How To Fail Forward

Originally published July 11, 2017 by The Montrose Daily Press

We recently made a very tough decision at the Chamber of Commerce.

It was one of those that kept me up at night, made me feel like we would be disappointing people, and of course brought up the “F” word — failure.

Organizations are made of people. And people are imperfect. We all make mistakes, poor judgment calls, and at times, fall short in our performance. Sometimes as quickly as the mistake happens, we sweep it under the rug in fear of the world discovering we are actually human after all.

As a leader, people are watching you. Your staff, your customers, your family. They are watching, following, and taking note of your decisions. 

Have you ever seen someone ride a bull?  

Having once been very involved in the world of rodeo, I cannot tell you how many times I heard the phrase (when referring to bull riding): “It’s not if you get hurt, it’s when.” Mistake making: Same. It’s not if; it’s when.

Steps to graceful transparency:

1. Admit it to yourself. They say the first step is always the hardest. Take a look in that mirror and acknowledge you didn’t put your best foot forward this time. You could have done better. You royally messed up. Whatever the case may be. Admit it.

2. Be honest with important stakeholders. Chances are these are the people working by your side and they already know.

Either way, start from the beginning. Explain what’s happened. Take responsibility for the mistake or shortcoming even if it was more than just you who contributed to its culmination. As the leader, taking blame is your job.  

3. Tell the world (maybe). Depending on how far the ripple effect has traveled, you may own up to your entire staff, your customers, or the public. When taking this step, do not manufacture the story or cover up important details. Let that truth flag fly.

Admitting where you went wrong and taking ownership for the mistake/shortcoming does not show weakness and vulnerability. It demonstrates confidence, strength, and openness. Transparency builds trust.

4. Do it better next time. Don’t ever stop holding yourself to a higher standard. Don’t ever settle for good enough. Turn your thinking from “failure” to “learning opportunity” and make sure you take full advantage of it.

So what happened with the chamber?

We canceled the Business Expo and Conference that was scheduled for July 18. Ticket and booth sales were dismal and the event was going to lose money.

Bringing an event like this to Montrose has been a dream of mine for years. In my career, I’ve had the fortune of attending some incredible conferences featuring world renowned speakers.

Through the chamber’s conference, I envisioned local business people experiencing that type of magic and inspiration without leaving Montrose and at a low cost. I decided we were going to do it, made all the plans and hit full speed.

Notice all the “I’s” in the last paragraph? I put the “I” in team.

Guess what I didn’t do? I never consulted with anyone. I never got their input; I never even asked for another opinion. And if people offered their opinion, I swiftly ignored their cautionary suggestions. I was convinced this would work and that people would love it.

We may never know why tickets didn’t sell or why we couldn’t fill the booth space.  

But I know one thing for certain: The responsibility is mine. I could easily blame the public by saying “they don’t know what they’re missing.” I could point the finger in any direction I wanted.  

However, finger pointing isn’t what leaders do. Leaders lead the way through the muck; and then when the sun comes out and success blooms once again, leaders get out of the way and let the sun shine on everyone else. Put differently, when there is blame to take, leaders turn the mirror toward themselves. When there is credit to give, leaders turn the mirror around toward others.

Admitting fault or a shortcoming tastes like vinegar on the way out. Don’t let it stop you. Transparency and honesty are like honey to that bitter taste. People will respond with grace and understanding and these actions will pave the road of respect.

Further, when we admit where we aren’t perfect, we (or our business) become more human in the eyes of others. We create a level of relatability that cannot be found in a bloated ego.

Mirror, mirror on the wall … There’s no place like honesty.

Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and director of Business Innovation for the City of Montrose. Reach her at chelsea@montrosechamber.com.