Definition of failure: Noun 1. lack of success.
That’s all it is. Yet, society tends to make it much more that that, using terms like loser, wimp, disappointment, underachiever, and worse, to describe someone who has failed. If you’re going to be slapped with a label like that, it’s no wonder no one wants to admit they made a mistake.
I’m here to say that it’s time to bring back failure. Reward it! Applaud it! Ask for more! Why? Because research shows that almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures. Edward D. Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business, says failure is imperative to the innovation process because “from failure comes learning, iteration, adaptation, and the building of new conceptual and physical models through an iterative learning process.”
So I am starting the Bring Back Failure! campaign by admitting a few of my many, many leadership and business mistakes. Here are some of my doozies…
The Christmas Crackers That Blew Up in My Face
How did a 25 year-old recent college grad become the general manager of a 150-room hotel in Kenya? In retrospect, I’m not sure, but that 25-year-old was once me. The resort I managed provided European (mainly British) tourists with an “African experience”.
It’s Christmas, the peak of high season, with our highest room rates of the year to cover all the Christmas extras we provide. Because I’m a young, American woman, most people do not think I can do the job. So I’m on a mission to prove myself. I want everything to be perfect for my first high season with a whopping 400 guests, from Christmas to New Year’s Eve.
In November, Kadri, our Food and Beverage manager, asks how many Christmas crackers to order for Christmas. I tell him none. He looks at me quizzically, and repeats the question. I emphatically reply with the same answer. He walks away, shaking his head. In the meantime, I order fireworks for New Year’s Eve. After all, fireworks are far more impressive than Christmas crackers, right?
After weeks of preparation, the Christmas season knocks on our door, and so do 400 guests. The hotel looks beautiful and festive with lights twinkling on palm trees, and wreathes made from fragrant flowers. Christmas Eve is truly special with an African choir singing carols. On Christmas morning, Santa arrives on a camel to our guests’ delight. I’m feeling extremely proud of our hard work at this point.
Santa on a Real, Live Camel?
Then it’s time for Christmas dinner, with chicken as the entrée. Everyone settles into their seats and the staff is ready with the appetizer.
The Murmur Quickly Escalates into an Uproar
That’s when I hear a questioning murmur that quickly escalates into an uproar. “Where are the Christmas crackers!?” And then it hit me. An appetizer of cheese and crackers is not what they wanted. New Year’s Eve fireworks are not what they wanted. They wanted their traditional British Christmas crackers. Hundreds of angry guests were about to revolt on the biggest day of the year. I had failed them, and my team, big time.
So what did I learn from this doozie of a mistake?
Lessons I Learned From Failing:
- Pay attention to, and genuinely aim to understand, cultural nuances and perspectives.
- Ask questions, especially when someone asks you the same question twice, even when you think you know the answer.
- Beware of trying to prove yourself to others. It closes your eyes and ears to what’s going on around you.
- Listen to what’s being communicated nonverbally. My food and beverage manager shaking his head at me was sufficient at tipping me off to a problem if only I been paying attention.
Moments like these are what push me to now focus heavily on emotional intelligence (EQ), listening skills, and diversity. If I were competent in those skills back then, the I would have respected the tradition of Christmas crackers rather than blow it off, thinking I knew better, and I would have avoided disappointing 400 guests and my team.
Ebay Business Goes Bust
Fast-forward 10 years. By this point, I’d grown and sold the Kenyan hotel and built and sold Eco-resorts, my eco-friendly safari company. I was back the U.S., wondering what my next business would be.
At this point, most people introduced me as “Anne from Africa”, as a conversation starter. In addition, I wore lots of African jewelry and carried beautiful, handmade African bags. I had lived there for ten years! My house was decorated with African textiles and art. Everyone kept asking me where they could buy my bag or necklace, so I decided to sell African things on Ebay. I knew someone else who did it and thought, “How hard can it be?” Little did I know…
How Hard Can It Be?
First of all, I needed inventory. Since this was a new business, I flew to Africa and went market to market, looking for the best buys. Then I had to lug the goods back to the States in suitcases. Next, I had to upload pictures and descriptions (this process was not an easy task in 2001!) to Ebay. Once everything was loaded on the site, all I had to do was wait for sales.
Some things sold well, yet when I went back to the markets to get more inventory, the same items were unavailable. Some things didn’t sell well, because I didn’t bring back what people wanted to buy. So let’s just say that many of my friends received African goods as gifts for several years!
Some people would call that a huge waste of time and energy. I wouldn’t. I learned a ton that I carried forward into my future work.
So What Did I Learn From This Total Flop?
Lessons I Learned from Failing:
- Do your research and make sure you understand the playing field before starting a small business. Market research is your friend! It would have helped my chances of success if I understood online marketing.
- Know your market and what they want to buy. This includes knowing the generation (or generations) of your target consumer so you can “speak their language” when marketing to them.
- Develop a strong, reliable supply chain.
Now, I don’t believe a strong business plan guarantees success. The fact is, in business and in life, you never know what is going to happen, especially in an economy that is constantly in flux. In that sense, treating your business plan as though it is set in stone is detrimental to your ability to succeed. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research about the market you are entering and who your target consumers are.
As leaders we are expected to know everything, so we feel hesitant asking questions or admitting we don’t know something. Yet, we have to ask questions! And that’s just the first step. The next step is actually listening, a skill so valuable that it deserves continual practice.
So there you have it. Two of my many failures to jumpstart my Bring Back Failure! campaign. My Christmas cracker blowup and eBay flop strengthened my business sense, and improved my communication and listening skills. My eyes were opened to the need for leaders to truly understand and respect cultural diversity. And rather than sending me into a spiral of bone crushing disappointment, my failures motivated me to keep trying. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Ready to join the Bring Back Failure! campaign? Share a story of a time you failed with pride. Tell us (and others) what you learned. Encourage those around you to lose their shame over failure and embrace it as one step closer to innovation. Start today by sharing your story in the comment section below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.
Denis Waitley says it well:
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”