Archive for the ‘mistake bank’ Category

Great leaders must have a powerful sense of agency

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

I’ve been reading Justin Menkes’ book “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others,” and it’s the best business book I’ve read this year by far.

I have to confess that I wasn’t initially sure I’d love it. “How to be a CEO” studies have gotten boring. But Menkes’ focus on personal accountability (rather than CEO self-aggrandization, swagger or getting power) has been a real surprise and very helpful for this site.

His idea of a “sense of agency” is a real revelation. (From the book: “Sense of agency…refers to the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.”) Leaders with this sense do not feel that issues are someone else’e problem or out of their control. They are not defined by their circumstances. They find a way to make their circumstances better.

And they are not afraid to make mistakes. But rather than seek to offload blame on others, they, in Menkes’ term, “own their missteps,” even if they weren’t 100% responsible for them.

Let’s face it, for anything bigger than tripping on a crack in a sidewalk, very little that happens wrong is 100% our fault.

Menkes’ lesson, one that I think is embodied in the stories on this site, is that when things go wrong, the strongest leaders look inside, say what they could have done differently, learn those lessons, and improve their work going forward. As he writes, there’s a stage of every senior leader’s career when she is catapulted out of her comfort zone and into the unknown. For example, a VP of Engineering is asked to take over the company’s sales function. At that moment, her long-nurtured expertise (as stated in Milton Glaser’s fabulous video) is not helpful to her development.

Menkes writes, “leaders adjusting to a significant increase in responsibility invariably make many mistakes. Those who ultimately excel recognize and own these missteps quickly and use the experiences to grow into their positions of elevated authority and increased complexity. But for this learning curve to occur, it is absolutely crucial that they accept their role in these mistakes. If they have a low sense of agency, they cannot, and will fail.”

Because at the end of the day, if you are the leader (even if you are merely the “CEO of your own job“), casting about for blame or deflecting criticism to others only serves to delay the fixing of the problem and to blur the important lessons you could have been learning.

This result happened to Jeremy (whose story was covered in this earlier Mistake Bank entry): for two years, his underperforming team continued to miss targets, and Jeremy continued to blame those he had hired, colleagues, everyone else but himself. And until he “owned the missteps,” he wasn’t going to make it.

From “Better Under Pressure,” Jeremy’s Story: Lacking a sense of agency

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

Another great story from Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others. This one is about “Jeremy,” a high potential executive who was struggling in a stretch role. Menkes uses the term “sense of agency” to describe taking personal accountability and responsibility for issues. He defines it in the book this way:

Sense of agency…refers to the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.

This would be the opposite approach of the villain Tom Chaney (previously discussed in this post) in “True Grit,” whose catchphrase is, “Everything is against me.”

Here’s Jeremy’s story:

Jeremy was being groomed for possible promotion to the CEO role. His past success in commercializing products and executing their successful launch had dramatically raised his profile in the company. He had come to be seen as a possible successor to the CEO, and to further stretch him, the company placed him in charge of one of its underperforming divisions. When I met Jeremy, he had been in this new role for two years, and for the first time in his career, he was struggling to delivery. Many around the company had begun to question whether Jeremy had been promoted over his head, and he was feeling tremendous mounting pressure to show dramatic improvements in the division soon or be replaced.

…. An in-depth look at his track record, feedback from colleagues, and direct interviews with Jeremy himself revealed that his exceptional marketing talents and intense professional drive had led to an extraordinary level of success very early. But when he had been given a leadership position of dramatically increased scope, his tenure became marked with missteps. This is very normal, as leaders adjusting to a significant increase in responsibility invariably make many mistakes. Those who ultimately excel recognize and own these missteps quickly and use the experiences to grow into their positions of elevated authority and increased complexity. But for this learning curve to occur, it is absolutely crucial that they accept their role in these mistakes. If they have a low sense of agency, they cannot, and will fail.

As I got to know Jeremy, it became clear that the exceptional qualities that led to his raid ascent in the compnay were indeed impressive. He had a keen sense of market conditions and consumer needs and a knack for connecting the dots in a way that revealed dramatic new market opportunities. These high-profile successes earned him an expansive, well-deserved reputation in the compnay. But thus far, he had been thriving within divisions that already had well-established world-cleass operations in place. In Jeremy’s new position, he was being asked for the first time to turn a failing team into a strong one. It was an essential test if he was going to be a serious candidate for CEO, and it was one that exposed Jeremy’s Achilles heel. 

