Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Tag Archives: failure

Smart is Over-Rated

don't get smart with meeinstein tonguekeep calm

A number of years ago, I worked with a client that had a Marketing Director who was very difficult. My team felt that nothing could satisfy him. Meetings were contentious. My people felt victimized and blamed. The work was started and then killed. And we were stuck – we didn’t end up doing anything. I mentioned this to the senior client, the VP of Marketing, and I still remember what his response was – “He (the Marketing Director) is incredibly smart”. As if that excused it all. I remember thinking “smart” is not the be-all-and-end-all. That, in almost every business that has people working together to accomplish things, smart is but one piece of the puzzle. And, perhaps, a small one, at that.

Since nearly every business is a team sport, there are a number of other attributes, traits and behaviors that are more important than smart. Smart is a great starting point – but it needs to be coupled with the following.

Listen more than talk: One negative aspect of smart can be a propensity to want show how much it knows. But listening is just as important – and is as often undervalued. Listening shows you are interested in the other person, it expresses and builds enthusiasm, and it demonstrates respect. And you know what? You may end up learning something your smart self didn’t know.

Happy to be wrong, vs. need to be right: I’ve said this before, but it needs to be said again (and again and again) – it’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to be right. “Smart” people often feel they need to be right – and resist doing, hearing or thinking things they already believe aren’t. But it’s way smarter to be open to new ideas, new thoughts and new possibilities – even if (or especially if) they end up being incorrect. Again, the learning you’ll get from being wrong will make you even smarter.

Clear over clever: Because smart people often want to show they’re smart, they can over-complicate ideas with cleverness. But it’s always more important to be clear, to get the point across, to ensure everyone understands and is aligned – than it is to score points with creative word plays.

Long marches, not bold strokes: At the end of the day, the secret of genius tends to be doggedness rather than god-given intellect. And, similarly, almost everything a leader does will be a process of steps and stages, implementation, and steady progress. Success or failure will be determined by the coordinated management of people and process. So, while smart people may want to issue dictums and proclamations, real leadership manages for the long haul.

Help others to understand, vs. demonstrating knowledge: Smart can sometimes be found pontificating or showing off its knowledge (a speedy string of acronyms and insider terms is a dead give-away). However, if indeed you are a smart person, then your real role when working on teams is to help your teammates understand things better to help them (and the team) achieve goals. Period.

Grit and resilience: Anyone who knows me knows that I place the trait of scrappiness in high regard. Similarly, I believe grittiness is second to godliness. Grit and resilience are the ability to recover from stumbles and bounce back, the ability to persevere through adversity, and the ability to stick around longer (“A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer” Novalis). Unfortunately, grit is not always correlated highly with smart. Because smart often believes it “knows”, so will either chart a safe course that doesn’t challenge much. Or it simply proclaims and then delegates. But, as Seth Godin said, while smart folks may desire accuracy, it’s grit and resilience that are the “best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others”.

Stories over facts: Facts are important to everyone, but especially to the smart. Data, information, numbers and research are their currency. But while these are critical foundations for business, creating stories around them is even more important. What does the data mean – and, even more importantly, where can it take us? What possibilities does it open up? What other ideas can we come up with? These stories will help a smart person drive success better than the cold, hard facts, any day.

Emotional, instead of rational, intelligence: The overly intellectual can be, well, too intellectual and rational. But to achieve anything, you need to influence and inspire others. So understanding people, and what they need or care about, is critical. That’s why “emotional intelligence” is as important as smart. Because success is as much about people as brains.

Failing Up – How to fail your way to the top

As a kid, I always wondered why baseball managers would flame-out on one team, and yet get hired immediately the following year by another team. It always seemed the same pool of tired old managers would be in place around the league, year-in and year-out, despite their performance history and lack of success elsewhere. Wow, I thought – no amount of failure made these guys unappealing or unsuitable elsewhere. That’s a pretty good gig.

I see a similar thing in business, as well. Lots of leaders learn to “fail up”, as I call it. From high-profile CEO’s who go company to company (can anyone say Mark Hurd?) to the folks in your organization who go higher and higher to universal bafflement. They figure out how to continue to get promoted, step over others, and get re-hired after they get found out. Again and again. People who leave trails of disaster, from one senior leadership role to another. People who cause nearly everyone to scratch their heads, asking “how did they get that job?”, and “how can everyone not see through them?” Well, I’m here to tell you that failing up is a simple – here is all you need to know in in 5 easy steps.

1) Focus on style over substance. Those who learn to fail up learn to look and act like leaders. So don’t waste your time on depth, substance, rigor or authenticity. Instead, learn to bluster and posture. In fact, perhaps, create your own individual style – I’m considering “gruff and terse and too busy for anyone else.” So people don’t find fault with me, they say “that’s just how he is”.

