Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Failing Up: What to do when you make a misteak (sic)

Yesterday I had an F+ kind of day. We all have them, and because we're human, we're not perfect, gasp! So I thought I would write a blog this week about what to do when the good goes bad (much cheaper than seeing my therapist). Most of what I learned about how to deal with failure, I learned from others, both what to do and what not to do. When you embrace risk the way I do, you must also learn to embrace failure. Part of the reason why so few things change is the fear of failure. So here are my tips on how to fail upward.

1. No matter what, stay calm. We can learn this lesson from many people who have nerves of steel in the worst situations, we can also learn this from watching someone panic aimlessly. When a donor slides most ungracefully down a set of concrete stairs in the pouring rain (it always happens in the worst weather) and begins to bleed, calmly call 911, and then go sit next to the person and calmly talk to them in the rain, dress, heels, makeup, and all until help arrives. Panicking doesn't help anyone, and believe me, you can't make it look good, so don't try.

2. The next lesson came to me from my first Vice President and mentor, Cynthia Wood. I was called to fill in unexpectedly for her Executive Assistant and the first morning within my first hour I took a call for her from the Chairman of the Board's wife. When I went to transfer it to Cynthia, yup, I hit the wrong button... Poof! Call gone! Cynthia didn't hesitate or take the time to berate me, she picked up the phone, dialed Mrs. Board Chairman's wife and quickly said in jest "You hung up on me!" She saved my ass, and made lemonade out of lemons. We never spoke of it, but I'll never forget it. It taught me a great lesson about leadership and about making a mistake, instead of wasting her time yelling at me, she just fixed the problem. When you've done something wrong, or when failure happens, work like hell to make it right or to compensate in a meaningful manner, it's not just good donor relations, it's the right thing to do.

3. My friend Debbie taught me a great lesson about falling on my sword and personal accountability. When you mess up, take the blame by putting on some of those big 80s shoulder pads and fall on your sword.   Admit it, apologize, and move on. In that order. The order there is important. A little humility goes a long way. I like to insert a step in there about venting... After this blog of venting, I'll be moving on... Lol

4. My friend and mentor Dawn also taught me a good one: being a Martyr is unflattering, but throwing someone else under the bus leaves tire tracks on you too. It's okay not to blame everyone in the universe when something goes wrong. It's completely acceptable to figure out what went wrong as a process, but not as a means to place blame. When the crucial conversation needs to happen, make sure it's in private and not public. Dawn always wore a bullet proof vest in public for her team, and never yelled or criticized in public to embarrass or demean. I can't tell you how invaluable that is, especially when you've experienced the opposite. Being humiliated or chastised in "mixed company" as my Southern friends call it is unforgettable and something you will remember not to do given the chance.

5. My Mom and Dad get credit for the next one: don't repeat your mistakes, doing the same thing again an again and expecting a different result just doesn't work. You'll never see me giving away or having potpourri at an event after watching a tipsy older donor eat it in front of my eyes because she thought it was snack mix; bark, orange rinds, and all... No Sir. Won't be repeating that mistake again. You think I'm kidding, I'm not... No really... We all have one of those stories, don't we?

6. Embrace failure, celebrate it even.  When I worked at Disney World, yup, pixie dust and all, we had a "Jeanius" trophy we would pass back and forth amongst the kitchen staff for the person who was the "smartest" that week. Basically it was an award for having the worst week. It was an ugly trophy but vastly meaningful. Because if you can't laugh about forgetting to add the sugar to an entire batch of 1000 sugar cookies, who can? The irony...

7. Fortunately for the vast majority of us in the fundraising world, if we make a mistake, no one dies. Usually, that is. I am appreciative for a job in which no one's life is in my hands on a daily basis. Because it's not life and death, we should have the ability to make mistakes, fail upward and land OK, bruises and all. As a manager, you have to let that happen too sometimes, even when you can see it ahead. In my entire life I have learned more from my mistakes than the rest of my experiences combined.

8. Shake it off and land on your feet like a cat. Resiliency is a great human trait, just like imperfection... Most of us don't know just how resilient we are until truly knocked askew. Be like Gumby and bounce back even better!

So these are just some of my tips for failure, what are yours? Did I make a mistake and forget something? I would love to hear from you.




  1. Great post, Lynn. And a nice reminder to think before you react, in all situations. (My personal go to is to take a breath before I respond.)

    I also spit coffee onto my computer when I read about the donor eating potpourri - awful and hilarious all in one.

  2. Thanks for the reality check! People need to own their mistakes but to also think of a solution (if there's time) before they share it with their boss.

  3. Agreed. One of my favorite sayings is that if you come to me with a problem and no solution, it's whining, and I like my wine with cheese... :)

  4. For me, your post couldn't have come a better time! After ending the calendar year with a series of unfortunate typos in e-blasts, my team and I entered into the new year 'sucking it up' only to have another e-mail go out with an error. Ugh. Remaining calm and owning it immediately trumps reacting and adding to the drama every time!

  5. I'd add a #9: When the dust has settled, take your team out for a few drinks to thank them and have a good debrief/hysterical laughter/venting session informally. This was critical in a week where an error made by my (not now) mailhouse saw the wrong letter sent to 60,000 non-donor alumni, talked about on the local radio station and in the major newspaper for the state. Yep, fun times! But we can laugh about it now.... Cheers, Lucy

  6. I loved reading this! I got a good chuckle, but more importantly, a reminder that we're all human and it's a true reflection of our character in how we respond to less than ideal situations. Thanks, Lynne

  7. Here's mine--the time we printed an obituary for someone who was still alive. THAT was a bad, bad day! In the end, the alum actually called to thank us. Through condolence calls to his son the alum talked to people he hadn't heard from for 30 years, and it ended up being a bit of a renaissance for him in his golden years. Plus, as he said, most people don't get to read their own obituary. He did, and he said it was grand! I've stayed away from writing obituaries whenever possible since then, though.

  8. These are all great stories! Thanks so much for sharing your valuable perspectives!