Failure is inescapable. At some point in your career or business, you will make a mistake of some kind that will lead to a flop, ranging from a mere disappointment to a full-scale disaster. Perhaps a project you managed went wildly awry – the deliverable was unacceptable to the client and now your job is on the line. Perhaps it was your dream endeavor (a cake shop) in which you sank your heart and soul (and capital) that fell catastrophically flat. Perhaps it is a failure to land the job at all. These sorts of events transpire every day – and we routinely help clients pick up the pieces.
What separates the average from the truly exceptional is the response to a humbling or devastating business blunder. Mistakes and failures can shape us as employees, managers, business-owners, and individuals, but only if we take time to reflect on what led to the failure in the first place. Resist the very human urge to run from your failure and relish the opportunity for learning instead. Below are a few tips for constructively managing a business or career disappointment:
1. Conduct a post-failure assessment.
Privately, or with your team, begin with a post-mortem. Working backward, make a list of each step that led to the failure. Evaluate the resulting list to determine what steps should have been taken or avoided to reach success. Look for patterns. Avoid the tendency to blame others (instead of “Jim bungled the pitch for the project,” think “I should have predicted that Jim would have been better suited writing the proposal”). There are surely events on the list that you could not have foreseen or that were beyond your control. However, taking responsibility where you can will help identify the factors inhibiting your success.
2. Ask for feedback.
Where possible, seek feedback from others that were witness to your failure. Seeking criticism may be the most difficult step because it requires a great deal of humility. The best perspective on your failure is often not from those closest to it. Decide whether a face-to-face meeting is best (a morning coffee) or whether a simple e-mail allowing the recipient time for a thoughtful response is better. Ask broad, open-ended questions, like: Do you have any thoughts on what I could have done to make my business successful? Can you tell me what I might have done in the interview to make myself a stronger candidate? Why didn’t you choose our firm for your project?
3. Set goals and redefine success.
After a failure, your five-year career or business plan may be out the window. Using what you learned from your assessment and feedback, set daily, weekly, and monthly goals to get back on track. Start small – begin with easily-managed, attainable tasks that will move you forward in some measureable way. Define your ultimate goal – which may look different than it did pre-failure. Perhaps an ouster from the C-Suite has kindled a desire for the type of control over your destiny and fortune that being a business-owner can provide. Perhaps you realized you lost the client because you are not committed to your job and you long to work in another area altogether. Write out your goals and ensure that you do one thing each day, however small, to reach them.
4. Get help.
Sometimes the fallout may be too much for you to handle alone. Whether it is from a friend, manager, mentor, counselor, or attorney, you may need advice while sifting through the wreckage and moving forward. Together with your advisor, identify the lessons learned, create a plan to wind down your partnership, business, career, or project, and design a vision for the future. Your advisor can also serve as a point of accountability to ensure you avoid making the same mistake twice.
5. Do not be defined by failure.
Though it sounds like a platitude, terrible errors really can help bridge us to the pinnacle of our careers. [See this recent Business Insider story about success after failure for inspiration.] Learn what you can from your failure and then move forward. And do not be afraid to fail again – even Winston Churchill defined success as “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”