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Jennifer Wilson
Failure is a good thing—really!

It often is our setbacks that set the stage for success.

January 13, 2014
by Jennifer Wilson

Attracted to a profession with established standards and a lot of clear, “right” answers, many of the CPAs I know have perfectionist tendencies. These traits come in handy when it comes to meeting the CPA’s professional obligation to deliver correct results on any number of project deliverables—from tax returns to audit statements and much more. The problem is that the overwhelming desire to be certain can eclipse the need to grow or be different, and it can limit our potential.

Firms cannot grow unless they risk failure in any number of areas—such as attracting new prospects, expanding into industry-specific niches, or acquiring a competitor to grow market share. As a next generation of leaders prepares to take the helm, it’s imperative that we encourage up-and-comers to try new things, test their ideas, and take risks, even though there’s no guarantee of success and failure is a real possibility. Consider these four reasons why you should encourage failure in your firm:

  • Failure is an important teacher. Some of our most memorable lessons come from the stories of our biggest mistakes. The majority of our failures are low-cost and fully survivable. The history books are full of those who failed repeatedly before reaching the pinnacle of success in their fields: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Babe Ruth, to name only a few.
  • Failure encourages innovation. Which do you think is more motivating and engaging for employees: a culture where people fear making a mistake or one where mistakes are made, acknowledged, and openly learned from? Firm leaders who understand that failure is the price of creativity, change, and invention are far more likely to see these qualities exhibited in their people.
  • Failure highlights humility and humanity. We are all fallible, and experiencing failure is important to appreciating our past and future successes with a healthy dose of humility. When others see their leaders fail, dust themselves off, address their failure, and then try again, they realize that their leaders are human, too, making them more relatable.
  • Failure generates perseverance. Edison is quoted as saying, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Organizations that encourage innovation and risk-taking also expect their people to apply their learning and try again. People who work in an innovation culture see their people exhibit resilience and an almost-calm in the face of potential calamity as they learn that they can recover from most business “disasters.”

We all fear failure because we don’t want to look bad, face negative consequences, or disappoint others. But those who take calculated risks ask themselves these four questions first:

  • Why am I committed to make this decision or take this risk? What are the potential benefits or what is possible from success in this endeavor? If your intentions are to benefit others and produce a positive result, and you can get enthused about the possibilities if you have success, then the risk may well be worth it.
  • What research have I done to ensure that I have diligently explored facts from both sides of this decision or risk? Do the work to build a case for your decision or risk. But be careful here, as many CPAs are so analytical that they will research, fact-find, and study until the opportunity they are exploring is missed!
  • Has anyone else done this in my firm, in the profession, or in business? If so, how did they approach it and what were their results? Learning from the failures and successes of others is always beneficial, but we may not be able to find comparable benchmarks for the commitment we need to make. Your idea or innovation may be on the leading edge or a genuine invention, and the lack of peer experiences to cite is not reason enough to hold back.
  • How detrimental would a mistake or failure be in this instance and who would be most affected? What would the consequences for failure be? Risking corrections? Looking bad? Having to apologize? Potentially losing a little money? If the potential benefits are greater than the potential consequences, then the risk may be worth taking.

If you do fail, be sure to:

  • Admit it to yourself and others. Avoid blaming others. Your level of self-honesty and transparency will directly affect the trust and respect others have for you. Most often, not taking responsibility for the failure will cause more damage to your relationships than the failure itself.
  • Take responsibility for the failure and learn from it.  Look for ways that you could be responsible for the failure. Ask yourself what you could do differently next time to avoid the same result. Ask others for feedback and their ideas on how to generate success in the future.
  • Try again. It may not be the same thing (most of us don’t touch a hot stove twice), but don’t withdraw after a failure. Refine your idea or approach and try again. Move onto another bold move and try it instead. Don’t let a little failure hold you back.
  • Share your story. Pay it forward by sharing your failure stories with those coming up around you—your children, young staff members, and others who can benefit from your embarrassing moments or life’s hiccups. Your wisdom—and that’s what you gain when you’ve failed—may save someone else from making the same mistakes, so they can move on to bigger and more innovative risks, and mistakes, themselves.

I am grateful for this message from Steve Jobs on the subject of choices as he faced his terminal illness. His thoughts can easily be applied to our collective fear of failure: “Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

What’s important to you? Risk failure and make it happen.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.