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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!

We are in the midst of hiring several national and international positions and have had some stellar candidates. However, I’ve been surprised by some simple mistakes people make.

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Here are just a few common sense suggestions of what to do when you interview:

1. Do your homework. There’s no excuse for being unprepared, especially when everything you want to know about a company’s mission and values is available online. You should know the bios of the people you’re going to meet. You should know how the organization measures success. You should know key initiatives. I just cannot believe that someone wants to join HOPE if they haven’t done thorough research.

2. Ask insightful questions. If you’ve done your research, you will be prepared to ask good questions. Candidates who show up with a list of thoughtful issues they would like to discuss impress me; people who have no questions don’t. The first questions should not be about benefits or salary. The first interview is simply not the right place to discuss these important issues.

3. Lose the ego. My quickest interviews are with arrogant individuals. Highlight your strengths, but also highlight the other people who contributed to your success. Don’t pretend that you know exactly what the organization needs or that you have all the solutions. A dose of humility goes a long way.

4. Avoid talking about how quickly you want to be promoted. Maybe it’s meant to impress but it sounds self-absorbed. It makes it seem like you are just looking for the next thing and won’t do the job we’re hiring you for. And it doesn’t tell me anything about your actual skills and abilities. Stick with demonstrating your strengths for the current job opening, while also casting a vision for your future.

5. Be kind to everyone you meet in the office.  It’s more than the interview that matters. It’s also your interaction with everyone in the office throughout the day.  If you don’t treat our office manager at the front desk with respect, you’re not going to get hired. Plain and simple. It is amazing how far simple courtesies go.

These are common sense suggestions. But I’ve marveled at how often people make interview faux pas.

So, what is impressive in an interview? A positive attitude, demonstrated competency, firm character, and a heart of service.

One interviewee said to me that he would do any job to fulfill our mission—whether that was public speaking or making coffee.

He’s now a staff member who has had four promotions.

[Please check out HOPE's current openings at www.hopeinternational.org]

A window seat and my iPod create a sacred space where I’m unreachable.  It is one of my favorite places for reflection. My 13-hour flight from Dulles International Airport to Addis Abba provided plenty of reflection time – and I found myself thinking about lessons I’ve learned in 2011.

Here are the top three ways I missed the mark in 2011 and how I desire to make progress in 2012.

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  1. Faker. I love interacting with people and ideas, and find that Q&A sessions are always the most engaging. However, there are a few specific cases this past year when I was asked to comment on issues that I knew nothing about. The right response would have been to say, “That’s a good question, and I have no idea.” Instead, I thought it best to skate onto some thin ice and attempt to do a few awkward pirouettes that made it clear that I was outside my expertise. I promise to say “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out” more in 2012.
  2. Details.  As HOPE continues to grow—something I’m very grateful for—I spend more of my time looking at the big picture.  But in the process, I have neglected the details:  “Never lose sight of the numbers” is a lesson that founder of VeggieTales, Phil Vischer, said in his book, Me, Myself, & Bob, about the rise and fall of his company (best book I read last year!).  In 2012, I need to carve out more time to plunge into the details instead of just reading summaries.
  3. Unplug.  Earlier this year, I was eating breakfast with my youngest son.  I was also reading a work email on my blackberry.  “Daddy, no phone, no phone,” he said to me. I was physically present, but my mind was in another country. I’m so thankful for my son’s wake-up call to put family first when it’s family time. Two thousand twelve will be a year that when I’m home, I will do my best to be fully engaged with my family at this key stage.

It’s helpful to look back, just long enough to influence the future.  Here’s to a great 2012 – and to the fact that God’s mercies are “new every morning.”