Tag Archives: Baillie Lumber

Learning From Failure

Losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly is one of life’s most traumatic experiences.  Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had that experience almost three years ago.  Her husband died suddenly while working out in the resort gym where he and Sheryl were vacationing.  Some of you may know Sheryl from her first book, Lean In.  Several months ago she released a second book titled Option B in which she describes coming to grips with, and attempting to recover from, her husband’s death.  Major themes of the book include the power of resilience in the face of adversity and the capacity of the human spirit to persevere.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has gone through a life changing tragedy, or to anyone who would like to help a friend who has.

Beyond Sandberg’s personal story, the book also contains a remarkable chapter titled “Failing and Learning at Work.”  I’d like to devote the rest of this blog to that chapter.  Just as people need resilience, Sandberg says, organizations need to develop resilience as well.  How an organization responds to failure is typically a great indicator of its level of resilience.  In this chapter, Sandberg recounts some totally counter-intuitive research regarding predictors of success in space launches (she got interested in space launches after visiting Elan Musk’s Space-X headquarters in Los Angeles and watching rockets being launched).  While most people would expect the success of an organization’s previous space launches to be the best predictor of success in its future launches, exactly the opposite is true!  Surprisingly, the data shows that the more times an organization has failed at a rocket launch, the more likely it is to successfully put a rocket into orbit on its next try.  Furthermore, chances of a successful launch increase even more after a spectacular failure (such as a rocket exploding) compared to after a smaller failure.  So not only should we embrace and learn from failure, but that we actually can learn the most from our biggest failures.

Unfortunately, our natural instincts generally push us in exactly the opposite direction.  We are often too insecure or too proud to admit mistakes, or we get defensive and shut down.  A resilient organization helps its people resist the temptation to react this way, and creates a culture where owning and learning from mistakes is embraced.  Organizations that embrace, study and learn from their failures outperform their counterparts that don’t.

One organization that does this particularly well is the Marines.  A visit to the Marine Corps Base Quantico drove this point home to Sheryl.  As she tells the story, she was surprised to discover that after every mission (and even every training session) the Marines do a complete debrief.  What went wrong, what went right, and what can we learn.  The results of the debrief are recorded so that everyone can access them and learn from them.  The Marines clearly have a culture where failure is seen as a learning opportunity.  Organizations like the Marines that focus on learning from failure consistently outperform those that don’t.

At Baillie, one of our values is “To Encourage Risk Taking.”  We do pretty well at that.  But along with taking risks inevitably comes failure.  We probably don’t do as well at embracing and learning from our failures and then going out and risking again.  Our pride gets in the way.  We may even want to hide our mistakes. We need to get better at embracing learning from failure.  It’s hard, but shining the light on and learning from failure is one of the characteristics that makes already successful organizations continually improve and thrive.  Risk, fail, learn, risk again, fail, but eventually succeed.  That’s the formula for sustained success

Asking Questions

I’ve written at least one other blog on a book by John Maxwell.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with John, he has probably written and sold more books on leadership than anyone alive.  He founded, and still provides direction for, multiple organizations.  When I have a leadership question, John’s books or CDs are still my first visit.

I recently read a book that he wrote in 2014 titled Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.  This book got me thinking about the value of spending less time telling people things and more time asking them questions.  The whole book is great, but the third chapter (“What Questions Do I Ask My Team Members?”) really caught my attention.  I’d like to highlight just a few of the questions that John recommends asking people on your team regularly.  Here they are:

  • “What do you think?” This is probably the most powerful question you can ask another person.  Sometimes it just helps you gather information, or get another person’s perspective (often different from your own).  That alone is incredibly valuable.  But, in my experience, the greatest value from this question comes from the way it affirms and builds up the other person.  You’re asking their opinion!  Their opinion is valuable, and that makes them feel valuable.  When I’ve asked people this question, I’ve literally seen their eyes brighten and their self-confidence grow.  No other question is quite as helpful to both me and the people with whom I work as this one.
  • “What do I need to communicate?” Effective leadership is often about understanding “context.”  Understanding the context you’re in and what other people expect or need from you.  Many times another person can see that better than you, so asking them what you need to communicate to your team (or any group of people with whom you’re involved) can be a lifesaver.  Ask the question “What’s the most important thing others need to know right now?”  You may be surprised how often it’s something you didn’t expect, and you’ll be surprised at how much this question helps you.
  • “What did you learn?” This question makes people evaluate their experiences and reflect on what they can learn from those experiences.  As John says, this question “keeps my staff sharp and growing.  It prompts people to evaluate their experience and make an assessment.”  We all want our team members to be growing.  We can help them develop a plan for personal growth.  That’s great as far as it goes.  But the only way to make sure growth happens day in and day out is to ask them a question like this one.   It forces a person to reflect on their experience, and come up with a “take away” from that experience.  We can all learn something every day, but sometimes we need to be prompted to do so.
  • “How are the numbers?” This question cuts to the heart of the matter.  It’s easy to give opinions or paint a picture.  But, as John says, “Numbers count.  They tell a story.  They let you know what the score is.  They show you where you’re winning and where you’re failing so you can make adjustments.  They show trends.  They reveal weaknesses.  They are tangible evidence of how well you’re doing.”  The numbers show the bottom line.  Enough said.
  • “What am I missing?” I love this question.  First, it shows humility.  It shows you don’t think you know everything.  In general, people love it when you ask them for help.  And this question does just that.  But beyond that, it recognizes that we all have blind spots.  We may see 70- 80% of the landscape, but often it’s the 20-30% that we miss that causes us problems.  This question invites others to help us see the whole picture.  Usually they can and they will.  And sometimes it prevents a catastrophic mistake.

I have to confess that I have not made asking these questions a personal discipline yet.  However, it’s on my list of habits to form, and writing this blog gives me some incentive!  I’d encourage you to experiment with asking these five questions to 2 or 3 of your team members at least once a month for the next several months.  See what happens.  Experience the power of asking good questions!

Thank You

I’m currently reading a book named What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.  Goldsmith is a world renowned executive coach who has worked with some of the most prominent leaders of Fortune 500 companies.  He commands a six figure price tag for his one-on-one coaching sessions.  Lots of great stuff in this book, but his “20 habits (or behaviors) that most frequently sabotage leaders” grabbed my attention.  Of these 20 troublesome behaviors, one in particular jumped out at me: “Failing to Express Gratitude.”  Goldsmith argues that the two sweetest words to people’s ears are “Thank You.”  They are magic.  People love to hear these words whatever the context.  So use them broadly and liberally.

Goldsmith identifies one specific area where saying “thank you” can make a difference in your leadership, and I’d like to drill down on that a bit.  If your co-workers (or people you lead) feel brave, they may offer you a suggestion about how your organization could be improved.  If they’re really feeling brave, they may even bring you some bad news.  And if they’re feeling super brave, they just might be willing to give you some personal feedback on how you could improve as a leader.  Well, if you’re anything like me, in each of these cases the natural tendency is to immediately begin evaluating the feedback the person gives, and then start telling them what you agree with and what you don’t agree with.  According to Goldsmith, this is a big mistake.

When given any of these types of feedback, two simple words are the correct answer:  “Thank you.”  Is this just about being friendly and nice, about creating a pleasant environment?  Not at all.  In reality, it’s mostly about the impact saying “thank you” has on people’s willingness to bring you feedback in the future.  As Goldsmith says, “… saying ‘thank you’ keeps people talking to you.  Failing to say ‘thank you’ shuts them down.”  Sure, it cuts against our natural desire to be right, to win.  But biting your lip, resisting the temptation to immediately begin debating, and just saying “thank you” opens the floodgates to future information.  People understand that just because you say “thank you” doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them, but they appreciate the fact that you’re considering their point of view.

Goldsmith tells the story of golfer Mark O’Meara playing in a made-for-TV Skins Game with Tiger Woods.  All the golfers wore microphones, so the audience could hear everything they said.  Every time one of his partners said “Nice shot,” O’Meara said “thank you.”  Like 50 times.  Not only was O’Meara being polite, but he was setting the stage for his partners to feel open to giving him additional feedback in the future, some of which might be very helpful to him.

So next time someone gives you feedback about yourself or your organization, smile and say “thank you.”  You can circle back later that day, or several days later, and discuss the feedback in more depth.  But in the moment, let your response be simply “Thank You.”