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Reflection – Rebecca M Allen

by on November 20, 2007

We began the quarter with an assignment to research examples of change management successes and failures. I’ve given a lot of thought to the “how and why” of success but neglected the importance of examining failure. If there’s one truism besides the ongoing certainty of change, it’s the guarantee of failure. Depending on the gravity of the attempted success, failing can be an embarrassing and devastating experience. The topic of change management and some of the frank video cases have given me an opportunity to think about the failures ahead of me, as a practitioner in this field. Although it’s realistic, that line of thought can be overwhelmingly negative with the wrong perspective.

I saw an episode of 20/20 last Friday that introduced me to a different, better perspective.[1] Entrepreneur Sarah Blakely, creator of the women’s apparel company Spanx, described some of her previous failures, from failing the LSAT after a lifetime dream of becoming a lawyer, to persisting with her apparel invention throughout two years of rejection from patent lawyers. Her take on her personal failures sheds light on her ultimate success: “To me, if I wasn’t trying, I would be failing.” Elaine Eisenman, author and academic dean, was also interviewed for the broadcast and further explained the incomparable value of failure:

“Unbroken success doesn’t teach you anything other than the fact that you’re lucky. Failure helps you know who you are. Until you’ve failed, or until you hit adversity, you never had a chance to test yourself before.”

Richard Watson, in his revealing Fast Company article Celebrate Failure, refers to failure as “the proverbial elephant in the boardroom.”[2] Whether it’s organizational or personal, we all do it—many times over—but no one really wants to talk about it. Can you blame us? We’ve all been told at least once that one wrong mistake can ruin our career. This is a lesson that has been learned the hard way from countless professionals. When there is so much at stake, who in their right mind would take a leap of faith and risk failure? And then talk about it? As he says, “[m]ost people believe that success breeds success and…failure breeds failure.” He is right. The common urge is to downplay mistakes and glorify success, lest one appear a contagious loser. What results is stunted learning and an inability to speak with candor about mistakes, and in a professional setting, this can be especially damaging.

One of Watson’s notable tips is to “set a failure target as part of each employee’s annual review.” Blakely has incorporated this refreshing perspective into her management style:

“I have really set up the business to encourage people to fail as well. And I will tell a certain person in a department, ‘What have you failed at lately? What risks have you taken? …I treat everyone as their own entrepreneur’”

Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes would refer to Blakely as a “failure-tolerant leader.” In their HBR article of the same name, they propose that managers view failure not as the opposite of success, but as a step toward success.[3] Utilizing real-life examples to illustrate their points, they also encourage managers to communicate openly about their own mistakes, as this behavior “shows a leader’s self confidence, helps forge closer ties with employees and colleagues,” and makes them “become people whom others can admire and identify with” (p. 69). This is a great way to set the bar for trust in an organization. Lead with action, and others will follow.

In the right organization, creating a safe space for risk-taking and personal growth encourages creativity and adaptability, which fuels innovation. It is well worth speculating that the acceptance of change initiatives will be higher in a culture like this, as well. In an effort to grow a tough hide and stay positive, I know I will definitely think of Sarah Blakely the next time I fall flat on my face (which is sure to be soon).

1. If at First You Don’t Succeed…Try, Try Again!


3. Farson, R., & Keyes, R. (2002, August). The Failure-Tolerant Leader. Harvard Business Review, 64-71.

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