What do you do when something goes bad? Where are you when there is a failure or when a major deadline or deliverable is missed? Real leaders that folks want to follow understand that the “buck” really does stop with them.
Failure is inevitable. And failure does not have to be fatal to your leadership or your career. I recall working for a CIO many years ago. His mantra was; “If you aren’t failing, then you aren’t attempting big things.” Now, he wanted us to be calculating in our risks. But he wanted us to be taking risks. So often the greatest rewards come from the greatest risks. But you must still be accountable.
One of my greatest failures came from managing a project to restack most of the floors in a high-rise tower. We were reorganizing to increase our efficiency and foster greater collaboration among the business units. One of the major phases of the project was creating a call center on one of the floors. All of the construction work was done and the call center furniture was in place. All that was left was for my team to re-install all of the IT and communications equipment over the weekend. We finished about 2AM on the Monday morning that the call center was to “go live.” And we all went home for a few precious hours of sleep before coming back to work later in the morning.
I distinctly remember standing in the middle of the call center at 8AM when the phones that we connected last night were supposed to start ringing with customers.
- 8:00AM … Silence.
- By 8:01AM … Nervousness and anxiety is already running high.
- By 8:02AM … Still silent.
- By 8:03AM … Houston, we have a problem!
- By 8:05AM we realized that we had everything connected correctly, but we had neglected to activate the setting that rolled the phones from night and weekend mode to business hour mode at 8:00AM.
- By 8:10AM I was standing in the General Counsel’s office along with my boss and we were both getting an earful.
- By 8:15AM, when the General Counsel took a breath, I was able to tell him that this was my fault. We had worked long into the night. My team was tired. And when we tested the phone systems and got a message that said; “Hello. You have reached . . .” we hung up and declared victory and we all went home exhausted.
Unfortunately, we did not listen all the way through to the end of the message or we would have heard the conclusion of the message that indicated that our offices were closed for the weekend. That would probably have prompted us all to consider checking the setting to make sure that phones would roll off of night and weekend mode and onto business hour mode.
I did not make excuses. I did acknowledge that we were all tired. I know that I was tired. I acknowledged that I failed. I failed to get the team to check that a very important setting in the voice response system was set correctly.
- By 8:20AM the General Counsel had let off enough steam and had made me promise that I would check, double-check, and re-check the communications systems before the next “go live” date when we brought up the next call center floor.
- By 8:23AM I was back down on the call center floor and phones were ringing, customers were calling and problems were being resolved by the great team in the call center.
Why does this matter?
It matters because it would have been easy to throw the team under the bus while I was standing in front of the general counsel. No one from the team was there. They would have been an easy way to shift the blame. After all, I wasn’t the technical lead. I was the project management lead. I didn’t have the technical skills to even touch the voice response system. It could have easily been “that technician’s fault.”
But, the buck stops with me. I was leading the team and I was accountable for their (actually our) failures. Real leaders are accountable.
It is easy for you, as the reader, to say, “See, everything turned out and being accountable is not that hard and it was no big deal.” But here is the reality of the situation. I didn’t know at the time how it would work out. This General Counsel had a reputation of chewing folks up and spitting them out like he chewed on the unlit cigar that often hung from his mouth.
One of the hardest things to do is to accept the blame and be accountable as easily as we accept the credit for our successes. But, our followers are watching us. When we are accountable for our failures and ensure that they are protected from undue consequences, we gain followers that are loyal and who will trust us the next time something happens that didn’t go according to plan.
What kind of leader are you?
Are you running from failure? Or are you facing it and holding yourself accountable first?