Driving into work this week I was listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4, Philip Clarke, the Chief Executive of Tesco was discussing the retailer’s decision to call time on their US business: Fresh and Easy. Plenty has been said about the reasons for its failure, so I don’t propose adding further to this. Nevertheless, one of Mr Clarke’s comments caught my attention: “We aren’t going to dwell on failure, we’ll learn lessons and move on.” Sounds reasonable enough doesn’t it? Except for one thing. Often when we experience failure we move on too quickly. We all appreciate the need to celebrate success – even if we don’t actually do it enough – but what I’m suggesting is we need to celebrate failure too.
Dick Hubbard, the New Zealand businessman and founder of the eponymous cereal foods manufacturer made this his mantra and built a successful business empire on it.
It sounds strange doesn’t it? Indeed, when was the last time you made a mistake and then went out of your way to advertise the fact to your team? Recently or ever? Probably not. Most of us, if we’re honest, prefer to hide our mistakes in fact, the fewer people who know about them, the better. The trouble is unless we understand the reasons for failure how do we know we won’t do the same thing again? Worse still, if we don’t celebrate our failures, what’s to stop others making the same mistake? Incidentally I’m not talking about repeated failure and poor performance here; that’s a different conversation. I’m talking about taking risks, trying something new and the falling flat-on-your-face type of failures.
So what stops us? It’s simple. If we haven’t learnt to be vulnerable with others in our team, if we’re more concerned with protecting our own ego than making sure the team achieves its goal then failure is threatening. In healthy teams, team members openly share their failings and weaknesses with each other because they know that by doing so, the team is stronger. If we know and understand each other’s vulnerabilities, we can rally round be the support each other need. How much better would you feel if, at those times when you feel most vulnerable and at risk of failure, you feel the support of others carrying you?
It’s not easy, but as a leader wanting to create a high performing team, you need to take a risk: go first in showing vulnerability and celebrate every failure as an opportunity to get smarter. I think Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM, put it well: “Do you want to succeed? Then, double your rate of failure. Success lies on the far side of failure.”