nervous and undoubtedly less confident in my presentation abilities than I am today.

Thankfully, I have since learned a lot about how to be effective in those conversations, and it’s become a natural extension of who I am. However, without those initial “productive struggles,” I would not have developed into the professional I am today. Had I let fear get the better of me, I would likely no longer be in this profession and my career arc would be vastly different.

Certain things are worth the effort and worth the struggle. Fear can be countered by keeping your eye on the prize. And remember that the prize is not necessarily “closing the deal,” although it can be. The real prize should be personal growth and development of new skills.

Examine the Failure and Learn from It

Mistakes happen. Poor choices happen. Don’t just sweep them under the rug and move on. Acknowledge the failure, learn from it, and help that mistake or poor choice make you stronger.

Several years ago, I heard a message from our clients that they were interested in a more affordable fraud hotline resource. The existing products in the market were either too expensive or too complicated for their liking, and they were looking for something else.

After hearing this from several clients and not having any good answers to point to in the marketplace, I wondered if Clark Nuber could build a service like this on our own. I spoke with our internal team and we built a hotline resource that was simple and provided employees with an outlet to report suspected fraud anonymously and safely. We began to advertise this resource and had some initial interest and adoption by existing clients. But in the long run, the resource never got the traction we were aiming for, and we shut it down.

What I learned through the process of discussing our resource with prospective clients was that the majority of the market really did want the in-depth reporting options, dashboarding, and rollout tools that were offered by the more expensive and elaborate products. What we built wasn’t robust enough for what the majority of the market wanted. We jumped right to build-mode and didn’t take the time to really listen to consumer needs to use in our development process. This was a very valuable lesson and something I have used in building out subsequent, successful, tools for our teams.

Keep Swinging

A single iteration of an effort may fail, but that doesn’t mean the next one can’t be a success.

Thomas Edison famously tried hundreds, if not thousands, of iterations of his various inventions. In fact, he was once asked, “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?”

Edison turned that statement around, and with a smile replied, “Results! Why man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!”

Much like the quote from Henry Ford at the start of this article, failing one attempt simply means that we are smarter as we begin the next experiment. If the goal you’re working toward is alluring enough, the next attempt is worth it, no matter how many times you fail.

The fraud hotline wasn’t the box office hit I thought it would be. That didn’t stop me from continuing to identify and develop new services for our clients and build new tools for our client service teams. Many of those are thriving today, but they would not be the same if not for the lessons of past failures.

What Must be in Place to Grow from Failure?

To learn, grow, and emerge from the fallout of a failure, an individual needs to not only have the personal constitution to shake it off, examine the situation, and look forward, but they also need to know that they work in a safe and acceptable environment to try something new.

Leaders have an opportunity to create that exact environment and, in doing so, encourage inventors and innovators to step forward and experiment. In my observation, the chances of any given individual accomplishing this are greatly improved if the following conditions exist:

Discuss and Normalize Failure

As a leader, it’s important to talk about times when things didn’t work out the way you planned. What did you learn from it and how did some future event benefit from the learned experience?

Sharing failures will help humanize your role, promote safe and courageous conversations about innovation, and inspire others to take calculated risks to further the organization’s goals.

Go Out of Your Way to Support Emerging Leaders

If someone at your company is interested in trying something new and they’re willing to devote time to it, give them your support. Every idea isn’t necessarily a winner; but support the process. Show them they are valued and supported, regardless of the probability of success of the idea.

Don’t Take Credit

You may have helped shepherd an idea through the process, but it was their idea and their work that made it happen. Again, go out of your way to put them in the limelight.

Seeing peers get recognized and receive credit for their work is another cornerstone of a safe and welcoming test lab. This concept can represent an incredible multiplier for any organization.

Celebrate the Attempts, Not Just the Wins

Recognizing someone for coming forward, the effort that went into the exploration, and the lessons learned might just spark someone else to take the next great idea forward.

Don’t Dwell on It

Failure is something to examine and learn from, but, in the immortal words of Frozen’s Elsa, you then need to let it go. There is no better way to wash out the flames of a recent failure than to apply what you learned from it and execute the next attempt successfully.

As Walt Disney said, “We don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Curiosity is a natural human phenomenon. When we let curiosity guide and inspire us to push through failures we encounter, great things can happen. Failure, if used properly, can be your friend. Embrace it!

This article is part of the Learning, Adapting, and Growing: Leadership Perspectives series, which explores the role of leadership from a diverse array of perspectives. Each article is written by a Clark Nuber leader who shares their ideas on the unique challenges and opportunities they have experienced, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

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