“Can you talk about a failure you had and what you learned from it?” It was a harmless question from an attendee at a CEO roundtable event I was speaking at a few weeks ago. I shared about the time I got fired from my position as region president for a Fortune 500 company.
After I was done telling the story, the silence in the room was deafening. It was like everyone had taken a collective breath in and was holding it in. In that moment I thought: “note to self, come up with a better story because this one sure is making people uncomfortable”. I made a feeble joke thanking them for the therapy session. Later, one of the CEO’s came up to me and said that the group was quiet because they were unprepared for the level of authenticity and vulnerability in that story. Here’s the story and the lessons learned.
How I Got Fired
It’s not always good news when the HR head calls you up and invites you to lunch. I learned that the hard way. When he did that, I had no clue that I was being fired from a job that I had been in for about 12 months. The assignment was a big promotion on the heels of a huge successful turnaround in another business unit. Rather self-confident in my own abilities, I had taken a risky role in a challenging situation. The business had been declining for two years. We were behind on innovation. It had been a revolving door of predecessors who had lasted less than 24 months. Getting fired from the job in 12 months was a whole new record!
Up until then my career had been nothing short of stellar with promotions every two years, CEO recognitions, stock options. So of course, this came as a surprise. No, correction, it was a shock. I felt shame. I felt helpless. No amount of working harder and longer hours was getting me closer to success. The tools I had depended on were not working. There were many sleepless nights wondering “where did I go wrong? Did I unknowingly swallow a loser pill?”
What I Learned from Being Fired
- Being fired builds character. I must admit, it’s not great for the ego. My fairly rapid rise in the organizations that I had worked in had given me lots of self-confidence. What my self-confidence lacked was humility. I thought I was invincible and could single-handedly tackle any problem, no matter how complex or entrenched. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have experience in that business unit and the pressure was mounting on a quick turnaround. I realized I had been unprepared for the risks I had taken.
- I needed to redefine leadership. We often think of leaders as people who are strategic, make decisions, move things forward. They lead from the front, setting a vision of what needs to be done and getting others to do it. What I learned is that this is a very narrow definition of leadership. In this perhaps misguided definition of leadership I felt immense pressure to know it all, to not show any weakness or uncertainty about the answers to the complex issues we faced, and to not admit I was wrong. I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t do a good job managing expectations down because of a false sense of responsibility and bravado. I believe we need to make room for leaders to be vulnerable, to be able to say they don’t know when the answers are not clear yet or the situation is evolving too fast. I believe we need to make room for leaders to ask for help. It will better serve our organizations and the quality of decisions we make. It will better serve our leaders.
- Failing does not make you a failure. Being fired was a much needed wake-up call. I learned that failing at a job did not make me a failure. After a few weeks of intense shame, I learned that I would survive. The company had offered me a lateral move into another role. The person who replaced me was a peer on the team and I learned (with some difficulty) how to let go of what had happened in the past for the sake of my own growth and future success.
The hardest part in the coming months was not the shame. It was regaining a more balanced sense of self-confidence – one that comes from knowing your strengths, and also knowing your weaknesses, and trusting that you will find others who will help. It was replacing shame with a sense of self-compassion and resilience, which is in itself a worthy endeavor.
My purpose in writing this is to encourage all of us to talk about our failures. Doing this reminds us that we are not invincible. It grows humility. It teaches those around us that the act of failing does not make a leader a failure. I was so afraid of failure that it took me a while to even admit that I was in the midst of it. It creates a more authentic culture where people can discuss risk openly and encourage greater creativity and innovation.
Most of all it reminded me that we need all of us, those who lead from the front, those who lead from the back, those who lead from the side. In our rapidly changing times I believe it will best serve us if these roles are not fixed based on hierarchy but are flexible based on what expertise is most needed in a situation and who has it most available to offer. This requires great humility from those at the top and balanced confidence from those at lower levels.
In closing, I hope you will take the time to examine some of your failures and perhaps share these with the people you work with. It created a tremendous connection with the people in the room that day for me, and I hope that it does that for you as well. After all, it is hard to authentically influence people unless they feel truly connected to us.