2) Manage up, never down. If you focus only on pleasing your bosses, you have a good chance of fooling them that you’re doing a great job. And those below you and around you, although helpful to getting the work done, won’t play a role in getting you promoted. So don’t waste time on respecting them, empowering them, and growing them.

3) Blame others for mistakes. If you want to fail up, you have to make sure that you are never associated with the errors and failures on your watch. So become adept at passing blame on to others. Always be ready to avoid responsibility – in fact, you are the victim. Someone else made the mistake, people didn’t do as you’d directed, people were disobedient, etc. Prepare your blame in advance, just in case.

4) Be a self-proclaimed expert of something. It’s helpful for your upward mobility to profess expertise in an area. Be the “automotive” expert. Or the “retail” expert. Or, better yet, the “turnaround” expert. So if you leave one company, you can be considered perfect for another. Thanks to myopic, insular hiring trends of so many industries, lots of companies are looking for people with insider “expertise”, vs. the best leader with the best, broad experience. So failure at one company in an industry simply leads to another job in the industry.

5) Be insanely over-confident. It’s important to demonstrate an outsized confidence level. It suggests incredible capability. And it doesn’t require any proof, history or evidence. So, despite a lack of true credibility, over-confidence can be rewarded with more and more responsibility. Thankfully, because you now know how to manage up and blame others, you are safe when your over-confidence leads you to fail. It wasn’t your fault!

So, there you have it – 5 steps towards failing up! Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been able to do any of this. So I’ve had to be content with succeeding down.

Start Failing Now! Five reasons failure and mistakes are important

“I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

By definition, failure is the opposite of success. And by that measure, it’s a condition that is definitely desirable to avoid. In fact, the term “fail” and “epic fail” have become Internet memes that represent the worst possible situations and outcomes you can imagine. However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, more learning and good can come from failure and mistakes than from successes. And the fear that comes from desperately trying to avoid mistakes will do more to prevent success than anything.

Think about any success in business and life, and you’ll inevitably conjure up lots of failures and mistakes that led to it. From learning to walk – plenty of falling face first preceded that success – to the iPad. In fact, Steve Jobs embraced failure and celebrated it in his famous commencement speech at Stanford. The key is learning from it, making incremental improvements (“failing forward”, as John C. Maxwell calls it), and maintaining your drive and enthusiasm. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Here are five reasons that failure and mistakes are good.

  1. First of all, you can only fail if you try to do something – which is a plus, to begin with. And, creativity entails doing something not been done before – which is by definition difficult. There are no instruction manuals, no fool-proof plans. Thus, doing creative or innovative work will likely lead to some failures and mistakes. Ipso facto. Never making mistakes is a sure sign you are not trying new things, pushing yourself and your team, being creative.  If you’re not failing, you’re simply not trying hard enough.
  2. To say you failed means you are likely measuring your results in some way, which is also good. Too often “success” is measured by some vague “we did it and it worked” statement. But failure should be measured in detail. Again, this is good – it means you had specific objectives, and put in place analytics in order to see if you achieved them. Thus, you are approaching your efforts like a scientist – testing, experimenting, reading results, and learning. And now, you can assess what went wrong and why.
  3. You had the self-awareness and presence of mind to call it a failure. Too often people will hedge and say a failure was “a qualified success”. Or “things went ok”, or “there may have been some problems…” But this type of hedging avoids the point – we did not achieve the success we set out to. By calling a spade a spade, it means you have faced the fact that you did not deliver, you have forgiven yourself, and are prepared to move on.
    The key is that you don’t brush it under the rug. The only way to get anything out of it is by addressing it head-on.
  4. You forced yourself to look back and determine what went wrong and why.  This means you’ve moved beyond everyone’s first instinct, which is to blame. And it means you’re open to learning, a wonderful thing. This learning might challenge your assumptions, your in-going hypotheses, your beliefs. And it will likely provide some good direction for next time. Learning the what’s and the why’s of failure is the biggest benefit.
  5. You formulate your plans for “next time”. “Next time” might be immediate implementation to address early results. Or it might be the next phase of the assignment/project. Or it might simply be “the next time we do something like this”. In any case, be prepared with your new learning in order to “fail forward” next time.

As you can imagine, failure is a great teacher and mentor. Jeff Stibel, Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet, says he’ll only hire people who fail. He says, “We don’t just encourage risk taking at our offices: we demand failure. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re probably not advancing.”  And going even further, Paul Schoemaker suggests that, at times, you should even deliberately try to make mistakes in order to challenge conventional wisdom.

I know I’ve failed a lot and made lots of mistakes. Small, medium and large. But the one thing that I share with Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill (probably the only thing) is that I won’t ever lose enthusiasm for trying. And I also know that trying too hard to avoid making mistakes is the greatest mistake of all.

What mistakes have you made? How have you learned from your failures?

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