Rainy day in paradise, so we talk about mistakes today.
If you are a CEO for more than twenty minutes, you will make a mistake. Sorry. Truth.
Mistakes fall into four general categories:
1. Foot faults, like using the wrong fork with shellfish;
2. Minimal consequences to someone on the team faux pas;
3. Adverse consequences to a client or critical stakeholder; and,
4. Burn the house down mistakes.
So what do you do?
Get your mind right, mistakes
As a CEO, admit you will miss the mark. Not hard to do. You bought that goofy looking flower shirt because you saw some model wearing it. You found out why you are a CEO and they are a model.
Admit to yourself you will mess up.
Even before you make the first mistake, promise yourself you will deal with mistakes in real time. Most mistakes allowed to marinate for any period of time grow from lizards into dinosaurs.
Do not let your mistakes marinate.
Own your mistakes. Name them cute names like “Ralph” or “Rufus” or “Nasty.”
Deal with the easy ones immediately
Categories #1 and #2 above – you laugh, apologize, promise to learn from them, and move on
Mistakes, the hard ones
Category #3 will impact your reputation. It takes 20 years to build a reputation, but you can completely dismantle it in less than fifteen seconds.
If you make a mistake which impacts a client, take a minute to ensure you know what went wrong. Write it on an index card.
Put that index card in your desk.
Right the ship. Apologize orally, in writing, and in person. Tell your team, “I messed up. This is what I did wrong. This is what I should have done. I have made amends. I have contacted the individuals involved and made it right with them. I have learned my lesson. Sorry.”
[Do not miss the impact this will have on your team, the value of truth within your organization, and how it will flavor the culture. It will become part of the tribal lore and repeated around the campfire for the rest of time. It will become part of the company DNA.]
Do not let this drive you crazy. Hey, don’t buy a hair shirt. Don’t beat yourself up.
Why? Because only about 40% of all the decisions you make are going to be great. About 20% of your mistakes are going to fit into Category 3.
When you are finished with your penance, hold that index card on your forehead. Think about your happy place. Walk to the shredder and drop the index card into it.
The Category #4 mistakes are “bet the company” kind of mistakes. They can, literally, risk the future of the company. This is about 5% of your decisions — OK, maybe 10%?
When you learn to fly an airplane, you spend a lot of time practicing what you do when you run into an emergency – aviate, navigate, communicate, confess. Not a bad idea to get this tattooed on your left forearm. You may need it.
You continue to fly the airplane. You fly the airplane toward safety – you navigate. You tell air traffic control what you have done. You confess you are in trouble. You ask for help. You follow instructions.
Flying war story — It was a stormy afternoon on Victor 1 (the electronic highway in the sky down the eastern seaboard) and the Big Red Car was flying the Bonanza from Miller Field in New Jersey to Charleston. Got off to a late start. Down around Patuxent Naval Air Station, I found myself closed in by afternoon thunderstorms on all sides.
I had fucked up. Had taken a chance on the enroute weather which was unprovidential. I should have never taken off. But, there I was – in the clouds wishing I was on the ground.
What did I do?
I called Patuxent ATC and said, “Help me. I am a stupid Bonanza headed IFR (flying instruments) from Miller direct to Charleston. I have thunderstorms on all points of the compass. Can you vector me around this?” [The Bo has a lightning strike detector, so that is how I knew there were thunderstorms all around me. I could see the lightning strikes. I could also see the lightning.]
Patuxent ATC comes up, “Steer 160, Bonanza. Expect a new vector in 10 mikes (miles). I’ll talk you through it. There’s a couple of holes I can see. No sweat.”
Saint Michael (the guy on the other end of the radio) is calm as a cucumber, talks me around a bunch of cells. I fly twenty-one different vectors. I can feel the storms (doctrine is no closer than 40 miles to a thunderstorm) on my wingtips.
I’m stuck in the clouds and can’t see shit, but he has weather radar and he’s good.
An hour later, I am back in clear skies and headed to Charleston. My heart rate is normal within an hour. The sweat feels cold at altitude. I reward myself with a beer, OK, several beers. Hell, I just dodged a bullet, right?
I am alive. All because I confessed the problem to someone who could help me and I followed their instructions. [Yeah, I said a prayer or two.]
Thanks, Saint Michael.
When you make a Cat 4 mistake, admit it to yourself. Write out what you did. Take a stab at how you might fix it.
Go talk to your CEO coach, your mentor, someone you can trust. Run the solution by them.
[Pro tip: You may not want to call the board until you have the problem handled. Consider they might fire you? Just consider the ramifications. Don’t tell any lies, but don’t tie them a noose either.]
Do not quibble, equivocate, or lie to your benefactor or yourself. Confess.
You could lose your job, savage your reputation, wreck the company. This is the deep end of the ocean, the kind of stuff they write in your obituary.
Fashion a solution and execute it like an assassin because you have to kill the problem before it kills you. This is war.
When you solve the problem – write it down like a novel. Identify how you got into it, how you got out of it. Put it in a notebook wherein you keep the greatest learnings of your life as a CEO. Promise to yourself you will never do it again. Promise you will never fly into afternoon thunderboomers again. Ever.
Do not destroy it. Apologize like Cat 3.
The good news
The good news, dear CEOs, is that you will learn from each of these things. You will not make many of these mistakes more than once. They are lessons attained at full tuition. You remember stuff you paid to learn.
The next company you start (the next time you fly Victor One in weather) you will know this and people will say you are a Gray Haired Eminence cause you will have some gray hairs. You will remember from whence those gray hairs came and you will not do this stuff twice.
In 33 years of CEOing, I made so many mistakes I cannot even begin to count them. No more than 40% of my decisions were crackerjack, but I learned how to deal with my mistakes and keep them from killing me. I never flew Victor One again without knowing the enroute weather, but if I did I knew that Saint Michael would be there to help me. It’s called life.