When I asked Jeremy why he had missed his units’s earning targets every quarter for two years, he immediately deflected responsibility for this critical problem. “This place was a mess when I got here,” he said. “I’m doing everything possible to get this thing turned around quickly, but the people here expect miracles. I need more time.” Jeremy went on to say he felt he was being judged unfairly by colleagues, that people saw him as a threat and were just waiting for him to fail. “They need to help make me successful, not criticize.” 

When pushed, Jeremy acknowledged that at least some of his colleagues seemed sincere in wanting him to be successful. But he still blamed his incompetent team for most of the problem. He fired some of those people, but then he found their replacements – people whom he had hired himself – “incompetent” as well…. 

Jeremy laid the blame for his division’s poor performance on others – even those he himself had fired – showing a very low sense of agency, which is what I explained to him in our feedback session. Until he was able to take ownership of his situation and the central role he played in bringing it about, I told him, he was never going to gain from the critical learning opportunity that had been handed to him with this job. No one was expecting him to flawlessly turn around a situation that was indeed challenging, but Jeremy’s problem was that he was showing no upward trajectory that could give his colleagues the confidence that he was learning from his mistakes and growing into the job.

pp. 91-93

Excerpted from “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. (c) 2011 Esaress Holding, Limited.

What a “broken child” reminds us about life

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

There’s an amazing exchange from Fresh Air when Teri Gross interviews Ian Brown, author of “The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son,” a memoir about life with his 15-year old son Walker, who suffers from a rare and severely disabling condition called cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC) syndrome.

Brown is discussing a quote from his wife imagining what the world would be like without people like Walker, when Teri Gross interrupts:

What sort of a world would it be without Walkers? A world where there are only sort of Masters of the Universe…would be like Sparta.

Teri Gross:
Could we just stop here? I’m not a Master of the Universe. You know, I’m not broken, physiologically broken, like your boy. But I’m hardly a Master of the Universe. I think most of us are not Masters of the Universe. We’re all broken in our own special ways. So it’s not like we’re perfected people and we need constant reminders of imperfection. I’m not arguing for abortion here, I’m just saying…we’re not a population of perfection.

No, no, absolutely not… although, you know, the imperative to know what to do, to have the answer, to…have the solution. I think that’s a very strong imperative. And Walker is…he’s more than a reminder of imperfection. Gradually, I’ve begun to realize, he is a way of…not the only way of being, but he’s an alternate way of being. Because you can’t be successful with Walker. You can’t “get it done.” You can’t “just do it,” as the ad says. You have to actually just be with him

I remember precisely where I was when I heard this: on Forster St., heading over the Harvey Taylor Bridge taking my son home from school. As I listened, I was reminded of something very current and yet age-old. An obsession with “winning.” What Brown is saying means this to me: Walker is important and his life is meaningful because he presents us a situation that is not winnable. It just is. The work involved with raising and caring for Walker will not end in triumph. It will persist, day by day, for as long as it lasts. That is its limitation and, in the end, its beauty.

Steve Jobs admits Apple mistakes with location data… or does he?

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

I read this New York Times article with significant interest: “Jobs Concedes Apple Mistakes.” The article refers to the issue of iPhone users discovering that a large file of their past locations was stored on the handset.

It’s notable whenever a high-profile CEO, confronted with a public-relations issue, comes out and takes accountability for mistakes.

When I read through the article, and the AllThingsD interview Q+A that inspired it, I was hard-pressed to find a real expression of remorse or even of admitting mistakes. Here’s the closest thing I read:

[Interviewer:] Is there anything that you guys have learned over the last week or so and take away from this?

[Apple SVP Scott] Forstall: One thing I think we have learned is that the cache we had on the system–the point of that cache, is we do all the location calculations on the phone itself so no location calculations are done separately. You can imagine in an ideal world the entire crowdsourced database is on the phone and it just never has to talk to a server to do these calculations (or) to even get the cache.

What we do is we cache a subset of that. We picked a size, around 2MB, which is less than half a song. It turns out it was fairly large and could hold items for a long time.

We had that protected on the system. It had root protection and was sandboxed from any other application. But if someone hacks their phone and jailbreaks it, they can get to this and misunderstand the point of that.

It’s all anonymous and cannot be traced back to any individual phone or person. But we need to be even more careful about what files are on the phone, even if they are protected.

