May 15 – Admitting and profiting from mistakes

“A winner is big enough to admit his mistakes, small enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” (John Maxwell)

We all make mistakes, I know that I certainly make my share. And while I may not always measure life in the zero sum game of winners and losers, I agree with the basics of this quote. To be successful, I have to effectively deal with my mistakes, or I will be doomed by them.

I have written here before about some of the mistakes I have made in life, and how I have profited from them, or floundered because of them. Of all the mistakes I have made, having an over abundance of pride is one that has certainly cost me. I am not talking here about the healthy pride that comes from having a strong self-image. That kind of pride is needed to permeate my work and drive me to perform at a high level. I am talking about the inflated ego version of pride that makes me think more of myself than is warranted, and blinds me to my faults.

Because I tend to be a passionate person, and because I have skills in some particular areas, I can have a tendency to get a head of steam about some things. I can get myself going in a direction to the point that it becomes a crusade. This is when I am at greatest danger for making mistakes that I would otherwise correct.

I once had a boss that frustrated me greatly. I would work hard to get a standard implemented, meeting with dozens of people and convincing them to follow our department’s lead on standardization of processes. Sometimes he would have to be called in to meet with his peers (he was two levels up from me in the organization). Frequently he was coming in because his peer was resistant. At the time I was all-in on getting standards implemented, and I had built up a track record of success in convincing organizations to come along. There were questions about the processes that had been raised, but in my head I was sure that we’d answered them, and that only fools would fail to see that this was the way to go.

The frustrating thing was that we would get to these meetings with his peers, and he would often capitulate. He would back off of the standards, and let them have their way. Sometimes this would serve to undo weeks of work that I had put in to get others in the organization to agree, and would send me back to the drawing board.

After this had happened a few times I learned to meet with him before going to the meeting to get aligned. On one such occasion we met and agreed on a course. At the end of the meeting I asked him if he was sure, because if he wasn’t I didn’t want to stake my reputation on the outcome. We went to the meeting and all was well. There was some resistance, but we addressed the concerns. Then, two days later I was copied on an email where he undid our agreement and agreed with his peer. I was furious. I was angry because once again he had pulled the rug out from under me.

It took a few years, and my moving on to another assignment, for me to realize what he was doing. He knew that our process was flawed, and so did I. The process was a compromise that didn’t fit every situation perfectly, but it carried with it the advantage of having standardization. He knew that if we didn’t at least hear the objections and try to address them, that we would get malicious compliance at best, and that would serve no one. Ultimately the standard did get implemented, and some adjustments were made, although the project completed after my departure.

The reason I couldn’t be successful in that assignment was that I had lost the ability to do what this quote is suggesting. I could only barely see the mistakes, and I had allowed my own ego to grow so big that I wasn’t able to correct them or profit from them. As I said, I had painted myself into a corner.

I still sometimes get overly passionate, and overly headstrong on things at work. But, I have learned to be able to have one foot slightly behind me so that I can easily step back and see the larger picture. I will retreat to the safety of my team room, call together a couple of my team members, and discuss whether we are on the right course, or should make adjustments. This small step helps me to see where the mistakes are, and gives me the ego space to be able to correct them.

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