Archives For leadership

Dealing with Failure

December 2, 2016 — 3 Comments

Recently, some friends asked if I would provide a keynote address at an organization’s 10-year anniversary. It’s an incredible privilege to receive invitations like this; they offer opportunities for deeper relationships, collaboration, and (hopefully) encouragement. I take these invitations seriously.

In preparation for this event, I thoroughly researched the organization and carefully prepared my remarks. Knowing that this was a major organizational milestone, I wanted to ensure that my comments helped advance the organization’s mission.

The talk went well—or so I thought. As I sat down after the talk, the fleeting glow of a job well done was replaced by horror as I realized that throughout my remarks, I had referred to the organization by the WRONG NAME! It wasn’t that I’d simply fumbled it once or twice—the organization’s name had two words, and I’d consistently switched their order throughout my talk.

In the world of special events, there are few things worse than an external speaker who gets the name of your organization wrong. And to my great embarrassment, that’s precisely what I’d done. Beyond embarrassment, I felt like I’d let the organization down.

How do we respond when we make mistakes?

Unfortunately, I seem to have experienced my fair share of leadership blunders, and know that mistakes can have a dramatic impact on your future effectiveness. They can sideline you. It’s easy to spend so much time obsessing over your failures that you are rendered helpless to accomplish anything else.

If you feel like you’ve failed, you’re in good company here. Welcome! Here’s my simple process for not allowing it to defeat you:

1. Own it.

Don’t try to sugarcoat your mistake. Refuse to blame somebody else or pretend that it didn’t happen. Don’t run from what you’ve done or attempt to cover it up. Acknowledge your mistake, and own it as yours. Go directly to the person you’ve offended, and admit what you’ve done. Cover-ups never work, and pretending that it never happened simply isn’t honest. Running to escape it will keep you at its mercy. Instead, choose to be honest with yourself and others. You may find that it’s a far bigger deal in your own mind! In my instance, the CEO of the organization was deeply gracious when I apologized profusely and helped me see the bigger picture of the event beyond this blunder.

2. Learn from it.

What lessons can you glean from your experience with failure? Moments of weakness can and should be redeemed, bringing deeper wisdom, greater empathy, and better practices. Following my experience, I have made it standard practice to always print the name of the organization at the top of my remarks, just in case. If correct pronunciation is a concern, I write the words down phonetically and practice saying them ahead of time to ensure that I don’t misspeak in the moment.  I sincerely hope that my error was the last time I will ever make a name mistake like that.

3. Get over it.

If you’ve owned your mistake and learned from it, it’s critical that you refuse to let it take you away from the good work that lies ahead of you. Instead of regretfully looking back, look hopefully forward. Welcome the next challenge that comes your way as a new opportunity to learn and grow.

And remember that getting over it doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting it. Use the memory of your experience to more quickly extend grace to others when they find themselves in a similar position. Moments of failure are never easy—but they’re an inevitable part of our shared human experience and serve as one more unifying thread that bonds us together. What a relief to know that we’re not alone in failure and that there is always, always hope on the other side of it!

Getting loaded into the ambulance after my injury on the soccer field

Not a fun moment…

A collision on the soccer field didn’t just shatter my ankle—it shattered the myth of my own importance.

As paramedics hastily carried me off of the field on a stretcher last month, my frantic mind was racing. It seemed like my accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. In only 12 hours, I was scheduled to be on a plane to Dallas, then Houston, then Raleigh. A few days later, I was slated to deliver a talk in Santa Barbara, and then Orange County. With my ankle precariously bent at an angle that the human ankle was never designed to bend, it was instantaneously clear that I was going to miss our largest events of the year.

“Will we have to cancel the events?” I wondered.

Before I had even been discharged from the hospital, my colleagues and friends began responding with thoughtful action. Within a matter of hours, my flights had been canceled, and plans had been set in motion for team members to step in and take my place at each event. With grace and incredible speed, these friends deftly agreed to cover all of my responsibilities.

As the following weeks of events unfolded, while I kept my ankle elevated on the couch, the results exceeded previous years’. Both HOPE International and the rest of the world kept on spinning.

After one event, I received a text that read, “Of course you were missed by those of us who have a personal love for you and your family, but it was evident this morning that others can equally do the job.” In other words, We missed you. But everything went beautifully without you.

Listening to the response from those in attendance at each event, it’s clear that my colleagues didn’t simply do the job; they knocked it out of the park.

My injury turned into one of the most freeing moments of my time at HOPE. I know that our mission would undoubtedly carry on with excellence when the time comes for my transition.

I believe it’s a high compliment a leader could ever receive in the midst of a transition would be if everyone—employees, outgoing CEO, incoming CEO, management, and clients—all thought, This isn’t such a big deal.

Healthy organizations refuse to become dependent on any one person. They build teams with multiple people who are each ready to step up at any moment.

