Deconstructing Your Failure

Photo credit: Steve Ford Elliott

Career Grief sucks. There, I said it. It sucks — horribly.

I sat in a pool of it this past week, despite an astronomical EQ, a mad set of business skills, and growing demand for my work.  That, my friends, is exactly why it torques my day.  It rolled through at the most unexpected (and least welcome) moment, leaving me cranky that I still feel the aftershock of losing a job I loved.

Some days grief is like a spider web. You walk face first into it and no matter how much you spin and try to pull away from it; the tiny strands cling to you all day long.

Rather than wallow in a pool of self-loathing, I pinned down the source of recurring frustration.  I confess that my departure felt like a failed mission — it’s one thing to admit defeat but altogether castrating when someone else calls the time of death for you.

A Sense of Failure at the Root of Grief

It turns out that I’ve been mourning a vital part of me that I left behind. That part of me is kick-ass brilliance and talent, and I’d be an idiot not to retrieve them. In order to do that, I deconstructed my (self-labeled) failure by asking four questions:

  1. Did I attempt too much?

  2. Where did I contribute to poor communication or incomplete information?

  3. How did I dilute my own authority or weaken my team’s responsibility?

  4. When and how did I permit “drop-in crises” to derail our primary mission?

My tale of woe ends here, because a few hours of deep soul-searching shook me out of my slump. I sorted out my personal accountability from the organizational dysfunction over which I had no control. Did I miss some opportunities to challenge the dysfunction? You bet I did, hence the root cause of my lingering disappointment.

Lessons learned are bittersweet since we can’t go back in time to use our new wisdom. This time, though, I’ve pulled off the sticky cobwebs of guilt.  I have epic new insights to bring to my next executive role. In the meantime, here is the advice I’d give to anyone who wants to avoid the remorse of “coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

Lesson Learned: Leave the Bitter, Keep the Sweet

People make crazy promises when they’re in love and feeling dreamy…

Promises: Too Many, Too Soon

People make crazy promises when they’re in love with a new job and feeling dreamy about the corporate vision. Stop right there. Optimistic head nodding and promises you make in the first 30 days will seal your fate. Before you belly-up to the commitment bar or submit your brilliant departmental plan, do this:

  • Understand every operational assumption that impacts your area of the business (hint: vital if you’re with a company in the midst of change).
  • Look at the organization’s (and your team’s) track record of meeting its own timelines.  If it stinks, you need to find out why. While you’re at it, ask how your company is breaking the cycle.
  • Refuse to contribute to unrealistic time expectations.  Time estimates for critical deadlines need a cushion of 20-50%. Does your executive team accept that fact and build its plans around responsible expectations? If not, your company has created a trap for repeated failure.

Poor Communication

Nothing smacks of injustice more than getting singled out as the lousy communicator. In reality, everyone in the communication chain contributes to the problem, which equates to a game of accountability hot potato. Try this:

  • Establish and maintain structured meetings with your boss and relentlessly stick to a schedule. Your spot on her calendar is sacred, so own it. Drive the agenda, keep her on task, and package your information the way she needs it.
  • Mega-tip of the millennium: executives love a good listener, but don’t let that be your downfall. Give your boss the sounding board she needs but not at the expense of your time to talk.
  • Tell, then show, your colleagues how you manage information:
    • How you process information (i.e. face-to-face, scheduled meetings, email)
    • How and when you manage incoming information
    • What frequency and format all of you need to stay in sync
  • Ask your boss and colleagues those same questions then deliver what they need.  This redistributes the accountability for being open and clear.

Authority:  Give It Out and Guard Yours Closely

If you’ve ever been punked when a colleague undermines your position, don’t perpetuate that as a manager.

Remember The Golden Rule and don’t create divisiveness among your direct reports. Do everything within reason to allow your employees to run with their ideas and take risks without fear of career-limiting humiliation.  Key points:

  • Never, ever usurp (aka hijack) a colleague’s authority and don’t tolerate it from anyone in the organization.  Disclaimers such as “I’m not saying anything to you that I wouldn’t say if he were in the room” don’t excuse you. Gossip, venting and passive-aggressive dissention destroy trust. Forever.
  • Org charts in business plans show hierarchy. That’s pretty — now draw one that reflects the true decision-making process and approval mechanisms.
  • Your role is a living, breathing concept but your job description is not. If you feel there is overlap between your role and that of someone else, speak up.  Give your direct reports the explicit direction to do the same when you give conflicting messages.
  • Emphasize and reiterate your team members’ responsibilities and reward them when they deliver. They might be talented, but they aren’t mind readers.

Death by Distraction

Problems, opportunities, crises and dysfunction loom over every organization and threaten to derail even the best-laid plan. Pleasers and “fixers” notoriously overreact to animated managers in a breaking situation.  Executives and stakeholders have short memories and won’t remember your heroism if it doesn’t contribute to the core mission. What to do:

  • Limit your reaction. Count to 10 before you speak — count to 100 if you have to. Someone’s fit or panic is emotion and not objective criteria for shuffling your priorities.
  • Responding to a problem and a crisis are not the same thing. If your team is living crisis to crisis, then step up and be the voice of sanity. Keep track of what’s going on. Identify the source, cause, true level of priority and controllable factors (trust me, you’ll see patterns).
  • Recondition your coworkers’ expectations if you’ve defined yourself as a Yes Man. Oh, I know it’s excruciating to pass up a great idea. Build in a buffer to evaluate your resources. Respond with “Yes, but..,” “Maybe, if…,” “My answer depends on…”

Although my heartache is specific to my most recent loss, the lessons aren’t. It has taken the lifetime of my career to wise up about the general frailty of communication in the workplace. As long as people are flawed, the workplace shall be too.

If your ego still throbs from a career set-back, take a hard look in the mirror and dust yourself off. Your next job might be different, but human nature isn’t.

Photo Credit: Steve Ford Elliott (the model is his daughter)

3 thoughts on “Deconstructing Your Failure

  1. Excellent post Kelli. I appreciate your transparency and willingness to share thru your failures. You have a great attitude and sense of humor & both are key assets when life throws things at us that we weren’t anticipating or wanting. I resonated with a lot you said. 🙂

  2. Kelli,

    I love your candor. I especially appreciate how you separate what you can control and what you can’t. There is only one thing in life that we can really control – ourselves. Everything else is out of our control. Many people waste away their lives trying to control what they can’t, and they neglect what they can (these are usually people that always blame others for their lot in life).

    Now, we all tend to think of a business as a logical, methodical, well-run institution. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As you mentioned, the organization is inherently flawed, mainly because all of its people are flawed. This is what makes business dynamic and ever-changing. Unfortunately for you, it resulted in a loss. But your life will bring you many more losses and gains, all part of the human experience.

    If we get caught up trying to over-analyze these things, we’ll go crazy. The reason – becasue none of it makes sense…everyone is flawed.

    I’ll leave this comment with one of my favorites quotes – it is by Shakespeare: “What woulds’t thou have from life? Then pay the price and take it!” The implication is not subtle – we only control ourselves and it is wholly up to us to make it happen.

  3. Great stuff Kelli! I’ve seen and been on so many teams where these issues can create havoc. As an engineer the hardest thing is to overcome is the tendency promise too much too soon. Or worse yet to have someone else promise it for you! Management by firedrill is another callout you make that is right on. When everything is a priority to the people doing the actual work- well then nothing is. There’s only so many fires you can put out before you’re fried. I’m sure it was tough looking into your situation this way- but you have really nailed it for many of us – Thanks!

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