Embrace Your Failure

By Greg Harris

I blew it. I made a whopper of a mistake at Jameco last month. I still feel horrible, am embarrassed about the error, and I've apologized to everyone. All of us say things like "I'm only human" and "We all make mistakes," but too often these generalized comments disappear when it comes to specifics. That's a problem.

Darwin taught us that the fittest among us are the ones who will survive and survival within a company is no different. Those who make the fewest mistakes generally succeed and too many mistakes mean you are on the street. So why would I admit my mistakes when it would have been easier to cover it up?

The natural reaction is to cover up our mistakes. Or, those who acknowledge the error, will say something like, "I'm sorry but it's not my fault." When someone says that to me, I get frustrated. What I want and would rather hear is, "I made a mistake, and here's how we can prevent future mistakes."

I want to take it a step further and propose that the key to success is failure. I know that doesn't sound quite right, but in the paragraphs ahead I'll argue that covering up or discounting our failures may feel like the right thing for our egos in the short-term, but it's a mistake for the long term. I'll demonstrate that a culture that embraces and celebrates failure, is an organization that is well on its way to big time success. And finally, I'll give you some tricks about how to help other people embrace their own personal failures.

I remember early in my career not being prepared for the age-old interview question, "What are your weaknesses?" I confidently answered, "I work too hard." That answer was met by laughs, and I quickly realized the answer was not credible, and got me nowhere.

We all have weaknesses, and there are millions of mini-failures happening every second around the world. Yet for most of us, our default behavior is to cover up mistakes. We put up roadblocks of denial, or we spray excuses around in an effort to protect ourselves (and maybe our jobs). While no employee can survive too many errors, I believe a healthy embrace of failure is an important component of success. If you believe you are perfect and error free, then you've left no room to improve. By contrast if you embrace your failures, you will become stronger for the long-term.

It may sound simple enough, but I rarely see this work. Companies are made up of people whose first priority is their own self-interest. They may pretend to put the company's needs first, but in reality they are putting their own needs first. The result is a thin veil of faux perfection that doesn't fool too many people. Let me tell you a story that illustrates my point.

I used to work for a large technology company and was asked to do the company's first market research project. It was my job to understand how people used our products and find ways to improve our products based on customer feedback. When I presented my initial findings, I was surprised at the response I got from Scot, one of the senior product managers.

"What did you think of the research findings?" I asked.
"It was about what I expected," Scot said.
"Really, you knew what customers were thinking?" I responded.
"Pretty much." he said.

And when I asked him if he planned to make any changes to his product plans as a result of the research, he said "no."

The research was actually "startling" according to virtually everyone else in the room. But Scot was one of the company's top performers and more than anyone else, it was his job to understand the customer even without the benefit of market research. If he admitted that he learned something from the research, he was admitting that he hadn't done his job perfectly. And actually adjusting his plans based on the research would then become evidence he wasn't perfect.

We did a lot of market research that year and I came back a quarter later with a fresh new round of customer data. This time I needed a strategy to deal with Scot's ego. For each research question, I made all the attendees write down what they thought the answer was going to be before I told them. It wasn't a big surprise that no one correctly guessed the customer responses–not even Scot. The difference this time was that there was written evidence of Scot's failures and before I could say a word, he volunteered that he had some ideas about how to adjust his product plans.

By teaching ourselves to embrace our shortcomings, we can use them as a way of improving, but if denial is the first response, no such improvement can happen.

At Jameco we are not perfect. We make mistakes. There, I put it in writing. With 50,000 products to manage and hundreds of thousands of shipments every year, some of you may choose to cut us a little slack. But what we think sets us apart is that we get excited when a failure is uncovered. Jameco doesn't punish employees for making mistakes, but asks "What will we do to make sure this improves for the future?"

When customers suggest a product we aren't carrying, find a mistake in a published specification, or complain our pricing is too high (funny they never tell us that it's too low), we jump on it and are excited that we are another step closer in that long journey toward the land of perfection.

When we make a mistake, I'm typically the one to acknowledge it to the customer. I do my best to explain how the mistake happened, and more importantly, what we are doing to fix it for the future.

No one should ever try to find a perfect vendor because they simply don't exist. Instead, we believe the true measure of a good electronic components distributor is the ability to get more perfect. As for me, I'm still smarting from my recent error. It's been fixed, and I think we've made improvements as a result, but I guess it couldn't hurt for me to do a little bit of kissing up to my boss!


Regards,
Greg Harris
Vice President, Marketing
Greg@Jameco.com