Rising from the Ashes

| | Leading Organizations

Can failure be the source of success?

This is a true story…

Donna (real person, fictitious name) was someone who had previously failed in managing a project but was now ready to put herself out there again.  After all, the project she led before was something no one else had even tried to do.  She was at peace with what happened.

Now she was asking to manage a new project.  She wanted a chance to prove herself.  Even though she had failed the last time, she had learned and was confident she would succeed this time around.

Her boss, John (real person, fictitious name), wanted to give her another chance.  She had been a high performer in her regular job.  That was why he chose her the first time.

But she had failed.

It wasn’t just that the team didn’t meet their goal.  The team fell apart.  He still didn’t understand what happened.  She was very good at her job.  She seemed to be a great manager of the people who reported to her. So what the heck happened?

He was not at all confident in her ability to manage this project successfully.

So while he wanted to support her and say yes, he was concerned he would be setting the organization, as well as each of them as individuals, up to fail.  This was a really important project to the organization. The stakes were high.

When I asked John if he believed she could be successful in this project, he said he thought it was possible.  But he had no way to be sure.

How could he ask her to promise a result that even he did not know how to produce himself?  Besides, he still didn’t understand why she failed with the team the last time.  Was it worth the risk to give her another shot?

He truly believed that one failure does not mean you are a failure.

Except in organizations one failure all too often means you are a failure even if no one says it out loud.  You may not lose your job, but a visible failure can cut off your chances to progress.  This was one of those cultures.

While there is a lot of talk about encouraging risk taking in many organizations, I think the biggest challenge is not about getting people to take the first risk.  Rather it is being willing to take a chance on someone or something for the second time.  Any conversation about risk taking will be nothing more than lip service if we cannot: (1) learn from our failures and (2) support people in succeeding the next time.

The harder part seems to be supporting people in succeeding the next time.  I believe this requires us to increase the level of integrity and accountability in our relationships.

How do you do that?

Start with these 3 Principles:

  1. Take Personal Responsibility for BOTH the Results AND the Relationship
  2. Negotiate for What You Need to be Successful and Satisfied
  3. Choose Authentically

Here’s how they were applied in this real life situation.

Take Personal Responsibility for BOTH the Results AND the Relationship

John set up a meeting to talk with Donna about her request face to face.   He was completely honest about his concerns regarding her ability to succeed given what had happened.

While we may feel uncomfortable doing so, it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend something in the past did not happen.  Honesty and transparency is required if you want to take responsibility for your relationships.

He was also honest about questioning his ability to support her:  he did not fully understand why she failed the first time. He didn’t even know what to tell her to do differently.

Negotiate for What You Need to be Successful and Satisfied

John set some clear conditions for what he needed from her to be willing to give her the reigns of the project.

They included:  weekly update meetings, a commitment from Donna that she would ask for help early and often.  He also made it clear that she had to meet the first milestone or he would replace her as the team leader.

Donna also made requests.  First, she asked for a coach to provide the insight to her management and leadership that Dan could not provide.  She also asked to be given the authority to choose her team members.  He agreed to the coach and after some discussion they agreed they would choose the team together.

Choose Authentically

Both Donna and John had to have a complete enough conversation to be able to choose.  It required they honestly aired their concerns with each other.  While Donna asked to run the project she was not awake to the perceived risk by John, other senior people in the department, or even to her own identity.

John had to make sure she went into this with her eyes wide open.  He couldn’t authentically say yes until he was clear she understood this.  He also needed to put conditions in place to support her in being successful as well as manage the risk to the department.

How did it turn out?

Donna and her team achieved an unprecedented success in their department.  Employee Opinion Survey scores in the chosen category increased by 20%.  Perhaps more importantly, they could see ample evidence of that change in the day to day interactions of people in their department.

John and Donna had worked together to use a failure as a foundation from which to build trust and create success.

What do you think it takes to rise from the ashes of failure?

To learn more about the principles covered in the post check out The Art of Accountability.  The next Webinar Series starts in October.

And stay tuned for the next post where I will cover what Donna had to learn to be successful.


