Monday, July 27, 2009

Practice makes permanent

This blog is the second and concluding entry on why we must fail (you can find the first entry here.) Before I get into how to fail successfully I wanted to share a video that Jeff Bezos, CEO of did as a means of introducing himself and his company to the employees of Zappos, which his company plans on acquiring. He is explaining the culture at and in that explanation he has interesting things to say about failure.

What is interesting to me about this video is that Jeff seems to wear the failure as a badge of honor, or a medal. He talks about it with pride. Why? Well, short of being able to ask Jeff himself, I think it is safe to say that he sees those failures as having incredible value to Amazon and a key factor in making Amazon the company it is today.

As I typed in the last sentence in the previous paragraph the voice of my internal skeptic/cynic was booming loud and clear. “Easy to say when you’re sitting on top of a successful company.” “Of course CEO’s like to talk about their valuable failures but when it was happening they weren’t so hippy-dippy about it.” I bring this up not to make myself appear crazy, but to point out something we all must come to grips with about failure. It’s not a fun experience and people do not usually applaud us when we do it.

So, let’s review:

Failure is a crucial ingredient to success.
Failure is not fun.
Failure causes people to not like you (including your boss).

Wow. If in order to be successful I have to fail then why try? I would answer that by saying that not trying is its own form of failure. So how do we fail without turning our lives into a country western song about losing everything?

Practice. At some point in our lives most of us have performed in some way, either in sports, performing arts, or academics. The purpose of practice is to find the bumps of failure and smooth them out. We are often able to correct many of the failures through repition. Yet practice also serves another valuable function, we learn to manage the failures we cannot correct in such a way that we can contain them so that they have a minimal impact. I call this “failure under the radar.”

When we “fail under the radar” we are simply failing in way that does not make itself apparent to the observer. We may be very aware of it. Yet the observer is not.. How do we translate this skill from the practice of preparing for a performance to work? By breaking it down.

Think of something that you want to do but wont because of fear of failure. It can be work related or personal. What are the opportunities for failure(they can be new and novel parts of the task or something you’ve tried before and failed at)? Now, is there any way to construct a pathway to completing that objective that would allow you to approach each of the perceived opportunities for failure individually? Is there a way that you can approach the objective that will allow you to keep failure under the radar?

I will illustrate with an example from my own life:

I want to go to graduate school and get my doctorate. My undergraduate transcript is spotty. I made some bad grades and some good grades. I do not have the best track record when it comes to school, yet, I believe I can do it. So, what are my choices? I can apply for grad school, if I get accepted then I quit my job and dive in and sink or swim. This is the “all in” option. If I fail then I will have interrupted my career and spent a lot of money on something that I was unable to complete. Now, if I step back and ask what my opportunities for failure are I come up with the following:
A. I will not be able to “hack it” in graduate level classes.
B. I am not making the right choice for my field of study.
I could go on, but for the sake of this entry I’ll stop with these two. Now I look at each one and explore the possibility of examining each of those individually.
Item A: I can take graduate courses that I can apply towards a degree without being accepted into a program. This will give me the chance to see if I can “hack it” or not.
Item B: I can take said courses in the field that I think am interested in.

I can do both of these without leaving my current job and with minimal investment (when compared to the cost of an entire graduate degree program). I am sure that I will struggle and fail in many ways as I attempt this, but the failures can be contained and learned from before they grow into something monumental.

Think about what is holding you back as not one thing, but a bag holding many things. Unpack the bag and examine each new and novel part as well as opportunities for failure based on past experiences. How much of what is holding you back can be approached individually? Take those items and make a plan. You may fail and you may succeed. Remember the failure is a learning opportunity. See it as being one step closer to getting it right and try again. Once you succeed you will find that your perception of what is possible expands exponentially. Once you learn to view failure not as the end but as the pathway you will find your paralyzing fear gives way to a healthy fear which motivates you through the failure.

And finally if you do fail in a huge way, apologize. (My blog entry on apologies).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Failure must be an Option

Can you imagine being told in an interview that you haven’t been enough of a failure? We see failure as such a negative and feared thing. I think that we need to relearn the way we think of failure as a valuable resource and that we should be concerned if failure did not occur on our path to success. Failure isn’t the problem; it is our response to it that creates problems.

A few weeks ago I was speaking someone who used to be a regional manager at Weight Watchers and she was telling me what she looked for in a meeting leader. She told me that, of course, they should have successfully completed the program. Then she went on to define that success, in her mind was someone that had fallen off the wagon a few times and then got back on. She was more interested in someone who had failed and THEN been successful than someone who had just been successful. When I asked her why, her answer was illuminating, “We are all going to fail at weight loss at some point or another, I can’t risk brining someone on who has not failed yet. I need people who have proven they can fail and recover.”

I believe that there are many people who mistakenly view failure and defeat as the same thing. I say that they are not. Failure can be limited to a singular event in time. Defeat is when we stop trying because we believe that all future attempts would also lead to the same failure. Or more succinctly defeat is when you let failure get the best of you. What is even worse is when we assume defeat as the only outcome and therefore do not even give ourselves the chance to fail. To quote Twyla Tharp, that is “failure by erosion.” It’s true. If you are truly trying something for the first time or creating something new and expect that failure will not play a role then you are not being realistic. Furthermore, not only should we accept that failure plays a role we should embrace it. In a work culture that is trending towards considering the ability to innovate as a keystone of high performance fear of failure is disabling and can lead to a stagnated career or worse, termination.

Reading that, it can be easy to feel damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Mattison Grey, one of our faculty members in the EmPower program and a professional coach, says it best in her blog, some of which I’ll repost below.

