You’re okay – Part 3

Keep both eyes on your goal while learning from failure

Recovering from failure can be lot easier when we keep our eyes fixed on our goal. When the failure becomes our focus it can cloud our judgement and steal any hope for getting the job done. Being able to remind ourselves of our destination is a crucial aspect of getting up when we get knocked down.

Time management and productivity blogs often stress the importance of having a plan of action for everything we do. I’ve been in many situations where “perfect” plans have been developed. But these plans leave little room for failure. Time is money after all. But when we’re making plans we would be wise to leave some room for learning and redirection. Mid-course disruptions are bound to happen. We may feel pressured to wait until after a project is completed to analyse and learn from the things that have gone wrong. There is, however, great value in learning as we go.

By nature I’m an adaptable fellow. I like knowing where I’m going, but I’m not too fused about how we get there. I have learned to be focused on details because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Many of us are taught to plan thoroughly and to anticipate every eventuality. It seems that it’s not uncommon to spend a considerable amount of time working on such detailed plans only to have them thrown out because something unplanned happens or the boss changes her mind. In moments likes these, if you destination and goals aren’t clear, then you’re likely to pull your hair out!

When it comes to planning, I’ve settled on a compromise. From the outset I spend a fair amount of time making sure that my final destination is actually where I want to be. This usually requires a fair bit of reflection on where I’ve been, where I’ve failed, and where I’ve succeeded. Once I’m confident of my desired outcome, I establish a plan, but I hold on to it loosely. For me, being able to adapt to unforeseen changes is important. I’ve seen many people make plans and then hold on to them so tightly. When events refuse to go their way they just can’t let their plans go. They become bitter and allow failure to get the best of them. Letting go of our plan is vastly different from letting go of our destination or goal. It is possible to let go of a plan and still reach our desired outcome. This requires us to hold on to our plans lightly and to be willing to make mid-course corrections. The destination doesn’t change, but how we get there does.

If your current plan isn’t working and you’re tired of failing, there is hope. Get up! You’re okay. Examine the your desired outcome to be sure that it’s the place where you want or need to be. Then, be willing to rework your plan and try a different route. By learning from our failures and keeping our eyes fixed on our goals, we’re sure to get there eventually. We may even be surprised by the experiences we have along the way.

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You’re okay – Part 2

Getting up is easier when we expect to fall

If failure seems to be a regular part of your life than you’re in good company. If we expect failure – to fall down from time to time – it can make getting up a whole lot easier. No one is perfect. When perfection is the goal, everyone looses. Perfectionism avoids failure. If failure seems possible, then an action or activity is avoided until it can be done perfectly. This usually means that nothing gets done. If we expect to fail along the way, then failure becomes ‘normal’. If failure becomes normal, getting up becomes normal. The key here is being able to learn from our failures. When we do we can apply that wisdom to our next attempt.

In learning to recognize the normalcy of failure, we have to address two challenges. The first is learning to allow ourselves to fail. This helps us to learn to succeed. The second is learning to deal with the expectations of others. It’s in our nature to expect grace when we fail, but to pass judgement on someone else when they do. If we can become a bit more tolerant of imperfect people in our workplace, there just might be less room for passing judgment on each other.

I should clarify here what I mean by “being tolerant”. Tolerance doesn’t mean we release people from their responsibility. We all need to take ownership of our actions and the consequences that ensue. Failure is often equated with incompetence. This isn’t always the case. Failure is form of imperfection. The good news is that none of us are perfect. As a manager or co-worker, tolerance is acknowledging that not everyone sees or does things the way we do. Tolerance is focusing on the outcome, not on the process in getting there. When a colleague or subordinate messes up, we have two choices. We can judge and berate them; we can call them incompetent and make demands that they work harder to fix their mistake. Or, we could take a more gracious approach. We could offer to help figure out what when wrong and assist our colleague to work out an appropriate solution. You might think that this isn’t your job. But this thinking assumes that we don’t need anyone else to help us do our job (or to assist in fixing our mistakes). In an increasingly connected world there are hardly any jobs that don’t require the assistance of others. You never know whose help you’ll need the next time you fail.

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You’re okay

Part 1 – Failure is a requirement of success and learning

“The traditional form of comfort is reassurance. One explains to the anxious that their fears are exaggerated and that events are sure to unfold in a desired direction” (De Botton, 2008, p. 96).

I went for a walk the other day after a heavy downpour of rain. As I entered the nearby park and started across a section of grass to the footpath, I slipped in the mud. Fortunately, with a quick extension of my hand, I was able to catch myself. I got up with just a muddy hand and sleeve. A man pushing a stroller saw me and said, “You’re okay.” Slightly embarrassed, I politely said, “Thank you.” I smiled at the man as we crossed paths and continued on my way.

As I walked I thought about what he said to me. “You’re okay.” I found his choice of words odd. My first reaction in seeing someone fall would be to ask, “Are you okay?” Or, I might try to reassure them by saying, “You’ll be okay.” I can’t with certainty say my response would, “You’re okay.” From his perspective I had slipped, caught myself, and got back up. It could have been worse, and because it wasn’t, I was in fact, okay.