Enter A Comment

Gina   |   24 September 2010   |   Reply

People really do learn from every experience – it’s what they do with that knowledge in the future that is the most important. I’m glad to hear that she was given a second chance and was able to succeed. What a confidence booster for her and reassuring to the manager that he has the right team in place.

Susan Mazza   |   24 September 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Gina. It was a big win for many and on many levels.

It is truly amazing what people can accomplish when we hold them accountable for both being and doing their best.

Bret Simmons   |   24 September 2010   |   Reply

Great stuff, Susan. I love your point about assuming personal responsibility. Can assuming personal responsibility also mean calling it quits? I’ve had situations where I honestly believed that I bent over backwards to share my concerns and to make things work, but could not get the results I was comfortable with. When I reach that point, I shake the dust off my feet and move on. But people don’t seem to like that. What’s your advice? Thanks! Bret

Susan Mazza   |   24 September 2010   |   Reply

You make an important point here Bret. It is not the “right” choice to give someone a second chance. Sometimes the best choice is to “call it quits”.

I think any decision can be a good one for all involved as long as it is a mindful choice based on our commitments vs. our fears.

Although without specifics it is hard to offer more specific advice, your choice of words triggered a few thoughts of things to consider.

That experience of “bending over backwards” can be an indication that an attempt at raising the level of integrity and accountability is one-sided. Moving on when that is the case is a sound decision in my opinion.

On the other hand it could be an indication there is no trust. When there is mistrust, the person with the most power tends to feel freer to communicate. To the person who feels they have less power (or that you have power over them), speaking up can feel very risky.

One way to be responsible for this is to consider that if you don’t feel heard or it seems like you are working way too hard, you may not be listening enough. Could be that you need to make your commitment to them more explicit and then put the “gap in their lap” to do some of the heavy lifting by asking a lot more questions. Somehow you need to demonstrate that you intend to have a two way conversation.

But if after attempts at opening the lines of authentic, responsible communication, they are not willing to own their competence gap and/or take the risk and engage fully with you, how can you possibly raise the level of accountability in your relationship?

And when someone lets their fear trump their commitments in a conversation, what will they do when the going gets rough? The trust has to go both ways.

Hope that’s some useful food for thought.

Bret Simmons   |   24 September 2010   |  

Amazing insight, Susan. You hit a few of the nails right on the head. The point about heavy lifting is a good one. I’ll give you 200% of my effort, but I refuse to do you work. If after repeated appeals someone does not shoulder their responsibility, I think it is part of my responsibility to remove my shoulder. I don’t do them or myself any justice by not making the hard choice. Thanks! Bret

Susan Mazza   |   24 September 2010   |  

Thank you Bret.

This is really well said: “If after repeated appeals someone does not shoulder their responsibility, I think it is part of my responsibility to remove my shoulder.”

I think the key to staying in integrity with ourselves is to make sure we don’t sell out on either our commitments or other people. When we do that everyone is served. And it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

Ellen Weber   |   24 September 2010   |   Reply

Great post and thanks Susan!

Imagine if …

Rather than what happened, ” John set up a meeting to talk with Donna about her request face to face. He was completely honest about his concerns regarding her ability to succeed given what had happened.”

Instead, John had attempted to hear novel ideas and ask deep questions, and engage her in ways that he learned her approach to learning — which clearly differed from his.

Would the results have been different? Would a shared initiative have been possible?

My thoughts as I read, and I have seen similar situations….:-) You?

Susan Mazza   |   26 September 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Ellen. I think both conversations are essential to success.

But before you can effectively engage in exploring possibility and learning you need to clear out the past and get clear about your shared commitment for the future.

They did indeed have many of the conversations you are pointing to with each other and with the team once the foundation of relationship and clear agreements were reached.

Jay Forte   |   25 September 2010   |   Reply

Great post Susan. What you also bring up is “courageous” communication. And as much as this story is about Donna and that we all learn best by life experiences, there is a lot to be said about the courageous and honest communication inspired by John. I find most organizations do not have a culture of courageous communication – they are organizations that say what is convenient or easy, not factual, accountable or honest. So, to me, your great lesson about owning your decisions and performance also showed one of the great attributes of both leadership and success – courageous and honest communication.
Well don.

