Success without failure is rare, because while it may seem counter-intuitive, failure has the power to serve as your friend on your entrepreneur and career journey. There is no better education for business leaders than trying and not succeeding, so we can try again and make it. Failure needs to be recognized as a step forward versus a step back because it gives us a chance to learn, recalibrate and advance—hopefully with a successful outcome the next time around.
Understanding how failures happen requires us to reverse engineer the initial sequence of events: from the idea, to process mapping, to planning and design, to execution, to distribution and so on. But leaders need to first look internally before they assess externally. And that means being honest with ourselves and being humble about the strength of our knowledge across all areas.
First up, where do we excel and where do we come up short? Trying to lead in the areas where we are less strong will bring failure. Know-it-all visionaries will never make it because let’s get real: No one knows it all. Failures are guaranteed to keep happening unless we find others with the strengths we do not possess to build a formidable team. Failure is a signal for us both to learn new behaviors and to seek people who are great at what we’re not. This course correction will change the outcome nearly every time.
Make Failure Your Teacher
Athletes are continuously practicing because that is the secret to improvement. It also gives them the chance to fail, evaluate, change up their strategy and try again until they succeed. Business leaders need to do the same, and that can only happen when we accept failure. Leaders can be too quick to deny, blame others or self-incriminate—all of which exacerbate the negative and do nothing to motivate or inspire. To move beyond failure, we need to take “morality” out of our shortcomings and understand that no trait is all good or all bad. Once we do this, failure can become our partner, teacher and the fuel we need to forge ahead.
When I speak to audiences, I suggest they think about an aspect of their lives in which they consider themselves an absolute success. Then I ask them, “How many times did you fail before reaching this pinnacle of success?” This question is critical because the answer is almost always that it takes many times. If you are familiar with my story, then you know most of what I’ve learned in life didn’t come from education; it came from trying, failing and trying again. Instead of running away from it, I learned to appreciate failure because it has brought me closer to success.
Most of us have been conditioned since childhood to believe that if we fail, it is because we don’t have what it takes. But in fact, when used as a learning tool, failure is exactly what it takes to be successful. It’s time to stop seeing failure as an obstacle and start relating to it as our friend. If we don’t fail, we can’t get better at anything. When failure shows up, it’s an opportunity to examine what happened, look for ways to avoid that hang-up next time and put processes in place to turn things around. If you’re not failing, you’re not advancing, and you’re likely becoming too complacent to take yourself or your company to the next level.
My sales teams are encouraged to turn failure into fuel and to keep their eyes on the achievement they are after. Stay in the performance sweet spot by always setting higher personal KPIs (key performance indicators). At my company, we track KPIs and evaluate roles and performance. When the numbers aren’t where they need to be, we churn and burn when necessary. That’s how we’ve grown straight up without flatlining. However, when someone is all in, doing everything they can to get better, I fight for them. Anyone in our organization who embraces feedback and criticism and demonstrates that they are open to learning has an indicator of future success. That mentality is to be respected. If you’re failing, it’s a good thing. Just make sure you bounce back. Failure can be an indicator that you want to grow, and hopefully one day, lead.
The best way to look at failure is to shift your context around it. Failure isn’t your foe; it’s your friend. Don’t see it in terms of self-worth but rather as a performance metric that shows you where you fall in the pack and what you need to work on to get better. This mindset is how you can use failure to your advantage instead of letting it hold you back. It’s important to focus forward and release attitudes that hold you back, like grudges or self-incriminations. It is a waste of time to suffer over what has happened in the past because that keeps you from concentrating on the future.
Failures are actually wins when you’re smart about them. They are the ultimate “lessons learned” that can move you closer to the success you are working to achieve. The key is to own failure and condition yourself to be resilient. Turning failure into fuel takes practice, but it’s worth it because it means you have taken one step closer to the top.