For the rest of my walk I pondered his words and reflected on key moments in my life. I thought of times when I’ve slipped or failed at something I’ve tried. Those moments were painful. But not as painful as the moments I remember when the fear of failure kept me from trying in the first place.

Failure is as much a part of success as hard work. It is in failing that we have the opportunity to learn. Success doesn’t merely come to those who try, but to those who try, fail, and repeatedly get up to try again. My work often focuses on building up the strengths of others. Learning to work from a place of strength can be quite daunting. As I explore with clients what they’re capable, they often express their fear of making mistakes. As we develop our strengths, we need to be willing to make and learn from our mistakes as we go. We will experience painful, as well as embarrassing moments along the way. We will meet with failure when we operate from a place of strength, speak about our passions, and collaborate with others.

Failure is an important part of the learning process. It can teach us a lot about ourselves if we’re willing to be taught. Accepting ourselves even in our failure requires a fair bit of maturity and the recognition that we are not our failures. Our failures will only define us if we allow them to. Most often, the cause of our failure can be found in our plan (or lack of a plan). My plan to go for a walk after the rain might not have been the best. I should have anticipated the wet grass and the likelihood of mud. I’m not a failure because I slipped. My plan was a failure because it required me to walk through the mud in the first place. I modified my walking route the next day avoided that patch of grass. Like the man with the stroller said, I was in fact, okay.

Works Cited

De Botton, A. (2008). The consolations of philosophy. Camberwell: Penguin.

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Develop your strengths

Originally posted by Joel Supeck at joelsupeck.com on 6 June 2012 @ 7:37PM

As a manager I’ve always focused on bringing the best out of my staff. But growing people takes time. In a fast-paced and competitive environment we rarely have time to stop and think about ourselves, let alone somebody else. In an environment like this it is essential for one to operate from a place of strength. Having a clear understanding of who we are at our core allows us to be more spontaneous and innovative. It can also bring with it a sense of freedom in being who we are. To develop our strengths, we must stop expending emotional and physical energy on overcoming our weaknesses.

Diana Clement discussed the importance of developing individual and organizational strengths in a recent New Zealand Herald article. Incitare Consulting was founded to help facilitate the development of strengths in individuals, communities, and organizations (see Vision). For the last two years I’ve been coaching students and individuals through a process of identifying and developing their strengths. Some of my students have changed their course of study as a result of this process and often report back on their improved performance in their new course. Other clients have found the process helpful in trying to determine their next career step. But even if you’re not thinking about a change of study or vocation, knowing your strengths and how to better utilize them in your current position can provide you with some new challenges that can make your work more interesting.

Check out the Building Strengths section of my website to find out how Incitare can help you in this area.

Take initiative

Originally posted by Joel Supeck at joelsupeck.com on 24 May 2012 @ 12:54PM

I’ve been thinking a lot about initiative lately. It could be because I’m experiencing a period of major personal and professional transition. Or it could be something else. Whatever the cause, here are a few thoughts that came to mind in the last few days.

Progress can’t be made without effort. I used to believe that the greater your effort the more progress you would make. But life doesn’t always work that way. You can work hard at something and do it really well, but that still doesn’t mean that others are going to appreciate or want the results of your efforts. I’ve always believed in giving one’s best. But in a context where ‘good’ or ‘ok’ is enough we need to learn to be satisfied with that. I have two Toms to thank for this insight – the first is my friend Thomas and the other is Tom Peters, who I mentioned in Excellence Hurts. So if someone asks you to do something this week, or if you see something that needs doing, give it a go. You don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t even have to have enough experience. In trying you will find both.

A favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote of mine is this:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

I’ve experienced my share of failure. But I have never given up. If we want to accomplish great things; things that will really change the world, we’re going to taste failure and defeat. In failure our friends and family often desert us. They encourage us to give up and be ‘normal’. But for those who know that the world can be a better place if only we try to make it so, failure is just part of the gig. When we fail we examine our mistakes, makes some adjustments, and try again. Failure is an excellent teacher if only we are wise enough to pay attention.

Finally, when taking initiative it is always helpful to have the support of someone who believes in you. But in the absence of such a person, we must learn to believe in ourselves. Resilience is a crucial character trait of the person who tries and does. If you believe you can take a lost cause and turn it around for the better, you’re right! Do it. If you don’t believe it’s possible then give up now and go try something else. There is no person or situation that cannot be redeemed. But the willingness to take the initiative and do something is a vital component to taking the first step.

So whatever is stirring in you this week try to do something about it. If you succeed, well done. Pause for a moment and celebrate. If you fail, don’t be discouraged. Learn from the experience, make some adjustments, and try again.

For a great story about taking initiative read: A message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard.

Excellence Hurts

Originally posted by Joel Supeck at joelsupeck.com on 18 May 2012 @ 12:39PM

“Never do things others can do and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do.” Amelia Earhart

Is excellence something that you aspire to? Tom Peters’ book, The little BIG things (2010) has inspired me to reexamine the notion of excellence in my personal and professional life. Excellence is a rough word. It means tough work, difficult situations, and a willingness to take risks. It means repeatedly doing the right thing and doing it well, even in the context of mediocrity. It requires us to care when no one else does.