My guess is that, due to a perilous cocktail of pride and lack of planning, few organizations are well-prepared for a leader’s transition. In fact, a 2011 study by CompassPoint reports that “just 17% of organizations have a documented succession plan.” It takes courage and humility for leaders to prepare for the moment when they transition, to ensure that, in a way, their absence is not felt.

Perhaps part of the reason that we don’t plan for what comes next is that we like to be needed. The idea that we are somehow indispensable to the mission feels good. Yet it is critical that we grapple with the fact that placing our egos over the mission inevitably sabotages long-term organizational impact.

If we deeply care about the mission of our organization, we will care deeply about what will happen when we’re suddenly out of the game. Perhaps one of the healthiest things we could do as leaders would be to shatter the illusion of our own importance.

(And to my coworkers, I hope to continue serving with you for years to come . . . but when it’s time to transition, there is no question in my mind that HOPE’s mission will continue! What an honor it is to serve with you.)

At a gathering of ministry leaders and CEOs, the facilitator asked all participants to write down the primary challenge they face. Over 70 percent responded their greatest problem had something to do with their board. I wasn’t surprised.

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Just to clarify, I have a fantastic board. They are sold out on the mission. They give generously. In no way are they a “rubber stamp” board, and they push me to think critically, provide key insights, and encourage our team. They are people I deeply respect and admire (and I’m not just saying that because my annual appraisal is coming up soon!).

From my service with HOPE, but also as a board member of Edify, LifeNet, Esperanza International, and several of our global microfinance institutions, I’ve grown in my understanding of how valuable a board can be. But I believe the challenges many executives face with their boards results from a structure where one individual reports to a group of diverse and driven people. Organizational design is notoriously complicated when there are multiple reporting relationships. We speak about “the board” in the singular sense, but it’s composed of multiple people with different perspectives.

So whether you report to a board or are a board member, I was thinking about five tips to strengthen board governance:

  1. Embrace debate. If there are no dissenting voices, you do not have a healthy board. Debate strengthens and clarifies the mission. There should be a few sparks when iron is sharpening iron.
  2. Move forward together. When decisions are made, it is critical that there is an overarching spirit of unity. Board members and staff follow the collective mandate after it has been properly discussed and decided.
  3. Over-communicate. After a friend stepped down as CEO of another nonprofit, he shared one of his greatest faults of leadership was he did not spend sufficient time communicating with the board. These are key relationships. And they require a healthy amount of the chief executive’s time. For me, I have weekly lunches with our board chair and participate in each committee meeting. If the board is functioning properly, there should be no surprises at a board meeting.
  4. Clarify process. If there is ambiguity regarding the responsibilities of the board and management, you are heading towards unnecessary conflict. Up front, it’s critical to determine the board’s role. For most boards I’m on, the board focuses on organizational identity, strategic planning, budget allocation, risk assessment, and holding the president responsible to implement the plan.
  5. Choose wisely. Especially with smaller and active boards, it’s crucial to have board members who are all in. Beyond capacity and heart, the right chemistry must exist between board members. This is difficult to assess and so walking slowly through the board recruitment process and ensuring multiple “interviews” with prospective board members is so important.

If you’re interested in growing as a board member, consider the following resources:

If you’ve served on a board or reported to one, what am I missing? How else can board members become even more helpful in achieving your mission?

Last week was emotional. HOPE had a sendoff for our talented and enthusiastic Director of Development, Katie Nienow. She’s joining Juntos, a startup in Silicon Valley helping provide the poor with financial services. We are thrilled for her new assignment and are grateful for the way she will continue serving HOPE at key events and through her ongoing friendship.

Her departure caused me to think about succession planning and how to transition well.

Katie provided a case study of successful succession by focusing on the following things:

  1. Plan for it. Katie had invested in her team and specifically in our Director of Advancement, Chris Horst. She identified a competent and qualified “successor” who could continue building our development team and had gradually delegated responsibilities to build the capacity of others.
  2. Define success with a long-term perspective. Katie knew the measure of success for a leader should not be what happens while they’re at the helm of the organization—but rather what happens after they leave.  If we all defined our success by the state of our departments two years after we leave, we would probably act differently today.
  3. Invest in people. Having trained her team well, Katie consistently involved other members of her team and invested in building their capacity.
  4. Create systems and procedures. Recognizing you can’t rely just on institutional memory, Katie was systematic in creating processes for team members to follow.
  5. Realize the mission is more important than any one person. Thinking about the mission and her team members instead of just her reputation, Katie had established a core team who knew how to do their work and knew where they were going. 

I love my job. And I have no plans leaving it for a long time. But when I do, I want to follow Katie’s example and be measured by what happens to HOPE after I’m gone. This means involving others more intentionally in key tasks, investing in key leaders, and consistently improving systems.

I like feeling needed and withholding information or managing key tasks and relationships is one way to safeguard your importance. Why bring others with you to important meetings or tasks when you can do it yourself?

But this tightfisted approach shows that it’s not about the mission; it’s about us. And it’s harmful to an organization.

The best indicator of whether you are a successful leader is—what did you leave in your wake?