Susan Mazza   |   26 September 2010   |   Reply

Great distinction Jay – “courageous communication”.

I really appreciate that you picked up on John’s courage and commitment here. Just because someone is the boss doesn’t mean communicating isn’t hard and does not require risk taking.

Randy Hall   |   25 September 2010   |   Reply


As always, great thoughts and a great post. The other thing John did was take accountability for the results of the decision he made to allow Donna to try again.

Leadership is about moving from a place of responsibility for your own actions to accountability for the performance of others. When we think about it that way as leaders we work to help them become more capable, not just get the job done.

Thanks for a post that makes us think.


Susan Mazza   |   26 September 2010   |   Reply

This is a great point and very well said Randy – “Leadership is about moving from a place of responsibility for your own actions to accountability for the performance of others.”

I’ll add that both John and Donna had to be accountable to each other as well as their commitments to their organization to be successful.

I think there is a misconception that accountability only flows in one direction – down the chain of command.

Mike Myatt   |   25 September 2010   |   Reply

Hi Susan:

I enjoyed your story as it does an outstanding job of highlighting the relationships between fear, failure and success. What makes these issues tricky is that they are both common and complex. Rather than try and address said complexities in a short comment, I’ll direct you to a recent post in which I took a deep dive on the subject at hand: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/hows-your-attitude

Thanks Susan…

Susan Mazza   |   30 September 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your “deep dive” on the relationship btw fear, success and failure here. Excellent!

Kat Tansey   |   25 September 2010   |   Reply

Such a great example of what happens when communication opens up. I found it interesting that he still did not know why she failed before, and wonder if she herself knew. Seems like that debriefing would have been helpful.

At any rate, the set-up for the new project was much more open and clear. She asked for help. He gave her some parameters to ensure she didn’t stray off too far on her own. Great story of a turn-around that focused on both of them being accountable.

I am so glad to see you focusing on the Art of Accountability. It is a art, and one many of us could be much more skilled in — bravo for tackling this important subject!

I found your

Susan Mazza   |   26 September 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Kat – I thinking accountability is an essential topic if we are to transform the way we work, manage and lead for the future.

The debriefing of what happened occurred, but the moment Donna was committed to trying again the level of honest inquiry about what happened was raised to a whole new level.

Your point about debriefing has me thinking….
When people fail in organizations there is a pull to want to get the “post mortem” over with. I have also seem people do their best to “learn” from their mistakes while at the same time justify their actions as valid. That can result in identifying culturally acceptable reasons for the failure that feel satisfying but mask that you may have actually learned anything new.

There is also the trap of perceptual blindness at play. Applying current logic to what happened doesn’t mean you will learn anything new because you are often unwittingly looking through the lens that was the very source of your failure. It’s often not until you commit to a new possibility for the future that you see the same situation differently.

executive coaching   |   29 September 2010   |   Reply

Everyone dreads on failure. But breakthroughs depend on it. The best companies embrace their mistakes and learn from them.

Susan Mazza   |   30 September 2010   |   Reply

Well said! Thanks

ava diamond (@feistywoman)   |   30 September 2010   |   Reply

Thank you for this thought provoking post, Susan. It is a great example of what can happen when people have those “courageous conversations” mentioned above, have a strong level of trust, and are open to growth and improvement.

In many organizations I work with, before taking any risk, people look around and ask, “what happened to the last guy who took a risk?” If the risk was a smart risk, yet the person didn’t have success–and they now were not given plum assignments, were not leading project teams, were banished to some low-impact busy work–the people become risk averse,
keep their heads down, and both they and the organization lose.

If, on the other hand, that person is treated the way Donna was treated above, others are more likely to bring creative and innovative ideas, and lead teams to make them happen.

One organization I’m working with now calls these failures “creative mis-steps.” They want innovation. They want new ideas. And they know that when you tread on ground that’s not be covered before, inevitably, some things won’t work perfectly.

I’m going to forward your post a few clients this morning.

Susan Mazza   |   30 September 2010   |   Reply

Love this: “creative mis-steps.”

Thanks for your comment and for sharing this with others Ava!