Also, there was a hell of a lot of pushback. For example:

[Interviewer]: A bunch of folks on the regulatory side, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, said they are going to look into this. Do you guys plan on testifying before Congress? How active do you personally and does Apple want to be?

Jobs: I think Apple will be testifying. They have asked us to come and we will honor their request, of course. I think it is great that they are investigating this and I think it will be interesting to see how agressive or lazy the press is on this in terms of investigating the rest of the participants in the industry and finding out what they do. Some of them don’t do what we do. That’s for sure.

In fact, the closest thing to a mistake discussed was iPhone users’ mistakes:

[Jobs]: We build a crowdsourced database of Wi-Fi and cell tower hot spots, but those can be over 100 miles away from where you are. Those are not telling you anything abut your location. That’s what people saw on the phone and mistook it for location.

So, in summary: Jobs didn’t concede any mistakes, and his lieutenant made the hedgiest-possible admission that the location cache stored far more data than was needed.

This is more a lesson in good PR than in CEO candor and learning from mistakes. Jobs and his team admitted 5-10% culpability and defended the remainder, blaming users, competitors and the press for the issue. And they did it so smoothly that they convinced the NYT headline writer that Jobs himself had “conceded” location mistakes–in fact, getting credit for candor and remorse while not showing any.

The Red Cross owns up to a Twitter mistake

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

I’m sure Gail McGovern, the Red Cross CEO, was seeing red when this Tweet stream came out in mid-February. An honest mistake, by all accounts – a young staffer had gotten tripped up between a personal and business account using the Twitter application Hootsuite.

This faux pas provided a few seconds of laughter, but the response by the Red Cross will linger. They owned up to the mistake and showed a sense of humor. From the Red Cross’ blog post after the tweet went viral:

We realized our honest mistake (the Tweeter was not drunk) and deleted the above Tweet. We all know that it’s impossible to really delete a tweet like this, so we acknowledged our mistake:
In the meantime we found so many of you to be sympathetic and understanding.  While we’re a 130 year old humanitarian organization, we’re also made of up human beings. Thanks for not only getting that but for turning our faux pas into something good.

Thanks to the Red Cross for showing that an embarrassing mistake can be handled with grace and humor!

(Hat tip Anne D. Gallaher)

Textron Founder Royal Little stumbles by overruling his management

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

Royal Little (1896-1989) is one of the inspirations for this site. He was most famous for founding the conglomerate Textron (still going strong in 2011), but his most meaningful contribution for me was his autobiography, “How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice.” It’s out of print now – but perhaps if someone who owns the copyright (it may very well be Harvard Business Press – but when I checked with them a few years ago they didn’t think they did) falls in love with this site they’ll reprint it. (I offer to write the Foreword!)

Little’s book is an autobiography in mistakes. It’s a wonderful upending of expectations – an exceptionally successful leader writing about everything he did wrong. It’s a terribly human book, funny and sympathetic in a way that no chest-puffing “CEO memoir” ever could be.

Here’s one of the stories from the book:

Homelite Four-Cycle Engine

In those days the only other well-known outboard motor company was Champion. Allan Abbott [head of Homelite, a Textron subsidiary] spent some time with them and tested some of their motors but decided against buying the company which, incidentally, had a negative net worth at the time.

A lightweight four-cycle engine was originally developed for the small Crossley car, which was to have been made right after World War II. Somehow or other the engine got to Twin Coach where its development was carried on further by Lou Fageol. Finally Twin Coach decided they couldn’t handle it, so Lou Fageol and a partner, Crofton, took it over and carried on the development.

Lon Casler somehow heard of Lou Fageol and got enthused about their engine. In addition to the four-cycle outboard, Lou apparently had a design for an inboard-outboard motor and may have had a patent; and, of course, Homelite made a deal that involved a purchase and some royalties. This was done at my insistence with Allan Abbott objecting and predicting failure – but I was determined to get into outboards…. Incidentally, Lon Casler was Textron’s acquisition vice-president and a tower of strength to me.

The lightweight four-cycle outboard engine had many advantages: it was much quieter than two-cycle engines, it eliminated the regular outboard’s exhaust problem (it wasn’t a “stink pot”), and the engine could be run efficiently at any speed. The owners loved them but it cost so much more than the two-cycle engine that the market was very limited.