Recently I went to a Cirque du Soleil show—not my first, but the first I’ve seen with my high-performance-coaching eyes. What I saw, besides an incredibly entertaining show and story with amazing tricks, choreography, and acrobatics, was a bunch of mistakes—failures, if you will. I suspect very few in the audience noticed the mistakes, but I did, and it got me thinking about failure, and its value in high performance.

Each of those performers has failed so many times in practice, if they are going to fail during the performance, they know when and how it will happen. They know this because it has already happened hundreds, thousands of times. It happens in practice, in rehearsal, even in the shows.

One performer, a clown-like character, was doing gymnastics and tricks on a ladder. In addition to doing the tricks, he had to keep the ladder on its two feet. To begin any trick, he had to balance and climb the ladder. Three times he got part or most of the way up and slid back down, as if that were part of the show. Truth was, he was failing. He had lost control of the ladder and needed to start over.

(Read the rest of Mattison’s entry here)

Those of us who have had to perform in front of others in some way at some point in our lives learn this early on. I had a piano teacher who once told me “without failure how would you know what you needed to work on?” Her words were true. The first time I played in public was a disaster. In the midst of disaster I received valuable information on what I needed to work on and I was able to grow.

So how do you manage failure? We will talk more about that next week.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Know Thyself, then know thy others

So have you been smiling more lately?

Have you been focusing on sourcing your responses and interactions with others from a place of authenticity?

If yes, then great! You’re well on your way to being a social genius! Just remember this is a thousand mile journey that takes most of us our entire lives. In my third and final entry on social intelligence (If you are just finding this blog check out the previous two entries here and here) I am going to give you some key components of social intelligence as defined by Goleman, et al that you can use to get a quick picture of your level of social intelligence and areas you may want to work. I’m also going to give you some ideas for ways you can begin improving.

It seems that many of the people and groups I interact with struggle to see how the topics social intelligence, leadership and high performers are relevant in the current economic crisis. I believe that they have never been more relevant. We are all facing strains and stresses that, unchecked, can have an affect on our work product. I know I am at my office.

We walked into this crisis with a new program launch and a major overhaul of our business model. We were planning for a rough year even before the crisis hit. Our business relies mostly on providing corporate training. Which is often the first thing that is cut when hard times hit. Many are worried about their jobs, stressed because their salary doesn’t cover as much of their costs of living as it used to; combine that with a wage and hiring freeze and we just aren’t seeing much of a tangible reward for our hard work. Yet my boss continues to reinforce that she sees how hard we are working, she knows we are trying to make the best of a bad situation and that she knows we’re going to have a bad year and she is not upset. In fact, she is thrilled that we have used this time to rebuild our organization and she is authentically excited about the future. That, my friends, is social intelligence deployed through leadership and in times of crisis it is often the only tool in a leader’s pocket to keep their teams motivated and bought-in.

So, how can we measure social intelligence for ourselves? Daniel Goleman lists several metrics, which you can find in his original article. I’m going to list what I believe are the top 3 here:

1. Empathy: Do you understand what motivates other people, even those from different backgrounds? Are you sensitive to their needs?
This cornerstone of social intelligence can be the most difficult to achieve. It requires us to move beyond our own agenda and needs and focus on those of others. In most cases they will return the favor without you asking and you’ll have created the first step towards building a strong bond.
2. Attunement: Do you listen attentively and think about how others feel? Are you attuned to other’s moods?
I have to admit, this one is difficult for me. I often find myself formulating a response before the person that is speaking to me is even halfway through their statement. It can be hard to shut off our brains and keep them from leaping to conclusions yet it is important. As you listen remember to empathize. Try to imagine what the person is going through. What lead them to formulate their ideas? Ask them to confirm your assumptions to see if they are true. You’ll have some misses at first, but you will get better with practice.
3. Organizational Awareness: Do you appreciate the culture and values of the group or organization? Do you understand social networks and know their unspoken norms?
I am a loud person who tends to dominate any conversation I am a part of without much regard for others. I received some sage advice once from a mentor of mine. “Force yourself to observe first, then once you understand the group, act.” Give it a try, even if you’re shy. Purpose yourself to actively observe the group. What are their roles? Does one-person build consensus, another make the final decision, does another tend to the feelings of others? Watch these things in your groups at work. Learn how each person works. Once you understand them you’ll be able to connect with them in a much more authentic way.

From the list above it seems that the pathway to social intelligence is somewhat counter-intuitive. In my first entry I wrote how the key to social intelligence is authenticity and the key to authenticity is self-knowledge. Yet, here we see that measures of social intelligence seem to be less about how well you know yourself and how well you know others. So which is it? Both! I think a story about my adorable niece will help illustrate this point (and give me a chance to show her off).

My niece recently started walking. She improves every time I see her. Yet when she first started it required her total concentration. Walking was so complex to her that it required all of her mental resources. No carrying toys and even keeping in mind where she was going. She was totally focused on walking. A few weeks and lots of practice and now she can manage everything but going down the stairs. She carries her toys around and even calls our names as she walks around.

It’s the same with social intelligence. You cannot really work on the external elements until you get a handle on the internal stuff. Until you know yourself well enough to know that your responses are authentic (do you just spring load to yes or no when someone asks you to do something?) you can’t focus externally. Like my niece, you have to focus inside and get the self-knowledge to a level of awareness of unconscious competence (remember the levels of awareness from a few weeks back?) before you can start to focus your concentration on others. To say it Suze Orman style: “Self-knowledge first, then empathy/attunement/awareness, then success!”