Author: Simon Palmer, Group Managing Director of the Trust Alliance Group
There is a stigma around failure, both in the workplace and in our personal lives, which can often hold people back. However, despite the pain, failure can be incredibly useful and insightful as well. It can teach us more about ourselves and help us to identify hidden strengths. As a leader, showing those around you that recovery and career success are still achievable after even the most severe setback can be helpful. Experiencing trauma is normal. Recovery is achievable. The process from one to the other builds resilience and, hopefully, humility and empathy.
Personal experience of failure
We’ve all experienced failures in our lives, and to pretend otherwise is misleading, it’s how we mature and grow into fully formed adults and compassionate business leaders. During my career, I have acquired and owned businesses which included some personal guarantees– one of those opportunities included a management buy-in of a business that had substantial potential, but a few factors, including a financial crisis with a high street bank, the loss of a significant contract for the company and at the same time the personal challenge of the terminal diagnosis and subsequent death of my mum, all conspired and resulted in the business going into administration.
The whole experience was emotionally, mentally, and physically devastating; seeing the people I employed lose their jobs was chastening and heartbreaking. Losing my mum and watching her pass was life-changing, and the bank then recalling the loan and having to put the family home up for sale created the perfect personal storm. I had to find a way forward and there was no great answer other than get up and face each day – time heals, and resilience grows as you regain confidence and perspective.
Over time and with reflection, I know I learned some crucial lessons from the experience which I would share with other leaders: I learned that to succeed, you must have a clear plan, surround yourself with quality people who share your values, and work with colleagues who are a solid cultural fit. So, now I can look at that experience with pragmatism and consider part of life’s learnings. Being a business owner and a leader requires resilience; leadership can be lonely, so getting quality people around you is vital, especially those that you can trust to be open and honest.
Failure is an inevitable part of life and it’s essential to learn how to pick yourself back up, be positive and find your people. People who remind you of your capabilities, strengths, and qualities; people who believe in you and readily help you while you rebuild your self-confidence. Rebuilding your self-belief takes time and patience but no-one else can do that for you!
Benefits of being open
Being open and honest about yourself as a leader is valuable for everyone. By sharing your journey and your learning, you shorten your team’s learning curve, enabling them to be more productive and more effective. Opening up about your own life lessons cannot just help them avoid some of the same pitfalls, but sharing your vulnerabilities may help equip them to deal with potentially bleak moments in their own journey.
Being authentic and transparent is also far healthier; not purporting to be something else is much less mentally and physically draining. The number of people I’ve come across who feel they need to project a particular persona or front is considerable, but most are exhausted from doing so! Being yourself generates much more personal energy, and the more open you can be, the easier it is to help others develop. As a Group that includes being an Ombudsman, we look after consumers, so being open and approachable is an essential part of the service.
Another facet of this is that if you can more readily accept your weakness or blind spots, you are better equipped to work out what strengths you need in the people around you, which helps build a more robust business overall. Trying to mask your weaknesses or failures ultimately threatens your effectiveness, as you can leave yourself exposed if you don’t accept where you need support.
Once you demonstrate your commitment to being open and accepting of your own vulnerabilities to your team, it can help foster a more open culture within the business, creating a safe workplace where people can be themselves. You will get to know and understand your team better when they are being their authentic selves, so there’s less need to micromanage, you can just let people grow in their roles because you know if there’s a problem, they will be open about it. In brief, everyone benefits from a business that embeds being authentic in their ethos!
Historically, ‘the Ombudsman’ title suggests a bureaucratic or hierarchical role. When I first joined the organisation, I challenged the business about how we delivered our services and eventually removed the job title of an Ombudsman internally as many felt they had to carry out their role in a specific method and act in a particular way.
Removing the titles changed perceptions, but also changed behaviours internally. By humanising the role, we found that many people allowed more of their personality to shine through, rather than simply performing a role and acting in a way they felt was expected as an ombudsman. We have examples internally of senior leaders who have transformed their behaviours and become fantastic leaders of others through simply allowing their own personality and style to shine through. As a result of breaking down those barriers, we now have a team that’s approachable and accessible, which has a positive impact on consumers, colleagues, and an overall more positive influence on the business.
It comes back to that idea of a persona. A distinct difference exists between the ‘business leader persona’ and the reality of leading a business. I believe that being open helps to create a positive environment, being empathetic helps us to understand that everyone brings something different but equally valuable to the business, and that authenticity bedded into an organisation will deliver a more effective and accessible business.
Some leaders won’t admit failure as they think it’s a sign of weakness but embracing the lessons from failures can make you a better leader; acknowledge it; analyse it; move on and grow.