The unmistakable value of failure

True story.

I graduated college from Bradley University and started my first job with Procter & Gamble in Texas two weeks later. I spent 5 great years at a great Company. I was looking to move to Chicago (to chase a girl who I am still chasing 28 years later….but i did catch her.) I had an interview with another consumer products Company and it would have been a promotion from my current level in sales management at the time. I thought I crushed the interview with the VP. I represented myself well, answered all the questions effectively, asked good questions, it went as well as it could have. He said, “I don’t think you are the right candidate for this job” I said, “Why not”? I will never forget his response to me. He said, “because you have never failed at anything.” You can guess my response of “isn’t that a good thing”? He went on to explain the Company was in a stage of transition post acquisition, remaking their product line, restructuring the organization, in a highly volatile market. He assured me that the Company and it’s people would fail along the way. And people who had never dealt with failure would be crushed under the weight of failure.

I did not get that job. The irony of the whole thing is that I had failed many times up until that point. I had already been fired once, had not gotten other jobs, been passed over for promotions, did not win awards that I should have, and that is not the end of the list. But who talks about those things in an interview? We all wear our best suit, new tie, shined shoes, and the shine is a metaphor for what we do with our past. We shine that baby up real fine. “I am going to show this interviewer that I am the inventor of all things great in my area of expertise”.

What a crock of rubbish. If someone asked me for the single greatest lesson I have learned in my 32 years of sales and sales management it is the unmistakable value of failure. If you are in a situation where you are not failing on a somewhat regular basis you either aren’t trying anything challenging or you are lying to yourself. Both are a recipe for career irrelevance. Understand, I’m not saying strive for failure, or failure is fun, or people that don’t win are better than people that do. I’m saying that the pace of business today mandates a high level of activity and risk. That means a lot of games get played in a season and you won’t win them all. I’m also saying that rate of change in business today mandates that you CHANGE how you do business. And to stay on the cutting edge you will have to try new things and they won’t all work.

I worked with an outstanding Region Manager in the Midwest. He has embraced the concept of learning lessons from our failures to such a degree that he has changed the way he interviews. Of course he allows the candidate to share their strengths and successes. Instead of asking them to embellish on their best year, he doesn’t let the candidate leave the interview without asking him “Tell me about your worst year, and what you learned from it”. Now there is progress from my interview 25 years ago! I used this question when interviewing a management candidate yesterday and it led to great dialog.

If you search the internet, there is just as much material on the importance of harnessing lessons from failure as there are “keys to success”. Renowned author John Maxwell wrote a book called “Fail Forward”. Alberto Riehl wrote a similar book called “Failing Forward”. There is a website and organization named Fail Forward. This is a great thing. Call it “Fail Fast”, “Fail up”, “Fail forward”. Better yet, make up your own term. Find a way to incorporate risk taking, and the ongoing process of learning lessons from failure to achieve your greatest results.