Q & A with Laurence G. Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, Authors of The Wisdom of Failure
Laurence G. Weinzimmer
There have been many examples of high profile business failures spotlighted in the press. Why do you believe news stories about failure have become so much more prevalent in recent times?
Strong revenue masks all kinds of mistakes. However the recent recession, when revenue declined across companies and industries, gave people in the business community the opportunity to hear stories that have been buried under prosperity for years. Like a tide that went out unusually far, we were able to see a part of the ocean that is rarely seen. The recession has also led to a heightened interest in learning from these failures. For example, Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to this topic in April, 2011. The recession has clearly created a new paradigm: to become an effective leader, it is not only about doing the "right" things; it is also about avoiding the "wrong" things. Why did you decide to study failure?
Our study of failure has truly been an evolutionary process. It started almost eight years ago, when we set out to find whether organizations that were accepting of mistakes had stronger or weaker financial performance. After interviewing almost 1,000 managers and leaders across 21 industries, we found that there was a positive relationship between cultures where mistakes were accepted and both individual and firm-level performance. We found that learning organizations used lessons from mistakes as a platform for growth.
Next, we aimed to identify the most damning mistakes--mistakes made by leaders that could not only end careers, but also destroy companies. These types of mistakes provided the richest lessons for leaders. After conducting over a dozen focus groups of experienced leaders, we were able to identify three categories of mistakes: (1) unbalanced orchestration at the company level-strategic errors that result in the misuse of company resources; (2) drama management at the team level-actions by a leader that encourage passive aggressive behavior and bullying, and (3) personality issues at the individual level-extreme personality traits, such as self-absorption, disengagement, and hoarding power.
In the final phase of our study, we interviewed some of the most accomplished leaders across industries to tell their stories about how they benefitted from the lessons of failures. We wanted to find out how they learned from mistakes, what are the warning signs, and what strategies did they use to navigate around these failures. What we found was great leaders only make "original" mistakes--that is, they don't repeat the same mistake twice. What can understanding failure teach both seasoned and aspiring leaders that they can't learn only by modeling success?
While studying success provides valuable lessons during good times, often these lessons aren't applicable in hard times. The road isn't always smooth and the sky isn't always blue. When challenges present themselves, lessons gleaned from previous failures can help leaders avoid making the same mistake twice or making the wrong decisions.
Making mistakes--or failing--are part of taking healthy risk. They provide us with new ways of thinking and give us new insights into how we can improve as leaders. Real failure doesn't come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all possible costs, from fear to take risks, and from the inability to grow. Being mistake free does not lead to success.
Learning from our mistakes, however, is not always possible. Yes, every great leader makes mistakes they can learn from. But there are only a limited number of mistakes you can make before proving yourself an unworthy leader--you can only fall off the corporate ladder so many times before your climb is finished. And the higher up the ladder you get, the more severe the fall. The failure paradox is that in order to succeed we need to know failure--yet we live in an environment where we can't afford to make mistakes. The solution? To study and learn from the mistakes of others in order to proactively avoid the predictable pitfalls that await every leader. What are the specific benefits of learning from failure?
The benefits of learning from failure can be seen at both the individual level and the organizational level. We found strong statistical evidence between the ability to embrace mistakes and improved individual performance. Specifically we found that leaders who learn from mistakes are more proactive in deflecting potential problems, have a higher level of confidence when taking actions and making decisions, more accurately understand their environments, think more strategically, and are more creative.
These traits and capabilities also translated to the organizational level. Specifically we found that companies that are more accepting of mistakes have significantly better financial performance in terms of both top-line revenue growth, as well as bottom-line profit. We live in a culture that values perfections and hides failure. Companies pay their employees to succeed, not to fail. However, the more we talk about the valuable lessons that come from mistakes and honor discussions about failure, the less likely it will be such a taboo subject. For The Wisdom of Failure you conducted almost 1,000 interviews with managers and leaders. What about those interviews most surprised you?
We were surprised by how reluctant some leaders were to be associated with the topic of failure. Several times, we had leaders open up to us about key mistakes they had learned from in their own careers, only to call us back the next day to say they didn't want us to use any material from their interviews in our book. Having their names associated with failure was too risky. Of course, we honored their request. This reluctance to discuss failure emphasizes not only how difficult it is for leaders to talk about mistakes, but also the costly consequences leaders believe will follow if they do.
