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making mistakes is good or business

Making Mistakes is Important for Healthy Company Culture

I’ve been running one business or another since 2001, and there are a few things I’ve learned the hard way over the years. One of them is just how much a business challenges you to grow into a better version of yourself. Don’t get me wrong- you can start, grow, and run a business without allowing it to change you. You can be stubborn and force the company and the people in it to conform to you and your way of doing things. But if you let it be, there is so much more to it than that.

Running a business, a department or a team involves many challenges and dynamic professional and personal growth opportunities. As each one comes up, you’ll have the chance to embrace it and grow, or avoid it and probably have to keep repeating the same challenge over and over and over again. Perhaps that is the difference between people who just run a business and those who lead. People who lead want to grow, change, and become better versions of themselves. And you can find leaders in every layer and with every title imaginable in any business. Because, sadly, you can run a business and not be a leader. You can be a manager and not be a leader.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned over the years is admitting that I was wrong! I’m happy to admit that something isn’t working, and we need to pivot. I’m great at pivoting, but I don’t like to have to do it because I made a mistake. Talk about having to go around and around the mountain before I learned this one. There is nothing like leading people and running a business to expose every mistake you’ve ever made! In my younger years, I got pretty good at always explaining why that thing went the way it did, and I could usually skirt around the fact that I made a mistake. However, with some valuable help from friends and my business partner, I realized I was spending a lot of energy trying to come up with explanations to justify the mistake.

Let’s face it: running a business is about making mistakes, and that was a mindblower for me. There seem to be a couple of different types of business leaders that fall into this category. Some don’t want to decide because they fear making mistakes. So, they stay in the information-gathering stage and never seem to get enough information actually to move forward with any action. Others will also be afraid of making wrong decisions, so they refuse to and instead force or manipulate others into making the final call so they always have a scapegoat. Then others do what I did and find a way to explain away the mistake through outside circumstances or people. I’ve also seen the manager or business owner who is more than willing to make a decision, and if it goes wrong, they pivot and move on as fast as possible and hope no one remembers that they were the ones who made the call in the first place. They often gloss over mistakes and focus on the next step in the next phase.

Regardless of which one of the above resonates with you, let me share that one of the most significant areas of growth we have to make as leaders is to embrace making mistakes. As leaders of a business, a department, or a team, we make A LOT of decisions daily. Facing decision burnout is a real thing. In fact, it’s such a thing that leaders like Steve Jobs and others wore the exact same thing every day to eliminate a decision they had to make that day. They recognized the importance of the limited number of decisions “in them” on any given day and worked to maximize their focus on the ones that mattered.

So, we make a lot of decisions every day. What happens when we make the wrong ones and failure occurs? For me, I had to grow and shift the entire way I looked at mistakes and failures.

The story goes that once someone asked Thomas Edison if he was daunted by how many times he had failed at creating the light bulb, he responded, “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Some people seem born with this mindset; I had to learn it. I had to start with three words that were some of the hardest for me to say… “I was wrong.” Or “I messed up.” Either version was oh so hard, but to be honest, I found freedom in owning the mistakes instead of investing so much energy in trying to explain them away. I embraced Edison’s mindset and even his words. I started realizing I could own that I messed up and acknowledge that it didn’t work, and I could try again; it wasn’t the end of the world.

Talk about a game-changer!

It felt like a muscle that got stronger the more I worked it, the more often I said, “I messed up, and that didn’t work. Let’s try again. Let’s try a different way.” And it became more like second nature to own my mistakes and failures and to be able to learn from them and move on to something even bigger and better!

Dr. Nelson Mandela said it well, “I either win or I learn.” And trust me, when building a business and running a team, you will learn a lot.

The more I owned my mistakes and failures and looked for ways to grow, the more incredible things started happening in Beacon. My team also started feeling free to own their mistakes and failures. Instead of judgment, we found a new level of respect for each other. Because guess what? We all knew when someone messed up, and we usually knew who it was and why. So many times, it’s only you who thinks no one else knows that you messed up. But when someone, especially the leader, won’t own up to a mistake or failure, it handicaps the entire team and limits everyone from learning and growing. Many leaders believe they will lose the respect of their team if they admit they made a mistake. I’ve not found this to be accurate; if you have, then you probably have the wrong team, or it will take a while to shift your internal company culture. But that shift has to come from us first as the business leader. It takes courage to be the first to own failure, but the reward is so worth it.

Another profound outcome was that we all started making more mistakes. I know that it sounds counterintuitive to call that profound, but it was. Why? Because we were making more mistakes because we were trying more new things, we were innovating and pushing our boundaries. When we let go of the fear of failure and mistakes, we found the freedom of expression, adventure, and the unknown that led us to incredible new places and discoveries. But if we are so bound by our fears, failures, and mistakes that we won’t try coloring outside the box, we will forever be bound by the box and our mistakes! And that is a miserable, dead-end place to be.  

It is worth pointing out that there are different kinds of mistakes. Some come from pushing the limits and growing, and then there are the mistakes that come from laziness, fatigue, burnout, incompetence, a heavy client load, and more. They are similar but oh so different, and when a company is growing fast and/or there is a lot of change in an industry, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. The first step is owning the mistake, then you can identify if it was the result of innovation or negligence, then you can figure out what you and your team need to learn and adapt to.

It is our responsibility as leaders to create a culture of learning and innovation, which means we must encourage mistakes and failures. They will always go hand in hand. As leaders, we get to be the first to step up and own our mistakes. We must have the courage to say, “I messed up. Here’s what I learned, and here’s what we’re going to do differently next time.” And when we lead this way, we hold space for our entire team to do the same. Commit to this type of change and watch it transform your company, team, or department!

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