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Failing Up: Strategies for Making Failure Your Winning Secret

Posted on: May 20th, 2014 by Esther Weinberg

This year the Olympics and the Academy Awards aired on TV and via a myriad of devices. A gold medal can change your career as does an Oscar. There is high stakes victory and high stakes failure. If you waltzed into the VIP room at the Oscars and said, “hey look folks, winning is terrific and you’ll learn more from losing”, they would throw you out the door.

And yet, we oftentimes learn more from failure than we do from success. Mistakes are simply part of the game of risk. Sometimes we focus so much on the avoidance of the mistakes that we avoid taking any risk at all.

Inside an organization when you fail, there is oftentimes a reluctance to communicate and a lack of transparency. People want you to take responsibility for your actions. And they want to know what you are going to do now to course correct.

Today in the age of social media, you cannot possibly hide from failure. Someone is going to write about it somewhere so transparency is not just good business, it’s the wisest course of action. If you are honest overnight, it won’t guarantee loyalty or that people will forgive you. And if you have a consistent policy of honest, transparent engagement with your clients, customers, core audience of people you deal with day in and day out you will find your failures could be a blip on the screen.

Here are some strategies of communicating failure:


  1. Emotions – When you mess up, you have heaps of emotions that come along with it. Get them out on paper. No one will see your writings except for you. Jot down the emotions that are coming up – anger, sadness, frustration, fear, etc. Acknowledge your feelings.
  2. Truth – What is the truth? E.g. you screwed up, trusted the wrong people, misconstrued the situation, weren’t as involved as you should have been, didn’t involve your boss sooner, thought you could do it all on your own, didn’t communicate enough to the right people. No matter what the truth is, you have to be honest, even on paper!
  3. Fiction – What story did you make up about what happened? E.g. I’ll never be successful, I won’t
    be liked, people won’t trust me again, I will never get that promotion, my boss will never give me the money to correct the mistake, etc. These are all the stories we made up about our failure that will seem very real to you. And they are not the truth of what happened, just your interpretation, which may never happen.

  4. Responsibility – In every situation you can take responsibility for your part. What can you take
    responsibility for?

  5. Actions – You got all your emotions out and the truth vs. fiction, now what actions can you take?


Your next steps:

  • What people are safe to communicate and discuss the failure? You will need input from others, from people you can trust.
  • Start writing your talking points. Answer the following questions:
    • What happened? – now you can really answer this question without all of your emotions clouding you. Make sure you also answer “why should we care”? You want to make sure your talking points relate to your audience.
    • What actions you took – What was the mistake? – now you can really answer this question without all of your emotions clouding you.
    • What was the result? – why did it happen? Was it really a failure? how will your audience be impacted in the short and long term?
    • What did you learn? – what has now changed because of the failure
    • What are you going to do about it? E.g. were new policies put in place, people moved
      around, new systems developed.

Once you drafted your talking points you can consider which audiences you need to deliver your message. Who is first on your list? What key point is important for them to know?

There is a big benefit of communicating well – relating with your audience, taking responsibility, saving your customers from leaving and increasing your revenue. When Dominos acknowledged in an ad campaign that people thought their pizza “sucked”, US sales grew to over 14% over the previous year and broke company records.

Dominos didn’t share everything they were doing wrong, they embraced accountability, improved quality, set up a social media site for customers to upload photos of the company food and offered money back guarantees.

When communicating, you can’t be transparent about everything, especially when dealing with risk averse executives. And still, find out what risks and failures are palatable at your company. Then you have “risk boundaries”. This way people know where to tread and they aren’t wandering around aimlessly. Makes it easier for you to communicate to turn failure into opportunity.

Esther Weinberg is a leadership expert and a media industry veteran with a 20-year track record. She creates breakthrough strategies for such companies as ESPN, Microsoft, Scripps Networks, NBCUniversal, Turner Broadcasting Systems, Inc., Motorola, Warner Bros, Disney ABC Television Group and MTV Networks, among others. She is a contributing source for the leadership book “Breaking Through” by acclaimed author Barbara Stanny and her latest book, “Leadership Hollywood Style” will be out later this year.

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