I recently found myself in a mediocre maze asking, “Why do I bother when so few seem to lack the desire to even try?” At times it takes a herculean effort to move a pebble an inch. And even though I feel like giving up, my personality won’t let me. After I’ve had my say I get back to work. Professionally I really enjoy the challenges that surround turning a mediocre place into a center of excellence. With the help of some great people it has been a pleasure to do this on more than one occasion. Sometimes though the context wins out, there just isn’t enough commitment to something better than what is. But win or lose, I’ve learned a few things about chasing excellence. It’s important to pursue excellence where others aren’t; even if it costs us; and when it hurts.

There are plenty of opportunities to pursue excellence where others aren’t. Chasing excellence where there are large financial rewards is great. But there are many important segment of society where excellence is shunned, or missing all together. Mediocrity brings comfort. If we’re all alike no one will expect anything more of me. Purposefully stepping into an area like this is daunting. But for those with the courage to do so, every so often you can find the diamond in the rough; the closet excellence junkie hiding out among the mediocre. Afraid of what will happen to them if the others find out, they quietly work away at making their area shine. I know this fear because it is my own! People willing to shine lights in dark places are desperately needed. Have a look for an opportunity to be excellent, even in places where excellence is scarce.

Pursuing excellence in places where it is scarce is costly: time, resources, reputation, and maybe even friendships. But if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. No matter what the job, our minds should be fixed on doing it to the best of our ability. Our best efforts will get results; make a difference; and will almost certainly cost us something.

Finally, hearing someone say, “You’ve done an excellent job” can make us feel great. Unseen by many, however, are the painful moments we endured leading up to those words of encouragement. Striving for excellence can hurt. It can stretch us and grow us in ways we never intended. Chasing excellence has consequences. The real test of our character and resolve comes when we pursue excellence in the face of mediocrity; at our personal expense; when it hurts; only to realize that the encouragement may never come. This is where many give up and walk away. Faced with this option, which way would you go today?

Putting people first

Originally posted by Joel Supeck at joelsupeck.com on 2 December 2011 @ 9:22AM.

I’ve done a fair amount of work in the education sector in New Zealand. I’ve been on both the management and classroom side. As a marketing manager I was responsible for, among other things, attracting customers, motivating staff, meeting upper managements expectations, and above all, helping to ensure that the bottom line was met. In the classroom, although my perspective changed, my responsibilities haven’t. I am still expected to attract customers (my students) by encouraging them to get to class. I am still responsible for motivating my students, inspiring them the best I can with different approaches to learning. I still have the pressure of meeting management’s expectations to deliver more for less. And this is ultimately driven by a ruthless focus on the bottom line.

Education, like health care and welfare, has become about the bottom line. These institutions were set up as social endeavors, intended to make our communities and societies better places to live. But as government funding dries up, and money get tight, these institutions are faced with the same challenges that face many of our businesses. Increased competition as a result of globalization means that many companies have been forced to compete on price. Companies default to this cost-cutting/pricing strategy because they don’t have an alternative strategy for competing on their organizational distinctives. Too often their eyes are fixed on their competitors. Innovation and creativity are benched for the sake of mimicking what others are doing. A more reasonable approach is to focus on existing people and resources. Collis and Montgomery (1995) examined a resource-based view of the firm (RBV). Their focus was on physical and intangible asset, as well as organizational capabilities. This approach is useful, but fails to connect these resources back to their stewards, namely the staff. Lawton (1999) also suggests that companies leverage their corporate capabilities, but that this should be done through the relationship the company has with its employees and customers. Instead of competing to be like everyone else we need to compete to be different.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing, inspiring, and dedicated individuals. Every company I’ve worked for has had the potential to be a great. Unfortunately, many of them have stayed average companies because leaders have failed to capitalize on the resources they have in their people. Many organizations have a desire to better utilize their staff, but they lack the ‘know how’. As with all things, ‘know how’ comes through experience and learning.

I started Incitare Consulting because of my desire to help organizations that want to get the most out of their people. When we think about putting people first we often think about the cost involved. People are messy. It takes time to build relationship. It’s easier to just tell them what to do. I prefer to think of time with people as an investment; one that will pay dividend in the future. Clif Reichard (2011) sums it up well. He suggests that we must first do the right thing (by our employees and customers). Then we must attract and keep our customers (I would add to this great employees). Finally, if we get these first two right we may not have to worry so much about the bottom line. It all starts with people.

Works Cited

Collis, D. J., & Montgomery, C. A. (1995, July/August). Competing on resources: Strategy in the 1990s. Harvard Business Review, 73(4), 118-128.

Lawton, T. C. (1999, December). The limits of price leadership: Needs-based positioning strategy and the long-term competitiveness of Europe’s low fare airlines. Long Range Planning, 32(6), 573-583.

Reichard, C. (2011, May 19). Four things I want you to remember me by. Retrieved December 2, 2011, from HBR Blog Network: http://blogs.hbr.org/