The deal was made in 1957, but after about three months, Homelite concluded the project should be killed. But I decided that Homelite should continue – at least for another year – which was against their better judgment. Among our reasons for asking Homelite to continue was the fact that the engine had been featured on the cover of Textron’s annual report. How’s that for an excuse to continue a loser?

When we all agreed to let Homelite abandon the outboard business, Dick Fisher, who was the founder and principal owner of the Boston Whaler Company, was reluctant to see the engine go out of production, so he formed a new company, which bought it for some cash and some notes.

So the Homelite four-cycle engine was a hell of a development which lost a lot of money for a lot of people. Allan Abbott tells me it cost Textron at least $5 million.

Advice: Don’t force a division president to take on a product that he’s not sold on. He will undoubtedly know more of its potential than you ever will.

pp. 183-184

(c) 1979 Royal Little and the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration

Learning from a bad acquisition leads to success at Best Buy

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

There’s a great mistake story at Strategy & Innovation told by Brad Anderson, former CEO at Best Buy. He discusses how they messed up a significant acquisition of mall record store Musicland, but applied those lessons to its subsequent market segmentation strategies, which helped the company emerge from the financial crisis as the leader in electronics retailing:

By 2000, Best Buy was reaching the limits of a growth strategy it had pioneered in 1989 with great success: selling consumer electronics — computers, TVs, stereo equipment, and the like — through noncommissioned sales staff in brightly lit, low-cost, free-standing “grab-and-go” stores. It was a simple idea, borrowed from the big-box general retailers, enabling Best Buy to radically undercut the leading competitors like Circuit City, which were operating according to the industry-standard business model: advertise loss leaders to get people into the stores and then use the talents of commissioned sales people to upsell to something far more profitable. 

Looking for avenues of growth, Best Buy could see potential in malls. Musicland, which sold CDs in malls, looked like a smart entry point. “We sold CDs; Musicland sold CDs,” Anderson explained. “We knew CDs were going to disappear; we weren’t that stupid. But we also knew an awful lot of product was being sold in malls.” 

The strategy wasn’t nearly that simple, of course. In 2000, Musicland was a $1.7 billion company generating about $100 million in cash. Since everyone knew CD technology was terminal, Best Buy was able to buy the mall retailer for a bargain price of $600 million. At the time, Musicland, like all the other music retailers, turned over its inventory twice a year. But Best Buy had learned to double that rate in its own stores, and sales had gone up. “So we thought, ‘Wow, how much cash could we create if we go buy the guy that sells it in the malls and move his turns, which were two, to four?’ ” If Best Buy could apply its merchandizing skills to Musicland to double its turnover, the theory went, revenue gains would pay back the investment quickly, and as CD demand declined, Best Buy could bring in its other products, which it could sell for far less than they were currently being sold in other mall stores. It looked like a no-brainer. 

But, as Anderson put it bluntly: “We misread totally what was going on.” Best Buy had increased turnover by decreasing selection, something its customers were apparently tolerating but Musicland customers would not. When the selection declined in the Musicland stores, sales dropped. What’s more, Best Buy initially maintained Musicland’s CD prices, which were $5 higher than at Best Buy stores. Customers assumed that if they were paying mall prices for CDs, they were overpaying for all the other merchandize Best Buy brought in, even though in reality the company was selling its other goods for the exact same low prices it was offering in its stores outside the mall. Dropping Musicland’s CD prices way down to Best Buy levels didn’t shake that impression, nor did rebranding stores under the Best Buy name.

Eventually Best Buy realized that it didn’t understand deeply who its current customers were, and who its non-customers were. When they studied that issue, they learned that women, who shopped in mall stores, recoiled from Best Buy’s selling proposition. With that knowledge in hand, the company retooled, and focused on female shoppers as a key buying segment. It was too late to save Musicland, which was shut down in 2002, but soon enough to re-energize Best Buy, the success of which drove its nearest competitor, Circuit City, into bankruptcy in 2008.

(Hat tip Rita Gunther McGrath)

Are positive recognition & confronting mistakes in conflict?

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

I learned a lot from reading Edward Hallowell’s new book, “Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People,” but I have significant disagreements with this section:

Recognition is so powerful because it answers a fundamental human need, the need to feel valued for what we do. Managers are in a unique position to offer—or withhold—such recognition, and with it, the feeling of being valued…. 