“After reading only one of the chapter headings of The Wisdom of Failure—‘Does This Doorframe Make My Head Look Big?’—I knew I was in for a real treat. Luckily for me, the rest of the book does not disappoint. Through their analysis of many pointed leadership examples in American business, the authors distill corporate lessons into pearls of wisdom from which all of us can learn.”
—Marshall Goldsmith, New York Times bestselling author, MOJO and What Got You Here Won't Get You There
“A definitive piece of work that makes a most compelling connection between understanding failure and experiencing success. A must-read for serious-minded leaders who want to take their businesses to higher ground in an enduring way.”
—Douglas R. Conant, former president, CEO, and director, Campbell Soup Company; New York Times bestselling author, Touchpoints
“In this important new book from Weinzimmer and McConoughey, we discover how true it is, that the best leaders are the best learners. The Wisdom of Failure is a rare, honest look at both sides of the leadership story. Solidly researched and filled with practical examples you can apply immediately, this book should be read by leaders across the board.”
—Jim Kouzes, Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University; bestselling coauthor, The Leadership Challenge
“All great leaders learn from their mistakes, but mistakes are a precious and costly resource. This provocative and thoughtful book allows you to learn from others’ mistakes, so you can learn without paying the price. Buy copies for everyone on your team and leverage these lessons on your journey to creating extraordinary results.”
—Saj-nicole Joni, confidential CEO advisor; bestselling author, The Right Fight
“The Wisdom of Failure is an epiphany. From the very first chapter, Weinzimmer and McConoughey shift the reader’s focus beyond short term accolades and trade-offs to a horizon where a leader can find true success and accomplishment. In their well-researched book, the authors give leaders the tough love they need to learn from their mistakes before their mistakes become costly. A must-read for aspiring, new, and seasoned leaders.”
—Jennifer Robin, Ph.D., author, The Great Workplace
“The importance of understanding failure’s lessons cannot be overstated in today’s fast-moving business environment, and The Wisdom of Failure offers a smart research-based guide to navigating these tough leadership lessons. You’ll be engaged from the very first page.”
—Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School; author, Teaming
“The Wisdom of Failure allows you to benefit from the inevitable growth that comes from failure without having to experience it first-hand. An invaluable read for anyone striving to move themselves and their business forward.”
—Dan Schawbel, founder, Millennial Branding; author, Me 2.0
“Never before has learning from failure been more important—to innovation, to learning, to strategy under uncertainty, and to the development of the next generation of leaders. Ironically, in many organizations the attitude towards failure virtually guarantees not only that people won’t learn its valuable lessons but that they will also suffer the brunt of its downsides. This well-researched and accessible book is a timely summary of how failure can be useful, even essential, and serves as a welcome reminder of the importance of ‘failing forward.’”
—Rita Gunther McGrath, strategy and innovation advisor, Columbia Business School Professor; coauthor, Discovery-Driven Growth
“Having worked with hundreds of emerging companies, I have seen failure in all flavors! Finally we have, in one well-written book, the lessons learned from such experiences. The Wisdom of Failure is an instant business classic destined for the tablets and shelves of our innovation economy’s leaders.”
—Larry Weber, chairman and CEO, W2 Group
“Leaders become great only when they have overcome adversity. We learn how to grow from our setbacks. Weinzimmer and McConoughey have created a simple framework and practical methodology to develop an organizational culture that encourages productive innovation. The Wisdom of Failure provides us with the research, case studies, and tools to transform our failures into our biggest successes.”
—Jeff DeGraff, professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan; author, Innovation You, Leading Innovation, and Creativity at Work
“Every truly great leader has experienced failure and (more important) learned from it. Organizations that support ‘smart’ failure are more innovative, adaptable, resilient, and profitable. In The Wisdom of Failure, Weinzimmer and McConoughey have distilled the key factors that are most likely to push every one of us off track, and outlined the practices that leaders, teams, and entire organizations can use to navigate around those hazards. If you aren’t pushing yourself to the point where failure is a possibility, you are not coming close to your potential as a leader. But in today’s times, where acceleration is the new normal, you’ll need this book as your guide.”
—Eric McNulty, editor, Harvard School of Public Health; coauthor, You’re It! Lessons from Crisis Meta-Leadership