Yet many organizations spend more time focusing on errors and shortcomings than on giving recognition. They dissect failures and give “constructive” feedback that actually is often destructive. Steeped in many organizations’ collective consciousness is the idea that exposing mistakes leads to improved performance. The need to learn from mistakes is one of our most time-honored principles, drummed into us from early in our lives, through our educational years, and into our careers. But new research is showing otherwise, as does most people’s daily experience. Think about it. Do you usually learn from your mistakes? Or do you just feel embarrassed or upset and try to forget or cover up what happened? Do performance reviews that detail your shortcomings really help you? Or do they bring you down? Does being criticized in public improve your performance, or not? People do vary on these issues. Some people actually do improve after a public humiliation or a scorching performance review. But I challenge the absolute sanctity of the learn-from-your-mistakes credo. Certainly, when a person errs, and a manager notices it, there is a chance to learn. But there is also an excellent chance for emotions of shame and fear to short-circuit whatever higher learning process might otherwise develop in the brain. (pp 163-164)

It’s hard to argue with Hallowell’s precise language here. Who wouldn’t rather receive a pat on the back than a dressing down? And most companies are ham-handed with how they confront errors–as witch hunts to assign blame rather than exercises to expose flawed assumptions or systematic weaknesses.

But his underlying premise is wrong, in my view. Confronting and learning from mistakes is not the opposite of positive recognition. And they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a highly positive culture is required to give employees safety to reveal and correct mistakes quickly, rather than hide them. The research of Amy Edmondson asserts this very fact. She was perplexed by the findings that nurses in “safe” cultures committed more mistakes than nurses in less safe environments, until she discovered that psychological safety allowed the nurses to be more candid in revealing and discussing mistakes rather than hiding them.

Beyond that, isn’t it clear that not confronting mistakes, not probing weaknesses in the business, etc., is delusional and dangerous? So we shouldn’t be discussing whether to learn from mistakes, but how to do so effectively and without shaming our employees.

Perhaps Hallowell could reconsider his point that recognition is incompatible with learning from mistakes, and in fact come around to the idea that positive recognition, allowing employees to “Shine,” and the ability and culture to root out, learn from, and address errors and mistakes throughout the organization are all components of high-performing leadership.

The Mistake Bank is back, baby

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Mistake bank logoWhen I shut down the Mistake Bank Ning site last year, I got several emails from folks lamenting the end of the project. “It’s not over,” I said, “it’s ‘on hiatus,’” as if my band were breaking up.

But I meant it. The Mistake Bank is bigger than a technology platform. We are still making mistakes, and still not learning enough from them. People share mistake stories, but there’s no central place to find them and discuss them. So I’ve set up a new site to collect all the existing MBank materials (and there’s a lot of it), as well as to gather new stories, advice, etc. It’s at

Check it out now to relive the old stories, and keep checking back for new material.

And tell your friends.

David Brent (”The Office”) on training

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Well, after his much-commented-on stint hosting the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, Ricky Gervais perhaps is not the best role model I could have chosen for today’s post. Yet, let us hearken back to a time when Ricky, in addition to being a “slightly chubby but very kind comedian,” made fun of himself at least as much as the people around him.

I fell in love with the original version of “The Office” years ago. Gervais’ character, David Brent, was all our bad management practices and insecurities in one package, which made for hilarious yet uncomfortable viewing by any manager.

One episode that made me cringe out of self-recognition was “Training.” In this one, David hires a trainer to teach the company about customer service but undermines him by jumping up at every opportunity to (try to) demonstrate that he knows more about customer service than anyone at the company–more, even, than the trainer. While watching this, I had flashbacks to all the times I had jumped up to interrupt a trainer during a class or to demonstrate how much I knew about the subject at hand.

This is a smart-person problem. It was important to me to show I knew a lot. Or, perhaps, a “I think I’m smart but not sure I’m smart enough, so I have to demonstrate my smartness” problem. Or, if you’re David Brent, it’s a “I think I’m brilliant but I’m actually quite dumb,” in which case you have a comedy show.

The lesson I took from this was to see how this behavior looked to others. While I was trying to impress people, they were more interested in learning about the topic at hand. (Some folks probably wished they could have told me to sit down and shut up.) Jumping up to show how much you know is a manifestation of the Hermione Granger syndrome, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

For now, check out David Brent (Ricky) and make sure you don’t do what he does: